Get fresh

Careful shopping should be the starting-point of any meal
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Here is the beautiful garden. It is the most gorgeous weather: sun shining but cool, with an unseasonal frost, and it is shortly after a reasonably early breakfast in the country. Well-fed chickens, exquisite eggs, noisy geese and asparagus, plump and erect.The talk between myself and the proud proprietor is mostly about what to have for lunch - although I have insisted on the asparagus

There are neat rows of bushy herbs in long beds opposite the strutting fowls: more lovage than one could possibly use, masses of French tarragon, diminutive chives aplenty, purple sage, mint, thyme, marjoram, sorrel, parsley and big bushes of rosemary. Rhubarb, over the wall, is continuing to thrust up under many old Victoria pots covered with bits of old stone to shut out the light. They say you can hear it growing if you are very quiet; it reminds me of something out of John Wyndham, but I love its taste. Globe artichoke plants are looking healthy: in this house, they eat them small and tender, with rich, yellow hollandaise made from the ridiculously fresh eggs. Perhaps in another month, when the soft fruits are ready, we will have a further piste d'escargot around the garden - a "snail's trail", silvery and slow, having a look, deciding what to eat for lunch...

When one doesn't have a garden as lovely and bountiful as this, one has to rely on the offerings of more prosaic suppliers: farm shop, supermarket, market stall and the sadly dwindling high-street greengrocer. But it still comes down to looking first, choosing what is best, planning a menu and cooking later. That should be the strategy for everything you buy. Don't even open the recipe book until you get the gear home. Apart from anything else, surely it is right to keep an open mind when you shop, instead of going in with premeditated ideas, only to find that what you had decided to cook is either unavailable or not fresh. I know I'd rather buy some mackerel that is spanking fresh in place of a tired fillet of turbot intended as the centrepiece of a lavish lunch.

Seasonality rules the game. Wild salmon, broad beans and new potatoes go together in summer as much as do old potatoes, carrots and some well- fatted, late-season hogget lamb combined for a winter Irish stew. When the time of the year is not good for fish (coming up to Christmas, or when there are gales in the fishing lanes), and it's very expensive, go for some naturally smoked haddock rather than neatly filleted, farmed salmon.

Of all the times of the year, now is probably the most enticing when it comes to shopping. The pleasure of it is almost too much for me. Young and tender lamb with its attendant sweet sweetbreads and juicy kidneys, wild salmon and its no less delicious cousin, the sea trout, native lobsters for a real treat and dressed crabs at the seaside. Broad beans, peas and courgettes should be just about ready, with runner beans following later. Strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and the three currants - black, red and white - will soon be filling the shops, given enough rain and sunshine.

With the vastly increased choice of ingredients from all over the world that we now revel in, it would seem mad to suggest that we are not inspired by what we see in the shops. But I'd wager that the average shopper will be more likely to buy a bag of ready-mixed designer salad leaves rather than three or four traditional round lettuces that need a quick trim and a brief wash in cold water.

A plastic pot of undercooked potato salad or too-sweet coleslaw will go into the supermarket trolley rather than the raw materials for making these. Home-made coleslaw, carefully made, produces the most delicious first course all on its own, but it is seldom done in the home.

Pots of pink taramasalata will be bought in their thousands in supermarkets every week, yet can one find the smoked cod roe that it is made from on the fish counter? Oh, there will most probably be some disgusting green- lipped mussels imported from New Zealand, even though smoked cod's roe is one of the most endearingly English products. In the same vein, bottles of our lovely anchovy essences also disappeared from the shelves of one our supermarkets recently, yet I bet you can buy at least two brands of soy sauce. Where does the blame lie?

There are now more cookery books on sale than ever before, more restaurants, more articles, more media coverage on the subject of food and eating than it is possible to digest. So why do we still not know how to shop? Is there, perhaps, just too much choice and too little thought?

Simon Hopkinson is 1997's Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year for his writing in this magazine