Shopping mindfully – does it cost a fortune?

We’ve been creeping up on this decision for many months now, and because we’re quite passionate about shopping sustainably and locally, it seems like a good time to have a look at the pros and cons. In truth the decision to seriously cut back on supermarket shopping was forced on us as our weekly delivery became more and more random. Substitutions became the rule rather than the exception; the supermarket started to charge for deliveries and since we were largely shopping organic anyway the step up to local was less of a hike than it might otherwise have been. However there’s no doubt that sourcing as much of our food locally involves a hefty premium. Our son also pointed out to me – very sensibly – that for many working families there’s neither the money or the time to commit to the kind of shopping that we’ve tried to initiate for ourselves. Cooking all our food from scratch is a luxury that very few people have and I’m completely sympathetic to anyone who just can’t stretch to it. We treat the allotment almost like a job but when the lockdown eased we noticed that many keen and new allotmenteers simply couldn’t put the hours in any more. We know what that feels like having both worked full time (I mean 60+ hours a week), for decades. Now we’re retired we can do it and although it won’t save the earth we’re pleased to do our bit.

Let’s look at some specifics. If you’re not a vegetarian and you enjoy chicken, you could probably buy a small roasting bird for around £3.50. You certainly wouldn’t like to see the horrific conditions it had spent its entire life under and so you could go for an organic one at roughly twice the price. Such a small bird would probably feed two generously and produce a reasonable stock afterwards. Buying a larger bird makes much more sense because you can do so much more with it. A large, free range organic bird is going to cost something like £12 – £14; again twice the price of the value range bird. Both types, however, will have been filled with the maximum amount of water and, in the most egregious cases, chemicals – to “improve the customer experience” .

If you love the River Wye as much as we do, you may have seen that the water in some parts has become so loaded with nitrate and phosphates it’s become eutrophic – dead in plain English – almost certainly caused by intensive free range organic industrial chicken producers on the banks of the river – precisely the premium products that supermarkets sell. So at this point you’ve got two perfectly sensible choices – firstly to abandon chicken (probably all meat eating) out of respect for the environment – OR to eat much less of it but source it locally from farms you know, or have researched. A large chicken from a local organic and free range farm – dry plucked – cost us £22 last week – and yes I had to stifle a gasp when the butcher told me the price. However, when roasted there was no shrinkage; it genuinely tasted like the chickens we had as an occasional treat as children, and it served us for four meals as well as providing enough stock and pickings to make two days worth of soup and to flavour another dish of pommes boulangere. Looked at in that way we think we can afford to buy a chicken maybe once a month instead of once a week as we have in the past. We’ve now tried three local butchers offering high spec free range and organic meat and the same kind of markup in cost but also in flavour applies. A joint of free range Gloucester Old Spot pork belly will instantly demonstrate the reason that cheap supermarket pork will never develop a proper crisp crackling – the added water makes the skin irredeemably soggy and wet.

I have the greatest respect for anyone who chooses not to eat meat on ethical grounds but vegetarians and vegans also have to think through the production processes because in organic, all that glisters is not gold. We haven’t quite reached the scandalous excesses of the organic industry in the US, but with the present regime in power here, it’s only a matter of time. As I read recently, it’s not so much the why, but the how of farming that needs to determine our choices. Since we’ve always been hard up, we’ve always managed on the cheapest cuts and avoided high priced follies like fillet steak. The question “can I afford it?” applies as much to the production as to consumption. If the outcome of eating any meat at all is to destroy the environment – and I think there are very powerful arguments to counter that view – but if it were so, then we’d have to turn to high spec, organic and local vegetables, grains and pulses. Turning to cheap imports of industrially chemicalized soya going into industrially processed food would simply compound the problem.

The same kind of argument applies to many of the other staples of our diet. We can easily source good eggs that sit up in the pan, full cream milk that’s three or four days fresher and makes the best kefir ever because it’s pasteurised slowly at much lower temperatures and isn’t homogenised. We’re blessed with an abundance of wonderful local cheeses that are so well flavoured you only need a half the quantity to cook with. Welsh rarebit or plain cheese on toast cooked with Westcombe Cheddar is a revelation. We have local flour mills and several market gardens who deliver by bicycle! and we have one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country within easy walking distance. We’ve even got a local organic cooperative that sells all the dry goods and cleaning materials. I’ve already written enough about the meat. So I’ll answer my own question – does it cost a fortune – with this reply. Either way round it either costs the earth or costs the consumer a a bit more – you choose!

But there’s another positive to local sourcing – you get to know (and are able to ask questions of) the producers. Our farmers’ market is a stable (no pun intended) community of stallholders and more often than not you’re talking to the producer, or a member of their family. When did you last do that in a supermarket? In the last two weeks I’ve had conversations with two of the best cheesemakers in Europe the second of whom told me yesterday that the cheese I’d just bought, (Merry Wyfe), had won the top prize in an international competition only last Saturday. The regular trip to the market is quite a bit more expensive but the food is better for us and better for the earth, and it’s fun to stand and chat – we never haggle! – and the range of foods is tremendous – Go weep Waitrose when you see the edible fungi. Oh and the supermarket bill is much smaller – maybe 50%.

