Mad Malls or Sad Streets?

I grew up in a series of three small villages, each of which was served by one, modest grocery shop. The first, which I was sent to from age four, was a minute, dark, cavern accessed by a house door and called ‘Mrs Russell’s’. She had a big old, dark wood counter, sold everything, including cheese by the slice-which she cut from a cylindrical block with a wire-and ‘Fruit salad’ or ‘Blackjack’ chews at four for a penny; also ‘Eiffel Tower’ lemonade powder which she ladled into a paper bag so you could tear off the corner and suck the powder from it directly.

When I lived in Putney, south London in the seventies, Tesco had a store in the high street which still used counters to serve shoppers-and not a trolley or a basket in sight.

In the UK shopping streets are dying and our own, small town’s high street is no exception, with fourteen coffee shops in one relatively short stretch [making local headlines], too many salons, too many tattoo parlours, too many charity shops and most crucially-too many empty shops.

If shops are empty it can only mean that the rents and rates are much too high. Some of the premises have been languishing unloved and uninhabited for so long that vegetation has taken root inside the windows and you could be forgiven for thinking the shop was selling weeds [like the old dead wasp joke].

We are all too used to supermarket shopping; too used to dashing in, picking up packets of this and that and dashing to the checkouts.

But I believe the only way to revive town centres is to return to smaller stores and  specialist stores like greengrocers, butchers and bakeries. Towns that have such shops are mostly thriving. It would also begin to address the horrors of the plastic mountain we are constructing. Once, people took a shopping bag to the greengrocer and the assistant would pile the items straight into the bag. You would take the bag home and sort the items out at home. Nothing bad happened. Some of the vegetables may have needed washing-a chore that should be done whether they’ve been bagged or not.

Meat or fish would be wrapped in some paper. Bread was the same. Milk got delivered in glass bottles. Cakes were placed into a beautiful cardboard box so that it really felt like a special treat when they were bought.

Aside from these essential shops I’d love to see some real recycling, some ‘upcycling’, a repair-anything shop and a swap shop-or perhaps all of these in one, bigger store.

But all of this would take much more imagination, foresight and gumption than we are ever likely to see from our local council, who would far rather leave shops empty and falling into ruination than lower the rates [or better still, waive them for an innovative project].

Perhaps you, reader have a wish list for your local shopping centre. What would be on it?

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Consumer Conundrums

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It all started so well. When the parcel containing my new, cotton and linen mesh produce bags arrived I was thrilled with them; a set of six assorted sizes with drawstrings, that I would be able to use for loose vegetables and/or fruit in the supermarket. The bags even came in their own, cute and beautiful bag!

Armed with these and my usual eclectic mix of shopping bags-for-life from an assortment of supermarkets in various countries I set off to Tesco, which serves our grocery needs on a weekly basis.

Taking my usual route through the store I come to vegetables first. I ignore the pre-wrapped, bagged and boxed veg to head for the loose items. I can select broccoli, leeks, onions, courgettes, carrots, peppers and potatoes. Very good. I choose broccoli, carrots and potatoes, although the loose new potatoes, partially concealed behind a mountain of slickly and thickly bagged ‘Charlotte’ ones are somewhat beaten up and greenish. I do my best. Then I move on to the remainder of the shopping.

This is an eye-opener. We are hosting a BBQ and I want burgers, sausages, mushrooms, salad, tomato sauce and desert, besides the usual household stuff such as cleaning materials. It transpires that not one single item is plastic-free. The cucumber and the lettuce are vacuum wrapped, the burgers and sausages are in black plastic trays with plastic over the top, the sauce in a plastic bottle, the desert in a cardboard box [good] with a plastic window [bad]. The mushrooms are also plastic boxed, as is the sweet corn.

I wend my way to the checkout, where I explain to the kindly, smiling woman behind the counter that I have my vegetable bags and I hope this is ok. She continues to smile as she proceeds to empty the vegetables out of their bags for weighing and I beg her to stop! The bags weigh next to nothing and are mesh, for the contents to be visible. She is still smiling. ‘You’ve saved six bags’ she says, and I tell her that all I’ve learned is that everything is encased in plastic and we, the customers are impotent to solve the problem.

The interest of a young man working at the next-door checkout is aroused and I explain that a plastic-free shop is impossible here. ‘It’s the suppliers’ he tells me.

