Surrey Life's resident celeb chef Tony Tobin on the truth about 'use-by' dates

Our celeb chef Tony Tobin on the truth about 'use-by' dates, and, er, volcanoes. PLUS his recipe for Iced Lemon Curd Yoghurt Parfait with Balsamic & Liquorice Syrup

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2010

Our celeb chef Tony Tobin on the truth about ‘use-by’ dates, and, er, volcanoes

The excellent comedian Michael McIntyre recently toured Britain and in his live shows reduced venues the size of the O2 to helpless giggles with a sketch about spices. Yes, spices.

It’s since become one of his hallmarks. The story unfolds with an imagined conversation between herbs and spices in a kitchen cupboard.

Each has a tale about how it was bought with great intentions of adventurous cooking and exotic flavours. Each was then used perhaps for a single sprinkle on a meal and is now long since past its ‘use-by’ date. Yet, they sit in the cupboard or on the spice rack, year after year after year.

So we have the jar of five-spice, which has been ignored since the early Nineties, chatting in shame to the cardamom pods that are foolishly anticipating being unleashed on the world...

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So true! Which of us doesn’t have a sell-by date experience logged in our memories? Usually, it’s an elderly relative we used to visit as children who would always produce a plate of stale biscuits that have gone soft over a few years dormant in the tin. Or perhaps finding a can of beans that is ten years out of date in an aged aunt’s larder.

Now as a chef, you’ve heard me holding forth at length in these columns about the importance of freshness in food. Food should be eaten fresh. Full stop. The length of the gap from source to plate can be the difference between food as fuel and food as flavour. If it is fresh, it is as close to how it’s meant to taste as it can get. If it has been stored for weeks or months (or even years in the case of Granny’s Sponge Fingers), the flavours will simply fade and eventually disappear.

A bee-keeping friend once told me that there is an extraordinary flavour that honey retains for just a few seconds after a hot knife cuts the wax in the hive and exposes it to the air. You’ve all heard the word ‘oxidisation’. It just means that the air we breathe also reacts with our food, taking away both taste and goodness. There are hams and tomatoes where air-drying will seal in inner flavour but most ingredients simply lose their character through the exposure of their surface area to the world.

Preventing food wasteHaving said that, part of me also resents the waste that the world suffers as a result of manufacturers deliberately massaging down the life of food, which leads us to throw more away and so buy more to replace it.

The truth is that once true freshness is sacrificed, the use-by date is a matter of personal choice. Anyone travelling forward in time from the Fifties and Sixties would have hysterics at the idea of people consulting the ‘use-by’ date on a shrink-wrapped supermarket vegetable. Cut it, look at it, feel it. You can tell if it’s okay. For goodness sake, don’t put all your faith on a date plucked out arbitrarily by a suit in a supermarket buying department!

One last rant on this subject before my recipe. The volcanic cloud in April, which caused so much damage in the air, was accompanied by fears that air-freighted fruit and veg might start falling into short supply. Horror of horrors, we might have to learn to cook with British-grown fresh veg and fruit. Imagine? To me, this sounds like something we should all be aiming for anyway. The fewer miles our food travels, the better it will taste.

So, as the weather warms up and you start spending more time outside, look hard at your gardens and think: ‘could I grow something there?’ If Icelandic volcanoes become a regular feature of our lives in future, we might need to think seriously about what we can produce ourselves. And the evening you tuck into a self-grown newly-picked plate of veg, you will understand what fresh really means. Flavour, vitamins, joy!

Now, returning to the grannies and aged aunties that I was so scathing about in my opening lines, I need to add that they also kept forgotten treasures in those cupboards. How about Lemon Curd? In my desire to resurrect this often forgotten taste, this month’s recipe turns that flavour into a decadent dessert with a real surprise. Do let me know if there are other tastes of bygone ages I’ve forgotten.

Tony Tobin is executive chef at The Dining Room in Reigate (01737 226650).

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