Friday, February 20, 2009

Thought for food

Over on The Times comment section, the gloriously named Camilla Cavendish kindly writes a piece in support of my suggestions for agriculture yesterday - well almost.

Most of us are confused. We bleat about animal welfare, but shun the pricey local butcher in favour of meat that may or may not have ever seen a daisy.

Bacon is a particular issue. Our pork production has halved in the past ten years, putting pig farmers out of business. This nation of animal lovers has pushed for higher welfare standards than any other EU country, but we are not prepared to pay the higher prices that result. Instead, we eat bacon and pork from Denmark and the Netherlands, where many sows apparently never escape from the kind of tiny, dark stalls that are banned here.

Being a product of her environment, Cavendish can't quite come to the conclusion that protectionism is the only solution - I guess she is one of those millions who have been brainwashed by the globalisation message over the years from this next statement.

I'm not arguing that we should rule on “British food for British workers” - that might be more than some can stomach, given our penchant for exotic foods and the very real travails of Kenyan farmers.

I don't know why she thinks that the travail of Kenyan farmers are any more real than those of Kent farmers - it's all relative. Yeah, they don't have the latest 4x4 tractor in Kenya, but they can hire an army of workers to do the job for less than a tankful of red diesel.

Cavendish also misses the point that all that food imported from Kenya means a whole lot less for native Kenyans and higher prices for what they can buy - but hey, that's globalisation for you. Who cares if a few Kenyan kids go hungry as long as we can feel good about helping a Kenyan farmer - and if you do feel guilty, just give a tenner to Comic Relief and you'll be able to forgive yourself.

I don't want to turn this into a Cavendish bash, though - mostly I agree with what she says. She makes some very good points about packaged food and food origins which I heartily agree with. A couple of weeks back I had a small argument with someone called "Anonymous" about a post that mentioned Tesco. Basically the upshot was that he/she felt I was a hypocrite who moaned about supermarkets and then rushes off to my local Tesco every Saturday.

Well, to be fair - I used to be just like that. Except it was Sainsbury's. I was like everybody else, packing the wife and kids into the car on Saturday morning to drive up to the local hypermarket where we'd spend the next 3-4 hours mooching around, buying two trolleys of stuff we don't really need and then spending ages waiting at the checkout queue to pay for the privilege.

Like everyone else we'd get home and pack our fridge, freezer and cupboards with our purchases for that week grateful that we'd got all the shopping done. Come the end of the week we'd have thrown a bunch of stuff out that had gone past it's "best before" date and we'd have made two or three other trips to the local shops for things we'd forgotten - a bag of sugar here, a pot of marmalade there and so on.

Then, one day, we had a revelation. Planning a family Sunday lunch with both sets of in-laws invited over, we needed a decent joint of meat and, our trip to the local supermarket done, the missus suddenly realised she'd forgotten to buy the joint. Fortunately, close to where we live is a local family butcher so we decided to pop in there.

We parked right outside the shop (which you can still do, today), popped in and less than 5 minutes later emerged with a fantastic joint of English lamb from a local farm. The butcher was friendly, knowledgeable and courteous. He knew where all his meat came from (mostly local) and how it is looked after. There was no queueing, no hassle and even the kids didn't mind as we were in and out so quickly.

The joint was delicious - the best piece of lamb I had tasted in ages. Even the mother-in-law was happy! Thanks to our pleasant experience with this butcher, Missus Stan and I sat down that evening and decided we'd try a different approach to our shopping. Like most families, we both work and time is critical - but we have lunch breaks and commutes so we decided we'd buy what we need when we needed it from local shops rather than supermarkets.

Seven years later we are still doing it. We have found a number of local shops and farm shops which supply our requirements and we do our shopping a little bit at a time when we can. We rarely buy for more than two days in advance, but when you add up the total time of each shopping trip we make we manage to do all our shopping in half the time we'd spend at Sainsbury's on a Saturday.

Because we only buy what we need when we need it, we don't end up with trolleys full of stuff we don't really want - no ready meals and very little processed food (just a few tins, really). As a result our weekly shopping bill is around half to a third less than my friends with similar sized families who still shop at Tesco.

We pay a little more for what we do buy, but as we don't buy so much we actually save money. We save time. We avoid all the stress and hassle of the big Saturday shop. The kids don't grumble about being dragged around the supermarket so they're happier. They're healthier too as we cook proper meals with proper locally sourced food and we have a good relationship with a variety of local shopkeepers rather than the indifference (at best) of some checkout girl who might say "have a good day", but doesn't really mean it.

Best of all, we don't waste half our Saturday in a bloody supermarket so our weekends are our own again.

Go on - try it yourselves. You'll be amazed.

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