As I wheel my plastic filled trolley out to the car park I’m thinking this problem is bigger than all of us. Maybe you have a lovely, shiny ‘eco-shop’ in your neighbourhood where you can take your bags and containers and buy your [undoubtedly very expensive] groceries. We don’t. Our nearest refill, plastic-free store is in Dorchester, 34.2 miles away. We have supermarkets. Not everyone has access to fill-your-own shops. And not everyone can afford to shop in one.

In time, perhaps supermarket Waitrose, a five minute walk away will roll out their refill project in all their stores. Until then I can only do my best to reduce our plastic-wrapped purchases.

So I saved six bags.

Ten? We are all Doomed-

Smug about your diet? Getting your five-a-day in? Well don’t be, because now you are advised that this is not, has never been enough and you should be cramming ten…yes ten helpings of fruit and/or vegetables down your gullet each and every day.

Great. Actually I’ve been quite smug myself. We’ve never been ones to load the trolley with ready meals and have tended [especially since the heady, time-rich days of retirement] towards cooking from scratch-not going as far as making our own pasta or blending our own garam masala, but we don’t buy sauce mixes or shop soup and we’re fond of vegetable-rich meals and salads and we’ll snack on fruit rather than cakes or biscuits.

Now, however it transpires that we haven’t done enough on the vegetable front. What sort of time though, is this to tell us, when we’re never going to see the front of sixty again and all the damage, the degeneration and the eroding of protection has been wrought throughout our only five portioned/meat-and-two-veg/subsistence diet? Presuming that it is now too late to undo the shocking abuse of more than sixty years that neglecting to have ten veg and fruit things has done, should we continue to follow the subsistence, ‘five-a-day’ regime? Or can we mitigate the ominous, brewing health catastrophes by swallowing fifteen or twenty helpings of cabbage, kale and tomatoes each day?

And take care, reader not to simply gollup piles of fruit down or swig ten smoothies every day, because fruit, my friends is sugary and calorific, leading to an expanding girth before you can say ‘Jabotacaba’. We are advised to ration our fruit intake and turn instead to sober lettuce and sprouts.

Wait, though. A glut of helpful news columns has emerged, explaining how to insert the extra portions into our daily trough. We can add spinach to our spaghetti, have another veg on our plate [we’ll need bigger plates] and snack on fruit. It all begins to seem exhausting.

On a more serious note, all these fresh fruit and vegetables do not come cheap. Here is yet another few miles plugged into the rich-poor divide. How many fresh items are there in the food bank basket at the supermarket? For those whose main issue is how to prevent their children from going to bed hungry, plying them with ten fruits and veggies must come a long way down the list of worries. Keeping healthy, then is a preserve of the comfortably-off, as are most things.

What on earth will happen to fast food outlets? The kebab houses will be alright-there is always a lettuce leaf and some shredded cabbage in the pitta pocket; but fish and chip shops will need to double up their mushy pea portions and MacDonalds will have to sneak mustard and cress into the Big Macs-or whatever it is they serve.

Watch the space. In a few months’ time we’ll either be told that eating too much cabbage is killing us [well the noxious gases produced may well do] or that ten portions are not enough. In the meantime, I’m off to the greengrocers…

Boomers’ Bloomers [again]

Baby boomer:    a person born during a baby boom, especially the one in the US or UK between approximately 1945 and 1965: Ageing baby boomers are creating a greater need for healthcare. baby-boomer. adjective [before noun] › The baby-boomer generation is now hitting retirement age.18 May 2016

We ‘boomers’ are in trouble again. Not content with having had free university education, ‘good’ pensions, having the gall to buy properties and now living long enough to be using up all the healthcare budget we have transgressed further. The offence? We have failed to teach our progeny horticultural skills. There! How appalling! We should have been outside in the garden with our new-borns teaching them the difference between bindweed and broccoli instead of idly dandling them on our knees. We should have set our toddlers to weeding, hoeing and tying in the runner beans rather than reading them stories and letting them splash around in paddling pools.

Having been born and raised in the countryside I did actually learn a great deal about gardening at an early age; though not grand or modernised the properties we inhabited were always surrounded by large pieces of garden which my father tended with gusto-perhaps because he came from a family of market gardeners. The fruit and vegetables he grew were more than a supplement to our diet; together with the hens we kept they almost were our diet. Yet we were not coerced into digging and weeding and were left to our own devices, excavating our own plot behind the shed to find buried treasure and taking stray worms down to the hens’ enclosure or trawling the small stream with jam jars on strings. I do remember being interrogated as to why I’d pulled up a cabbage and explaining that it was to see if it was growing, a reply not received with indulgent approval-nevertheless it had been growing.

