We spend far too much time in huge, sterile supermarkets, and not enough time supporting local, independent food vendors – it’s a position that’s hard to argue with, but how many of us really do manage to shop local?
My challenge was not to reorient my life around fancy farmers’ markets and artisanal cheese pop-ups, but do my usual weekly shopping without darkening the aisles of any major – or minor – supermarket, cutting my carbon footprint in the process.
Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Tesco were out, local markets, independent producers and old school grocers/butchers/fishmongers were in. This is what I discovered…
It’s vital to have a plan and a route to follow
This isn’t France. Rarely do we have the luxury of a fishmonger, butcher, fromagerie, florist, boulangerie, grocer and wine merchant all next door, to flit easily from one to another. Here, you need a decent rucksack, a couple of extra canvas bags and to have Google-mapped exactly where the bakery is in relation to the Saturday veg market, so you don’t arrive just in time to see the fruit man putting his crates back in his van.
If you’re a carnivore, it’s necessary to become an early riser
Turns out it’s hard to track down a butchers that’s open if you work nine to five and haven’t got one within walking distance of your desk. I resort to getting up when it’s still dark to cycle out of my way to snag six chicken thighs – skin on, bone in. Buying meat from an independent is completely different to swiping a packet of anaemic sausages off the shelf in Tesco though. Firstly, the raw smell of animal thwacks you in the face. Secondly, I feel like Nigel Slater when handed my order in waxed paper (watch his TV series – his fridge is chock-full of morsels in waxed paper). Also, I spot hangar and flank steaks – chefs will tell you these are some of the cheapest and tastiest hunks of cow to be had, but they’re almost impossible to find in the supermarket.
Shopping local can be intimidating
I may know my steak, but I decide we can do without cheddar for a week after failing to brave a nook of a cheese shop, its shelves laden with more than 500 different types of fromage (so their website tells me). My cheese knowledge inadequacies would be too swiftly exposed.
You have to talk to people
Between avoiding the cheesemonger and realising there are no express checkouts in the cafe selling crisp loaves of baked-that-morning sourdough, I understand that to shop locally, you’ve got to be willing to chat. Questions are encouraged, applauded even, so when you leave with a jar of homemade lemon curd and a pat of locally churned butter, you’re so invested in the produce you can’t quite bring yourself to eat it.
Some stuff is more expensive…
Lemons and limes considerably so – my grocer’s are 50p, compared to 30p in Sainsbury’s.
… while some stuff is cheaper
I am never buying rhubarb from a chain store again – it’s much cheaper grabbed from a blue packing crate on the market.
The choice can be amazing…
I find one market stall that has three giant trays of lychee fruit, all tongue pink and spiky (have you ever seen more than five trussed up in plastic on the top shelf of a cooler cabinet?). Chicory rubs shoulders with romanesco broccoli and knobbly bulbs of Jerusalem artichokes, while the nearest African food shop (I live in London, so it’s a not too shabby 30 minute walk from my flat) sells sweet, white-fleshed sweet potatoes (if you’re a Lidl regular, you’d be forgiven for thinking only orange ones exist), giant, bark-skinned cassava tubers and bowls of grass-green okra, plus scotch bonnet chillies and shiny peppers that aren’t organised into trios of red, yellow and green. Everything seems more alive.
… other times, not so much
For instance, eating out of season is practically a no go. As an experiment, I try – and fail – to find asparagus anywhere, and that’s rather brilliant. It’s hard to find cheap, staple ingredients like rice, tinned tomatoes and pasta though if you don’t have an Asian supermarket nearby, and I have no idea where to find the likes of shampoo, toothpaste and washing liquid without spending a fortune in an artisanal beauty store.
A dependency on contactless means I have no cash to buy a perfect bulb of creamy white and dark purple radicchio at my new favourite veg stall (and the nearest cashpoint is in a Sainsbury’s…)
There’s much less plastic involved
If you’ve never experienced the joy of slicing up a cucumber without having to peel back that thin, plasticky film, or getting it all caught up and shredded in the teeth of a serrated knife, get yourself down the market. Also, bread comes in brown paper, meat comes in wax paper, sauces are jarred and veg is handed over naked – it’s only fish that absolutely has to wrapped in plastic.
You genuinely feel more bedded into the community
I’ve lived in my neighbourhood for more than two and a half years, and had only ever browsed through the market on a Saturday morning, avoiding vendors’ eyes so I didn’t get sucked into buying a load of apples I didn’t need. A couple of days deciphering hand drawn prices, asking real humans to carve my meat, exploring sidestreets I’ve never before wandered down, and saying, ‘Actually, I’ll have that pineapple and some beef tomatoes, please,’ instead of, ‘No, no, I’m fine, just browsing thanks,’ and I am getting into this hyperlocal lark.