Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Could you make one chicken last an entire week?

Claire McNeilly meets the Northern Ireland woman on benefits who's cooked up an internet sensation

Cast iron cooking pot
Cast iron cooking pot
Banana pancakes
Chicken and vegetable cobbler

I am poor. Not in a 'pretend I can't afford to split the bill including cocktails for a friend's birthday or using vouchers for Pizza Express' way. I'm properly poor ...

Fans of one of the UK's most popular food blogging sites were shocked to read these comments – because they emanated not from another reader, but from the star of the site herself.

The shock was in some ways understandable; after all, the food regularly written about by the anonymous lady known only as 'Miss South' came across as the staple diet of the chattering and well-heeled classes.

But for the already open-mouthed readers of that particular entry in 'northsouthfood.com' there was more to come.

"Due to ill health that stretches back to my early teens, I'm currently unable to work, and I live on benefits," revealed Miss South, adding: "I have the basic amount of money to live on."

For the tens of thousands who follow the North South Food Blog, this was revelatory stuff.

They knew that Miss South – and her brother, 'Mr North', who also makes a significant contribution to the site – originally hail from Northern Ireland.

What they didn't know was that the female contributor suffers from a debilitating illness, lives alone in Brixton, London, and gleans just enough money from benefits to get her through the week. For her, a £5 chicken means eight meals.

But Miss South doesn't want sympathy. She doesn't even want you knowing who she is.

In these fame-hunting days, this remarkable woman is happy to stay under the radar – "it's like being a superhero, hiding behind a mask," she says – but all that could be about to change.

She has just been shortlisted for a major UK food writers' award and may yet end up having to reveal her true identity.

In the meantime, we can tell you she's 34, originally from south Belfast, went to school in Finaghy, is the daughter of two teachers, studied at London's Kings College and Mr North (38) is her only sibling.

She also suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, which returned with a vengeance when she was in her twenties and robbed her of a promising career as a make-up artist.

It also, however, inspired this often house-bound young woman to experiment with cooking and writing about it, with her thoughts and those of her brother being shared with fans of northsouthfood.com across the UK and beyond since 2009.

The 'North-South' of the title has no political connotations; it simply refers to her location in south London and that of her brother, a Manchester–based photographer who, when not blogging, deals with the site's visuals.

In terms of hits, the collaboration has been a stunning success – but took on a new dimension after the sudden, heart-rending blog from Miss South who, as her fans will now know, gets by on a food budget of around £20-a-week. But what prompted that game-changing rant late last year?

"I was at an uncomfortable dinner where someone was talking about how people on benefits should just try harder," Miss South recalled.

"The dreaded 'scrounger' word was used. I decided to write a piece – I suppose, this was me 'outing' myself – but then a lot of people who were in similar circumstances to me came forward and opened up.

"They wrote about how they'd really enjoyed the mix of things that weren't particularly expensive – but also weren't that 'grim budget, you're not allowed nice things when you're poor' scenario."

No-one has been more surprised by the success of the blog – which attracts up to 10,000 hits per day – than the authors themselves.

"We never set it up to be about internet hits," said Miss South, adding: "I'd have been happy for just my mum and other family and friends to enjoy it. Now, sometimes, I see how many people are reading it and I think 'Oh my God!'"

The siblings' parents liked to cook – a passion not shared by the teenage Miss South.

"In my teens I didn't cook; I lived on toast because I was an annoying adolescent girl," she said.

"I suppose it was just a sulky teenage thing because my parents had always encouraged me to eat healthily."

But now, because of her illness, cooking takes up a large part of Miss South's life.

"It's very important to me," she said. "Sometimes, for weeks on end, I can't leave the house. What you make for tea can be the highlight of your day."

Those days are often spent alone, although friends do pop by and, when she's well enough, Miss South can be seen trawling the markets, butchers, fishmongers and other outlets in Brixton for inexpensive but rewarding food.

"My illness fluctuates," she explained. "The last couple of weeks have not been too bad, but with this condition you don't know what it's going to be like tomorrow. You can't plan ahead."