But I knew about gardening. I knew that you could graft one type of apple tree on to another, that potatoes needed to be earthed up, that you could make compost from garden and vegetable waste. I knew the names of things-vegetables, fruits, flowers and weeds. I also knew the names of trees and wild flowers. At school, with no danger of a ‘national curriculum’ we went on nature walks-a long crocodile of hand-holding pairs strolling the lanes and scrutinising the banks and hedgerows so that we knew which tree conkers grew on [not a conker tree!] and bringing back specimens for the ‘nature table’. I grew up able to identify common birds from plumage and song and to know a number of wild flowers, plants and trees.

Just as a garden itself cannot be made instantly you can’t ‘teach’ gardening. The skills and knowledge develop over time with trial and error and a little research now and again. The best gardens evolve-like the twenty year old patch I’ve grappled with and am about to leave. How will the next garden grow? I look forward to finding out…

 

 

The Tour of a Touring Store Cupboard

To venture into a supermarket in a foreign country is not the tedious flog round that doing Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrison’s is at home in the UK [or Walmart, Intermarché, Netto or Dia for citizens whose countries sport those stores]. It is more an exploration of unknown territory and requires a little bravado, some imagination and a leap of faith.

I suppose every nation must have store cupboard items without which life would become sad. Do the Germans take sauerkraut wherever they travel? Must the Spanish transport a large, cured ham with them? Perhaps the French stow away a stash of truffles? Who knows? I can only let you into the secrets of the travelling British; the food and drink necessities without which we would feel impoverished:

  • Of course! We are British! Decent tea is impossible to buy abroad. I’m sorry, European neighbours-but ‘Liptons’ does NOT cut it. We take a huge supply of strong, ‘Yorkshire’ tea bags; 2 cups every morning=bliss! We drink it with a little milk. No other nation understands this.
  • Tomato ketchup. It is relatively easy to get this in most countries-but I like to be sure. A bacon butty is a camp-site morning staple.
  • English mustard-hot and strong. Great for sandwiches or cooking. Foreign mustards can be good but are not the same as English.
  • Mixed herbs. They are versatile. You can’t take every individual herb in a camper-van. There are space constraints, likewise-
  • Curry powder
  • Tomato puree
  • Garlic paste
  • Stock cubes. I take beef Oxo, chicken Oxo and vegetable cubes, plus Bisto and flour.
  • A variety of tins, including tomatoes, peas, lentils, sweet corn. These must be replenished during trips although substitutes often become necessary.

Armed with these items we must then plunge into the mysterious world of whichever grocery store has us at their mercy. Meat or fish is required, plus vegetables-fresh if possible. In Scandinavia we are able to recognise some of the meat by various methods but not the names. ‘Skingke’ sounds like some kind of primeval eel-shaped fish, but turns out to be ham. Pork looks familiar, as does chicken. A pack of beef is easily identified by being roughly the price of a small car and also called ‘biff’. There is chicken [‘kykling’] but since we don’t transport a chest freezer around with us for bulk buys it isn’t an option. We can purchase two pork chops from the meat counter. Hooray! Pork it is then.

I’ve gained a new respect for fresh, British fruit and vegetables now I’ve seen the price of cabbage or lettuce in Scandinavia. We are cautious, reigning in our usual gung-ho approach to greengrocery buying and becoming selective. We’ve seen enough burgers, pizzas and hot dogs during the last three weeks in Northern Europe to supply the fast food joints of Disneyland for several years.

What’s Cooking on the TV?

In its wisdom, the BBC has opted to schedule on Channel 2 a big, blockbuster ‘food season’. This is much heralded and promises to inform in ways we have never before been informed about-food. Yawn. Really? How many more programmes about food can we take? And how many more times must we be told that refined foods, salt, fat, fast food, takeaways, sweets, chocolate and the demon sugar will be the undoing of us?

Let me see. ‘Masterchef’, ‘Hairy Bikers’, ‘Nigella’, ‘Saturday Kitchen’ and on and on-the programmes exhort us to produce more, varied and extravagant meals using more, varied and exotic, unheard-of ingredients. We sit and watch, munching our takeaways or our toasted cheese sandwiches and nodding-‘mm, yes, that looks nice’. How many viewers rush out to the supermarket next day for Tahini paste, syrup of nasturtium seed or essence of wild boars’ scrotum? How many search online for a high temperature vacuum bath or a freeze-drying machine? Heston Blumenthal has much to answer for.