So how can we afford this on our pensions? Well we make other sacrifices, for instance we rarely – maybe once a year – eat out and our holidays are home brewed in our 12 year old campervan apart from by the generosity of friends who let us use their cottage in Snowdonia from time to time. I think we’ve been to the pub once in the last 2 years. A period of sobriety is as good for the bank balance as it is for the liver. I used to brew our own beer but I’m afraid we enjoyed drinking it too much. We’re a family of chefs and cooks who love growing, cooking and eating together, and a wander around the market is a timely reminder that we’re not the only people who choose to live this way and we could be a powerful voice for change if we organised like the French farmers do!

The stallholders aren’t rich, they could almost all make more money doing something less demanding; but they’re passionate about what they make and sell and, even more importantly, they’re the vanguard movement of local sustainable living. If we didn’t have them there we’d have to invent them. They’ve had a marvellous opportunity to extend their off farm sales during the past 2 years of covid and they are the spearhead of a movement to undo some of the damage done by industrial farming – but only as long as we support them – even just now and again for special occasions; but better still on a regular basis that gives them the confidence to grow their businesses.

And finally, if you don’t live in Bath, and none of these structures exist where you live – there could never be a better time to start some of them.

Rhubarb rhubarb ….

OK so blogging can be so much rhubarb if you’re not careful, but this is the real deal – a gift from our neighbour who, unlike us, didn’t move his huge plant last autumn. We’ll return the compliment next year because he was busy splitting his today as it’s got so big.  It’s had a good life, sitting next to a leaky water tank and has grown so much it could feed a small army.  I think it’s probably Timperly Early – such a rich colour. If you squint hard enough at the photo through our kitchen window you’ll see it’s raining, so no surprise there, but we managed to get a few dry hours in on the allotment – enough to check the grease-bands on the apples and sow the hotbed with carrots, lettuce, radish, beetroot, spring onions and spinach. We were also going to install some carefully prepared traps for the flea beetles that have been busy on the broad beans.  This was an idea off the internet – of putting tree grease on white backgrounds and pinning the little strips to the ground.  The designer was insistent that the sheets needed to be white to attract the beetles, but sadly the grease we had in the shed was black, which rather defeated the whole idea. The storm winds have played havoc with one of the patches of broad beans but – as always – they’ve just tillered anyway and so there are four stems where there was just one before.  Clever things happen in nature and it’s often worth waiting for a week or two before uprooting plants that seem to have gone wrong. The leeks that looked almost dead a month ago are now looking perfectly healthy again.  Luckily the almost continuous rain had prevented us from digging them up.

Back in my study all the chillies are busy germinating, and the kitchen propagator is on its second load.  All systems go then – we just need these endless Atlantic storms to ease off. I finished off the afternoon trucking six or seven loads of wood chip down to build up the paths while Madame cleared the last but one bed. The soil is wet but with all the organic matter we’ve added it’s perfectly manageable.  The paths which separate the beds are dug 18″ deep to act as drains to the beds, and they simply eat the woodchip. Goodness knows where it all goes, but I seem to be constantly topping them up. They’re exactly the width of my wellies, so if the level between the boards drops my feet get stuck in the ruts.  I suppose I could have made them wider but that would have cost us growing space.

IMG-20200222-WA0000On the reading front, I’ve been busy juggling a number of books, finishing off Adam Nicholson’s “The Seabird’s cry” – quite brilliant. I’ve also been dipping into Richard Mabey’s “A brush with nature” which is scarily prescient when it comes to the present crisis; re-reading Gary Sneider’s “The practice of the wild” and finally Simon Fairlie’s “Meat – a benign extravagance” recommended by George Monbiot when it was first published and which is a forensic takedown of some of the ‘written in stone’ arguments advanced both by the vegan and the food industry lobbies.  You couldn’t call it an easy read – it’s very densely argued, but it makes the case for greatly reducing our overall meat production while still farming in the traditional and small scale way.  If you’re opposed to any consumption of animals on ethical grounds you probably won’t change your mind after reading this book, but if you’re like me – struggling to make sense of the propaganda war of opposing numbers – then it’s well worth the effort.

On an entirely different chain of thought, our recent walk in the Malverns provoked me to read a number of reports on the management of the habitats there, and I was intrigued by repeated references to NVC (National Vegetation Classification) communities. This has become the standard way of describing botanical communities and I found it fascinating because – and this is just a thought – I could use the data to look for specific plants that I’m trying to find. If you know what you’re looking for and you’ve got a good idea what sort of habitat and area you’re most likely to find it in, the process of looking for especially interesting plants becomes much less of a lottery – more of a pilgrimage. This is one of the great perils of being self-taught in any field and especially with botany.  The pronunciation of plant names becomes a fear filled exercise of avoiding humiliation. Best to own up and ask I usually find.  But also knowledge comes to you serendipitously rather than in a structured way, and so I often say to myself – I wish I’d known that years ago. On the other hand I do think it’s a great privilege never to have lost my excitement at the commonest of things.  I remember once saying to someone on a field trip that I struggled with identifying grasses – “Oh” she said rather dismissively – “Grasses are easy!” – not for me they weren’t, but I was so incensed I spent the next months laboriously learning as many as I could. Suddenly, knowing my lemmas from my awns became an occasion for genuine joy.  Whoopie – I thought – more friends!

As you see from the inset, Greta Thunberg is coming to Bristol on Friday to support the school climate emergency strikes.  It’s actually half term week so no lives will be ruined by taking an hour off revision!

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