Consuming Issues: Market bargains are streets ahead

Supermarkets like to shout about price with "buy one get one free" and "£1 off" promotions. Although they all claim to be the best value, Asda can claim to be the cheapest big chain.

For the 12th year, it was named cheapest supermarket by The Grocer this month based on its survey of 33 staples such as milk and bananas.

No matter how cheap your grocer claims to be, though, shopping at the same place can get boring. But there is somewhere you can shop in the sun, interact with people, and walk away with bargains even cheaper than the store giants: your local street market.

Markets are one of the best sources of fresh produce, particularly fruit and vegetables. As well as a welcome break from the homogenity of the store aisles, markets are a chance to eat with the seasons. Because it is abundant and cheap, you may find you become more attuned to seasonal food by default. This may also lead to a refreshing "I'll see what's there" mentality.

The food writer Digby Anderson thinks this would be a good thing. "Most English cooks shop like communists," the former Spectator columnist complains. "Communists sit in central bureaux and plan what the real and diverse world should look like, then try and force it into their preconceived plan. English cooks, thinking about their coming dinner party, sit at home selecting plans from their cookery books," he writes in The English At Table. "The ingredients for the recipe are then copied onto a shopping list or committed to memory. The cook sets off to the shops to "fulfil the plan".

"She is instantly stalled by reality. The trout she was going to start with are sold out. The parsley, which was essential, is tired out... At the same time, the fishmonger has some very good skate and the butcher some inexpensive hares; but those were not in the plan."

The French, who know a thing about cooking, adore markets. France has 4,900 retail street markets for a population of 63 million. The UK has 1,200 for 60 million.

According to the Retail Markets Alliance (RMA), the Government has failed to promote markets, which can forge communities, create employment and improve health (there isn't much convenience food on sale). Local authorities, too, have failed to realise their social and economic benefits.

So markets are struggling. Occupancy rates are 75 per cent and falling. (It's not all doom: newly opened Maida Hill Market in Westminster is London's first new street market for 50 years. And there are now 800, albeit expensive, farmers' markets.)

"The failure of investment in markets consists of more than just capital," says the RMA. "Many local authorities see markets as a problem that needs to be controlled and managed, rather than a vibrant part of community life."

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says markets are key public spaces, offering opportunities for economic development and employment, social interaction, mingling of different cultures and community-building, but are "run down, with poor facilities".

The Communities Select Committee will demand more support for street markets in a report next month. In the long run the Government may wake up to their case. In the meantime, they might be worth a look at lunchtime, on the way home from work, or at the weekend. You should be able to bag a bargain. According to a survey by the National Market Traders Federation last year, general market produce was 6 per cent cheaper – and fresh produce 32 per cent cheaper – than supermarkets.

A survey in 2006 by the New Economics Foundation found food at Queens Market, east London, was 53 per cent less costly than the grocery chain that wanted to build a superstore on part of the market, Asda.

Asda has now pulled out of the redevelopment, but Newham Council remains an enthusiastic supporter.

Heroes & Villians

Hero: Antony Worrall Thompson

Some of his restaurants may have gone bust, but his kitchen gadgets did well with Which?. His juicer and barbecue grill are best in class.

Villain: Smythson

The Royal stationer continues to sell bags, cardholders and passport covers made from rare reptiles killed and skinned for the purpose.

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