Friday 23 August 2002
Piggies go to markets
'You can get a free-range chicken, or a leg of lamb, or minced steak, or sausages better and far cheaper than in any supermarket I know'
I was very struck by something that was said on Desert Island Discs not long ago. Or rather, I was very struck by something that wasn't said on Desert Island Discs not long ago. It happened, or didn't happen, while Sue Lawley was interviewing the new head of the National Trust and had got on to one of her guest's pet interests, which was the growing of natural food free from pesticides, hormones etc. How, wondered Lawley, could this interest in real farm food ever be widespread, considering the price charged for it?
I can't remember what she replied. (As you can see, I can't even remember the name of the head of the National Trust.) But what I do remember is what she didn't say. She didn't say: "What a load of bollocks, Lawley."
Because this is a prejudice you find all over the place, the preconception that if you find meat and veg grown by a small farmer, it's going to be more expensive than the same sort of stuff brought to us by the great god supermarket. Ah, it's all very well getting the real good country stuff, but you've got to pay through the nose for the quality and the goodness! That's what people think and it's a load of nonsense because (apart from organically grown food, perhaps) a lot of stuff you get in supermarkets is way more expensive than the stuff bought from farmers' markets or farm shops.
Down where I live, farmers' markets happen in so many places at such regular intervals that you can normally find two going on every week. They're not really a luxury any more. They're a fixture. My wife and I started going to them a few years back, and wouldn't give up now. That's partly because the produce they sell is better quality than what you get in supermarkets, partly because the produce still reflects the seasons, partly to support local farmers who get such a rough deal from supermarkets, partly because it's a lot more fun than going to supermarkets, but as much as anything because it's cheaper. You can get a free-range chicken, or a leg of lamb, or a pack of minced steak, or sausages (wild boar and cranberry is my current favourite) better and far cheaper than in any supermarket I know.
My wife says she hasn't bought any meat in a supermarket for two or three years. Why would she want to? The stuff she gets locally comes from someone she has got to know personally, someone she can ask questions of and ask advice of, and someone who will tell her what's coming into season, and what to wait till next week for. In a supermarket, you can't even be sure always that stuff has come from Britain.
Now, this is not the story that supermarkets put about. The accepted yarn is that a supermarket buys in bulk at discount prices and passes on the benefit, or some of it, to the customer. That's why supermarket stuff is cheaper. Everyone knows that. Unfortunately, it's not true. Time after time my wife and I have blinked at the price of meat in supermarkets and wondered how anyone could think it cheap. Either the supermarkets are doing a very bad job, or they are cheating someone somewhere along the line.
To be fair to the supermarkets, they do sell lots of other things cheaper. Supermarkets, I have noticed, carry a vast and wonderful selection of fairly priced potato crisps, often whole aisles full. They're very good on breakfast cereals. And biscuits. And tea bags. When it comes to crisps, cereals, biscuits and tea bags, supermarkets do very well indeed and I have to admit that farmers' markets just can't compete in that field. Things are so unequal that farmers' markets don't even try selling crisps or tea bags or biscuits (except home made biscuits). But when it comes to food that you would want to buy and cook, rather than buy and open, I do think that farmers' markets have the edge.
And one day I would like someone to tell me why chains like Asda and Sainsbury's, with their international organisation and their fleets of lorries prowling through the night, can't compete with the local farmer setting up a stall at Bath or Frome or Bradford-on-Avon.
Note to urban readers: I have just re-read this, and I now realise it may sound a bit smug and self-satisfied about farmers' markets and all that. It wasn't meant to be. It was meant to be full of fury and scorn at supermarkets. Trouble is, it's hard to keep up the rage and indignation when you've just had a wildly satisfying breakfast of wild rabbit casserole, hedgehog marmalade and two or three pints of strong local cider.
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