But Miss South does ... for those days when things are really bad and she isn't up to cooking or testing recipes for the site.

"When I'm well I run the most organised freezer – so I can go to it when I'm not so well and take stuff out," she said.

"I make soups and stews, freeze them and then microwave them. On a bad week filled with pain and fatigue, I can't concentrate on cooking. Food becomes mere fuel." She added: "I know my finances are such that I don't have a lot of flexibility. I don't go on holiday or buy jewellery; I just want to pay my bills, occasionally go out with friends – and get my flight home to Belfast at Christmas."

When she was a make-up artist, a job she held down for the best part of five years in her twenties, Miss South was just a regular girl in cosmopolitan London, going out for meals and socialising. Then came the life-changing relapse of her illness.

She adapted, and learned "how to stay in". But even though she had the blog and its considerable feedback, she felt disconnected. Then came that confession about her illness and modest means – and everything changed.

"Before that, I'd been on Twitter and communicating with people who'd been eating in expensive restaurants. Nobody was thinking 'she's poor'," said Miss South.

"After that blog, however, I realised just how stressful some people were finding just feeding themselves.

"It was valuable lesson because I think sometimes that being ill and not having much money can make you self-absorbed. Perhaps I'd forgotten how the rest of the world lived.

"I began to think of friends who started a family and went on maternity leave – yet still have student loan payments and had to cope with that drop in income."

Miss South's illness means she can't exercise but her condition has certainly brought home the value of healthy, nutritious food.

"I used to eat loads of hummus and crispbread until I started teaching myself more about food, mostly through the blogging," she said. "I think that's maybe why my health seems a little better at the moment; I'm eating better food."

Perhaps surprisingly, Miss South doesn't believe she could "make do" as well if she was back in Belfast.

"No, I don't think I could eat so cheaply back home," she said.

"I went to St George's Market with my mum and couldn't believe some of the prices. It's like a dinner party market to me; not where you'd go to do your weekly shop.

"To be fair, in Belfast I've also come across some of the best fruit and veg I've seen in years – but it was so expensive."

No matter where she is, there's one foodstuff Miss South won't be purchasing – bell peppers.

"I cannot abide them," she said.

"Since moving to Brixton I've learned to eat chilli peppers but it took me a while and I still need them cooked into stuff. But everything else I'll try, even if ultimately I don't enjoy it."

But what about that forthcoming awards ceremony in London? Surely the pressure is on to finally reveal her true identity?

"I don't know if I'll have to come out; I haven't thought that far ahead," she conceded.

"My first thought when I heard I'd been nominated was: 'oh my God, what have I got to wear?'"

All joking aside, Miss South knows she can't hide behind a pseudonym forever. The success of the site, for instance, could yet lead to a book – and she wouldn't be adverse to that.

"It's going to be hard to stay anonymous and I'm not quite sure how to balance that up," she said.

"I don't want to get abuse on the internet, the way it's been happening to people recently. I want this to be a nice, fun thing in my life.

"Also, because my health fluctuates, it's difficult to explain to people that sometimes I'm well enough to do something and other days I'm not. Being anonymous takes the pressure off."

www.northsouthfood.com

Take one chicken...and be creative

  • Poach the chicken whole. I remove the skin and reserve it once it's cooked. Best in the slow cooker, but great on the hob. Takes about 2 hours on a low heat.
  • Shred the meat and keep the stock. Then I make more stock from the carcass so in total one chicken gives me about 3 litres of stock.
  • Make a chicken dinner with mash and cabbage, then a pie with white sauce and leftover mash (prob 2 meals). Or do a curry with lots of veg. Or toss it into couscous soaked with a bit of stock.
  • I make a big pot of soup with veg and some soup pasta or rice or noodles (useful for the wee bits left at the bottom of packs). This is at least 3-4 meals.
  • Then I do a risotto with rice or barley (flavoured with whatever is knocking about) and any leftovers from that I stuff into veg such as an aubergine, cabbage leaves or tomatoes and top with a bit of tinned tomato made into a sauce.
  • I roast the skin when the oven is on with a bit of salt and then eat it sprinkled on top of a baked potato.
  • This gives me 8 or so meals. I only need the oven on once or twice to keep costs down. This suits one to two people, but if you have £15 pp you could do 2 chickens for 4 people with same ideas.

