Kim, one of my Brighton friends, is an Aldi enthusiast. She happens to live quite close to an Aldi store, and for some time now has been serving up rather classy foodstuffs bought at this supermarket. In the poultry line, I particularly remember a very good goose, but Kim has bought wines, vegetables, yummy desserts and many other things from Aldi, and reckons that Aldi rivals or beats the likes of Marks & Spencer and Waitrose on quality, and most certainly on price. She says that Aldi is very much for the discerning shopper.
And indeed she is not alone in her opinion. Nowadays you often hear that Aldi, and that other German chain, Lidl, are taking sales away from the big British supermarkets because of their low prices. The quality aspect is less stressed, but it still matters. It matters very much to me. I am not buying for a family, only for myself, and so price is not the key concern. I can place quality above price. But I too take notice if I can get high quality for little outlay.
So I decided to give Aldi a try. I found out that there was an Aldi store at Lewes, and so I went there to make a small number of trial purchases.
On the outside, the Lewes Aldi looked like any other small supermarket. There was adequate parking. There were trolleys (irritatingly, you had to pay a returnable £1 to use them) but also baskets (perfect for my three test purchases, and of course free).
Inside it was somewhat underwhelming.
The product labelling was on plain light-blue cards that were informative but looked basic, and had none of the visual impact one is used to at, say, Tesco. Aldi's colour scheme was cold and pale compared to the strident yellow, blue and red motif you find in Lidl. Colour schemes do have a psychological effect on shoppers, and I couldn't help thinking that Aldi's ideas on that were off the mark.
The arrangement of the goods seemed a bit haphazard, but then that would be the first impression in any unfamiliar store, and I did manage to find exactly what I was looking for. Although Lidl always has some one-time-only limited offers - goods not ordinarily associated with a foodstore, such as toolkits, garden furniture, toys, and clothing - Aldi had much more of this stuff. None of it was a temptation. It looked too cheap and unlovely to consider. Thus I came away with only the trial purchases I'd had in mind, and nothing more, despite the impressively keen prices.
So what did I buy, and what did I think of it? Here are my three purchases back home:
A large packet of mature Cheddar cheese - I can't tell you the weight now, but when grated for freezing there was enough for four very generous portions of Welsh Rarebit. I've tasted tangier cheddar, but it'll do fine. The cost was £1.75. No complaint about that!
A vacuum-packed dry-aged beef joint - topside no less. The weight of this was 872g, and it cost £8.71. I cooked it up a couple of nights later. The recipe I used from my Good Housekeeping cookery book (it's the 1989 reprint) recommended smearing mustard over the joint, hence the yellowy look in this pre-cooking shot:
My gut feeling on cooking time was to give it two hours at gas mark 4. But I went with the GH cookbook's recommendation (if I wanted a medium-cooked result) to roast it for only one hour at gas mark 4. But despite pre-heating the oven according to instructions, I wasn't happy with this, and to ensure proper cooking I turned the heat up after half an hour to gas mark 6. When taken out of the oven for resting, the joint looked OK, but when I started to carve it I soon decided that my original thinking (giving it two hours, not one) would have produced a better result. It was nicely pink, but there was too much fluid. The meat juices did however help to make a jolly good gravy.
The beef was pleasant to eat, and the flavour was fine, although it wasn't quite the tender, melt-in-the-mouth experience I'd expected. I carved off three slices for my meal that evening, then later on, after eating, cut up the remainder for freezing. When I next have some, from one of the freezer packets, I'll cook it a bit more.
The third item was a normal-sized bottle of brut champagne, costing a remarkable £9.99. I bought this with a Christmas Eve party at Kim's in mind. I wanted to bring champagne to the party, rather than the usual bottle of red wine. At the same time, I wanted to demonstrate that I wasn't wedded to Waitrose. I had been to Aldi, and here was the proof! And maybe Aldi's dernier cris in the champagne department will turn out to be a good solution. I'm assuming that this decidedly bargain-priced bubbly will be at least 'acceptable' as a drink, although I can't see how it can match the finesse of a champagne costing £30 or more. But we shall see.
I think that with places like Aldi you have to be selective, and just buy the particular things you are looking for. I wouldn't use it for a comprehensive shop, because it doesn't stock many of the items I'd want to buy - whereas Waitrose does. And another thing: I feel very much at home in Waitrose stores. I like the look of them, the staff are welcoming, and my sort of people seem to shop there. I won't say that Aldi is alien or unfriendly territory, but regardless of how low their prices are, the atmosphere didn't appeal, and I feel no great keenness to go back.