It was all vastly simple decades ago. My childhood diet followed a weekly timetable that varied little beyond which meat to cook for a Sunday roast or what was available in the back garden vegetable plot. Mondays would yield up something with the remains of Sunday’s roast, the remaining days repasts would revolve around Spam-with mashed potatoes, with chips, with beetroot or eggs from the hens at the end of the garden-omelettes, fried eggs and mash or chips. We children never questioned or grumbled. We had no dislikes and would clamour only for an orange or a banana since these were prized items [rationing was not yet a distant memory], although as I’ve mentioned before we were only permitted a banana if it was accompanied by a slice of bread.

If the first course was a little sparse there would be a vast rice pudding or a suet sponge for the purposes of filling us up. Meals always consisted of two courses. Not only did we survive on this regime, but we were relatively healthy and never became in the slightest bit overweight, still less obese, even though the occasional day out to the seaside would conclude with fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.

How ironic that the more elaborate and fiddly TV chef meals become, the more the population capitulates to fast food and fry-ups, snacks and sweet treats.

Here in Portugal, where we have fled to escape the UK’s wintery temperatures we de-camped on our first evening-after five days of driving- to the village restaurant where we were shown a box containing assorted, gargantuan fresh fish, from which we selected our favourites. They were taken away and grilled with a little salt and served with a salad, crusty rolls and a plate of fried potatoes. No sauces, ‘beds’ of anything, snotty-looking foam or those stupid drips and smears dotted around the plates. The result? Completely delicious.

Eating Lessons

We are approaching the end of another extended trip, meandering around the South of France but this time, with somewhat more sophisticated facilities we have taken advantage of what the French call ‘aires’. The French have taken to motor-homes more than any other nation. The vehicles are becoming larger, more equipped and more elaborate. One result is that an industry has sprung up to address the needs of ‘camping car’ owners with numerous, vast areas set aside for, and only for campervans. Tent campers and caravanners can eat their hearts out. They are not invited.
An ‘aire’ will typically have a services point consisting of clean water, electricity, waste water disposal and a ‘vidange’ [for emptying toilet cassettes]. These facilities are more than enough to satisfy the needs of your average motor-homer. Increasingly aires are unmanned, with entry via a machine like a parking meter. Some are little more than vast car parks with electric points and waste disposal. Others are beautiful, landscaped spaces with attractive planting.
Getting sandwiched in our modest van between two gargantuan motor-homes allows plenty of opportunity to study the dining habits of others. In fact, anyone who is thinking of swapping their regime of TV dinners for something a little more formal, sociologically developed and a more gratifying gastronomic experience should look no further than the French model of dining, which can, it seems take up almost all of each day.
Take the three elderly folk sharing an equally elderly motor-home in an aire at Hourtan Port [for 10€ per night-a lovely, spacious, shady, tree-lined area]. They ambled out together mid morning-two mature monsieurs and a madame-returning at midday laden with bulging plastic bags plus several, substantial ‘artisan’ loaves. The bags turned out to contain dozens of fat, glistening oysters. Lunch was sorted! Later in the afternoon they wandered off again and reappeared with more bags, this time containing kilos of mussels. The next day’s catch was a batch of enormous fish, one of which filled an entire plate. Each meal, of course was accompanied by a bottomless bottle of wine.
At an unashamedly seaside aire in Gruissan a couple nearby would take their breakfast [plucked from the nearest ‘artisan’ boulangerie] of croissants, orange juice and coffee, then cycle off together purposefully. By lunch time their bike baskets would be laden with all the goodies they’d acquired. Lunch was prepared together-a serious and painstaking task of cleaning, chopping, table laying and cooking [no quick sandwich job for them!] There would be three courses and of course, wine. Later they would disappear again to seek out the components of the evening meal, when the procedures would be repeated.
In the small town of Gruissan, market day clogs the streets as everyone turns out to fill their basket with cheeses, charcuterie, fruit and vegetables, olives and preserves. Everything can be sampled before purchase, making the shopping excursion a gastronomic pleasure in itself. We joined the crowds, queuing for tasty lunch items and bearing home the spoils in anticipatory glee.
In contrast, the weekly supermarket drudge seems an impoverished experience, as does the regular ‘what can we have tonight?’ conundrum. Ho hum!