Three of Miss South's recipes

Breakfast: banana pancakes

Pancakes are a surprisingly economical breakfast. I like mine American-style and puffed up with baking powder. You can mash leftover bananas that are too ripe to snack on into these for a sweet start to the day.

200g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp ground ginger

pinch of salt

2 large eggs

30g butter, melted

250ml milk

2 bananas, mashed

"To make the pancakes, put the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet in another and then mix together, adding in the mashed banana at the end. The batter should be just loose enough to spoon easily, but will look a bit lumpy. Don't beat until smooth. Set the batter aside for 20 minutes if you can as this makes it rise better when cooking.

"Cook the pancakes in a hot pan. The added butter in the batter means you don't need to grease the pan each time, but don't be surprised if you have to sacrifice the first one to the pancake gods.

"Keep them warm until needed. I don't need to serve these with anything else, but golden syrup is rather lovely."

Lunch: Winter veg and barley soup

1 onion

1 carrot

1 celery stalk

1 leek, halved and sliced

½ swede (or celeriac or squash), diced

1 parsnip, diced

1.2 litres stock

100g pearl barley

parmesan rind or grated (optional)

salt and pepper to season

curly parsley to serve

"Dice your onion, carrot and celery and sweat in a little bit of oil or butter until softened a little bit. Add in the sliced leek and your choice of starchy veg. I often buy a bag of stew veg as it's a cheap way to have a choice of vegetables. Add about 570ml of stock and then add the pearl barley and simmer for about 40 minutes. The barley should swell but shouldn't absorb all the liquid.

I keep my leftover parmesan rinds in the freezer and simmer in soups for flavour, but if you don't have them, simply serve the soup with grated parmesan on top or leave out and add more seasoning. Chop lots of curly parsley and add to the hot soup each time, but don't re-heat with it in."

Dinner: Chicken and vegetable cobbler

1 leek, chopped

½ onion, chopped

1 punnet mushrooms, sliced

25g butter, plus 10g for sweating the vegetables

25g plain flour

285ml milk

285ml stock

2 tsp oil

cooked chicken (I use the breast meat)

3-4 dashes Worcestershire sauce

salt and pepper

tarragon

For the cobbler

200g plain flour

2 tsp baking powder; 1 tsp mustard powder

2 tsp oil

150ml yoghurt, plain unsweetened

"Sweat your chopped vegetables in about 10g of the butter. You want them to soften but not colour. This should take about 10 minutes. Heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. While the vegetables are sweating, make your white sauce. Melt the butter in a pan, add in the flour and combine, cooking for 1-2 minutes until your roux looks glossy. Remove from the heat, whisking in the liquid gently to make sure there are no lumps. Return to the heat and bring just to the boil to help it thicken. Then cook out on a low heat for about 8-10 minutes.

Flake the chicken breast into fork-sized pieces and toss in with the vegetables and coat well, shaking in your Worcestershire sauce and seasoning. Add the white sauce, along with the tarragon if within budget or in your window box.

Make the cobbler dough by sifting plain flour, baking powder and mustard powder into a bowl and make a well in the centre, pouring the oil and yoghurt into it and bringing it together in a soft, but not sticky dough. Add a touch more oil if it looks dry. Turn out on to a floured surface and cut into rounds with a glass or cutter and place each one on top of the chicken and vegetable mix until it is covered. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

While the oven is on, turn your attention to that chicken skin you set aside. Lay it out in pieces on a baking tray and sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper. Cook in the hot oven for about 8 minutes. It will crisp up to make a crunchy chicken version of scratchings. It keeps well as a garnish, but if you can even sit down before you eat it, you're a better person than me."

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