Thursday, 11 June 2009

Eating Locally

Most of us have small shops in our local area that are suffering in these tough economic times. The convenience of the one-stop shopping experience offered by supermarkets has been hitting them hard these days. I’ve been a supermarket shopper for years. There was something about the shrink-wrapped, carefully packaged products that made me feel secure. You see, I’m a product of the generation that grew up shopping that way. When I was little, we only had one car, which my Dad used to go to work. Aside from little “top up” shops at a local market, my Mom used to shop at a big supermarket once a week. She would go after my Dad got home from work because she could take the car. It meant farm shops were out of the question, except if my Dad happened to pass by them on his way to or from work. There was a farmer’s market in our city, held once a week, which in later years (when times were better and we had two cars) my Mom would attend regularly. But she would only ever purchase vegetables there, never meat, cheese or eggs. She was always very worried about buying things like that from anywhere but a “reputable supermarket”. The message stuck with me, and after I had my own home, the security of a “use-by” date, along with the comforting knowledge that a multi-national corporation was guaranteeing my purchase, made me feel I was somehow getting a better, safer deal. So I avoided local shops and supported the big guys for a very long time.

In recent months, however, it began to irk me that these big guys were making such huge profits when small producers were clearly struggling. The cost of my shopping bill was going up and up, and the quality of the goods I was buying did not seem to be echoing that. Then we moved to a house not far from a gorgeous little English village. This little village is a thriving community, with two pubs, three banks, an award-winning butcher, a vegetable and flower shop, numerous restaurants and other businesses, and a very intriguing little cheese shop.

It was the cheese shop that got me first. The welcoming owner and staff never hesitate to let customers taste before they buy, and their knowledge of cheese is utterly comprehensive. I got really comfortable buying their delicious cheeses, (many of which are produced only a few miles from the shop) wrapped traditionally in waxed paper and tucked in paper bags. Then I tried some of their wonderful breads, preserves and conserves. We enjoyed those too. My husband and I then attended a wine tasting there and came home with a half a dozen bottles of delicious wines from small producers – who although they are not local are mostly small, family owned concerns. Suddenly, I was buying a lot more locally, but I still relied heavily on my supermarket for many other things.

Or did, that is, until I began to hear people praising our local butcher. Even people who lived seven miles away in the centre of the largest city near to us raved about the sausages and meat pies they sold. I could not find even one person who had a bad thing to say. When I visited, I found a huge array of fresh meat, beautifully baked meat pies and even cold meats and terrines. Our first purchase was of a pound of ground beef and some sausages. I made hamburgers from the ground beef, and they were the best ever. Virtually no fat came out of the meat. This high quality ground beef was the only stuff on offer, unlike in my supermarket where the lower the fat content of the ground beef, the more it costs. As for the sausages, they were delicious, with not an ounce of filler in them. Pure pork and fresh ingredients made them taste amazing. On our next visit we bought steak – which was the best I have ever tasted in England. We are huge fans of American beef, but this steak was a pretty close second. I also bought humanely raised veal (veal crates are banned in England)which was delicious. All the meat for sale at the butchers was traceable back to the farms, locally produced in ethical conditions.

Suddenly I began to realise that my shrink-wrapped, long dated meat from the supermarket was really not the very best thing after all. Pumped full of preservatives and colouring, even the free range and organic offerings were not the best they could be. And one of the best side effects of shopping at the butcher was that I was buying exactly what I needed, fresh every two to three days. Although in some cases the meat was a bit more expensive at the butcher, in reality I was spending less as there was absolutely no waste. If I wanted three of something, I could buy just three. Normally I always have one extra of everything, as most things are packaged in twos or fours, and there are only three of us.

It was a very small step from there to attending the local farmer’s market. For years as consumers, we have sought out the exotic, shipping food long distances in order to enjoy our favourite treats all year long. Strawberries and asparagus in December and fresh blueberries all year round are something many of us have come to accept as normal. Yet my trips to the farmer’s market revealed something interesting. That asparagus I have been buying in December, shipped all the way from Peru, tastes nothing like the beautiful fresh asparagus I bought at the market held in my village on Saturday. And the strawberries grown in Egypt and Spain are not nearly as sweet as the locally grown berries on offer there. Furthermore, even asparagus and berries marked grown in the same county I live in and purchased at my local supermarket do not measure up to those bought at the farmer’s market in terms of taste or quality. I purchased a box of strawberries at the supermarket on Friday and it was much smaller, more expensive, and had two spoiled berries in it. On the other hand, the two boxes of sweet strawberries I bought at the farmer’s market on Saturday were fuller, and contained not one single spoiled berry.

The two spoiled berries in the supermarket box were the final straw. I headed to the greengrocer, and was so pleased with what I found there. The tomatoes I bought taste like tomatoes I remember from when I was a child, not the ones I have gotten used to these last few years. Everything was fresh and delicious.

I’m a convert to shopping in my local village. There is not much I cannot purchase there – from eggs, bread and milk to meat, cheese, vegetables and even wine and flowers. Even if you can’t shop every couple of days, almost everything you can buy at a butcher shop will freeze, and most vegetables will last at least four to five days. So there is no reason even those who work full time can’t shop locally too.

Go on, check out your local farm shop or the little shops in your town or city. Shopping locally is a great way to cut transportation costs, shopping bills and support your local community. It’s also a great way to reduce your carbon footprint.

I don’t suppose the ‘big guys’ will miss us much – but if a few more people catch on, it will be just like the old Herbal Essences advertisement with everyone telling their friends, and them telling their friends, and so on. Shopping locally could change the world – both the wider world and your own - for the better.

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