Saturday, 31 December 2016

No more of the packaged life

My current weight-loss endeavour involves sticking to fresh foodstuffs and avoiding most manufactured and packaged foodstuffs. Manufacturing and processing may make some food more attractive, more interesting, more palatable, more convenient to prepare, nicer to eat and longer-lasting, but it also interferes with the true flavour and food value of the foodstuff, and disguises its ultimate source too much. That's not good.

The manufacturing process also stamps a brand name onto the goods, which can be a deep psychological inducement to buy them. Think of brand names current in childhood - brands with comforting, friendly and dependable associations - and how food-producers continue to use those brand names even though the formulation of the product may have changed greatly over the years. It's difficult not to 'prefer' such products, when pushing the trolley around the supermarket, especially if time is limited and one wants the ordeal to be over asap. I'm sure that Oxo and Bisto and Birds Eye and Hovis and Maxwell House are still names that prompt an automatic response in many people.

Of course, there are many newer brand names, and supermarkets now carry an extraordinary number of different packaged products on their shelves. For instance, consider how many different brands of food dressings there are, or types of cracker. I'm not criticising this. It provides a lot of choice. It means that everyone can buy their own favourite thing. But it's striking just how much shelf space is in fact allotted to manufactured foodstuffs in distinctive packaging. I hadn't noticed this before, but I am noticing it now. I'd say that, in the average Waitrose or Tesco or whatever, at least three-quarters of the shelf space is devoted to items that are not 'fresh food'. That is, not fresh meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and other staples.

This isn't a surprise, of course; it's the natural outcome of a general, historical move away from small specialist local shops and market stalls selling small quantities daily to discerning and cash-conscious housewives, to mass-market operations aimed at entire families, in which a few dominant players use every trick in the book to capture our continued big-spend, credit-fuelled loyalty.

Such marketing eventually produced the out-of-town superstore model, where nearly everything could be bought under one roof at highly competitive prices. Only, of course, to be somewhat undermined in more recent times by newer competitors using a different model in which a much narrower range of goods is offered, but for significantly less. The out-of-town superstores are still the place to go for the convenience of the big, one-stop shop - with free parking and plenty of brand choice. But if your budget is limited, and price matters, and brands do not matter, then the likes of Lidl and Aldi are your local, cheaper, town-centre alternative.

What, though, if your food shopping habits have radically changed? As mine have lately?

When all you want is decent fresh food, and none of the manufactured and packaged stuff? What then is the advantage - or point - of going to a superstore? Or even a Lidl?

That's a question I'm debating at the moment. Why am I still going to Waitrose, when Tesco arguably has better vegetables? Why aren't I buying from a market stall, which might have better goods than either?

Well, it may come to that. One thing I am tending to do already is to buy my meat from a proper butcher. Within a ten mile radius I have a fair choice of butchers, some in village or town shops, some at 'farm shops'. I've never used them before, preferring the overall convenience of a supermarket. But now it's different. I have looked around, trying this one, then that, and my current favourite (although it involves a drive) is Alan Woodward at Henfield. This is where I presently get my lamb, bacon, steak, liver and kidneys from. I have learned their hours of business; and after four visits I see recognition in their eyes. I am no longer just a casual customer. I am becoming a person they know. They are cheerful and smiling. I feel welcomed and valued.

And it's a different world. The service is traditional. And clearly very skilful. They will for instance remove the fatty cores from kidneys with a deftness wonderful to see. Their knives must be so sharp - I do wonder that they still have all their fingers!

The courtesy is another thing. After each item is neatly bagged up, it seems to be the shop habit to say 'Thank you'. That threw me at first: I mean, surely it's for me to say that? They meant, of course, 'Is there anything else, Madam?' I still think it's an odd use of 'Thank you', but Madam has appreciated the courtesy, and gradually there has been more to add.

So I am discovering the joys of specialist shops. Henfield is a place that has quite a number. Just up the road is Jeremy's, which sells top-notch fruit and vegetables. Across the road is Budgen's, which on a smaller scale sells much of the stuff I would hope to find in Waitrose. I'm not going to abandon Waitrose, which I still regard as the best of the supermarkets, but they are not going to make quite so much money out of me as they used to.

All this is probably a revolt against the packaged life, an existence controlled by faceless and rather arrogant marketing people, who dictate tastes and trends and try to make everyone conform to an optimum selling strategy. Be it groceries, clothes, cars, gadgets, entertainment, news, holidays, or whatever might add up to a well-defined and easily-manipulated packaged lifestyle.

Well, I'm not playing. Specifically, I never liked the idea of ordering fresh food online - as it it were all completely standardised - letting other people select what would end up in the delivery box, and in general not getting personally involved in the very personal necessity to feed myself. And now that's definitely not the way I'd ever want to do it. I want to make my own selections, and not be made to feel that if I don't shop at supermarket X, their shareholders will go without their dividend, and the country's economy will falter.

I now care much more about the viability of small but excellent local shops. Thankfully they are still there. But it's clearly 'Use them or lose them.'


  1. Growing up in South London I remember the first Tesco store opening in our area, it only stocked dry, packaged and branded goods, then slowly other items got added as they managed to drive one after another local independent retailer out of business. Our shop used to consist of going to the Green Grocer, the Baker, the Butcher something like every other day, milk and potatoes we had delivered, our local grocer would also deliver if we needed more than a pound of cheese or butter. The supermarket would only get a visit every now and then for baked beans and other caned or dried goods. Now none of those small traders are around any more. We need to support our small local independent businesses or they too will disappear.

    I may be biased, after all I am a small independent business!

  2. Buying really fresh veg from a local market stall has become one of my Saturday morning pleasures. O crumbs, the potatoes and beetroot still have earth on them, which would never happen at Tesco's, but 'tis amazing what can be achieved beneath a cold water tap!

    And yes, meat from an independent butcher really is better than the supermarkets' offerings. My brother-in-law once worked for a company that packaged meat for Tesco and could tell you a thing or eight about the way they hid poor fatty meat beneath the better stuff.

  3. I have always preferred the personal contact of smaller specialised shops which are sadly vanishing. A real butcher has a wider range of choice compared to the packaged supermarkets. I am quite jealous that you can get kidney, interesting bits often are in short supply if available at all...

    I have lost count of the times I have left a supermarket unable to buy any fresh produce because of seeing the way the goods has been mishandled. I once asked a shelf filler how much training they had been given on food handling and the reply was none! Before I left the store I told the customer services why I was not buying and they called over the head of fresh produce. No prizes for guessing that it was the one I had spoken to who was clueless!!

    Happy new year Lucy. I look forward to seeing less of you next year, in the nicest meaning of the phrase.

  4. Happy New Year, Coline! I quite understand what you mean, and I hope to fulfil your expectations. Angie has shown the way.



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