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.

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Smoked Westcombe Cheddar, Duckett’s Caerphilly and at the front, Westcombe Cheddar.

This is a bit of a catch up post for a multitude of reasons which would have to include the loss of British summer time, dark nights and 36 more days to be endured before the winter solstice gives us something to celebrate. I find it impossible to write when the black dog pays a visit and so there have been a few weeks now when it’s been hard to turn on the laptop. Madame and me have talked a lot about it and we came to the conclusion that spending almost two years on our own much of the time is at the heart of the problem. All of the groups and societies we belong to have effectively shut down; so no lectures, talks, classes and field trips; no galleries or markets and very few human interactions. The real world has shrunk to a first floor flat and the allotment – and it hasn’t been good for us – and then, just for pudding we have to live in a corrupted and feeble democracy; the obvious failure of COP 26 to honestly address the issues; and the inflationary effects of brexit.

These black dog episodes always come to a climax and so, having had flu jabs and covid booster doses we (truthfully Madame) decided to confront the beast head on and do something about it. That something really amounted to getting out and rejoining the human race; and so a week ago we went to the Saturday Market; raced around looking for a particular cheese – of which much more later – and scuttled home like anxious mice. Why does going to the shops feel like an act of defiance, I wonder? – or perhaps it’s the hordes of unmasked people who seem not to have noticed that there are still 1000 victims a week dying from covid.

The Potwell Inn strategy also included trips to the recently expanded and independent Toppings bookshop – which ought to be sufficient reason for coming to Bath because it’s huge! we reinstated the daily 5 mile riverside walk and re-joined the gym. If the gym sounds a bit unlikely, well sorry, but ever since I took myself into a gym for the first time 20 years ago I’ve loved it. There’s no finer antidote to the black dog than forcing yourself to achieve hard targets, and while Madame swims I prefer to occupy the rowing machines in a quiet corner away from the grunters, and row a 10K in as near to a wholly unachievable 50 minutes as I can get. Yesterday, on my first row since lockdown began, I would have struggled to do it in 60 but it was so good to be back. As any endurance athletes will know, there’s a moment in a long and hard workout where there’s a sudden release of endorphins into the bloodstream – so much so that in my running days I used to call one particular part of a run up Nightingale Valley in Clifton Gorge, the Lord’s prayer moment; so predictable was the rush. My knees are too shot for that malarkey these days!

And then Madame, who has taken charge of the re-entry programme, dragged us back to the bookshop where the strangest series of coincidences began to unfold. I should say that any Jungians would say they’re synchronicities – which sounds a bit more portentous. On our first visit last weekend they were still awaiting the arrival of some bookshelves, they said, and so we rather galloped around, avoiding the freeloaders with their gratis fizzy – searching for the natural history section which wasn’t there. After a quick email we discovered that the promised bookshelves might take a week or two. I said well, we’ll pop back when it’s quieter anyway. So yesterday we popped back. I’m a terrible impulse buyer of books. I know it and so I’ve learned to pick the book up, put it down and walk away and see if the magnetic field draws me back for a second or third time (depending on the price of the impulse). This was a two visit temptation called “A cheesemonger’s history of the British Isles” by Ned Palmer. Madame, who had been looking elsewhere, spotted it under my arm and said ‘oh I saw that one, I was going to get it for you‘ – which I took as her permission to lash out.

Now I love cheese more than is probably good for my heart, which needs no additional provocations from me. I took the book home and read the first third before bedtime; learning a great deal more than I’ve ever known about my favourite food. Fast forwarding to this morning, we went back to the Saturday market in search of the anonymous cheese stall that sells the best cheddar I’ve ever eaten – it reminds me of the way it used to taste before pasteurised block cheeses dominated the market. The stall only shows up irregularly – well, first and third Saturdays we discovered today. There doesn’t seem to be any sign advertising the company or the names of the cheeses – you just have to ask. So I’m there in the queue, and when my turn comes I buy a big piece of the favourite and smaller ones of a smoked cheese and a Caerphilly which also reminded me of the best Caerphilly I’ve ever tasted and which our grocer in Clifton told me was a “failure” that he’d bought cheaply because it wasn’t crumbly enough to qualify as a proper Caerphilly. The Caerphilly I bought today was exactly that experimental failure from thirty years ago, and it’s still just as delicious. So with my cup overflowing already I asked the young woman on the stall where the cheeses are made. “Westcombe Farm” she said, and a small explosion went off in my head. I’d just accidentally bought two of the finest unpasteurised cheeses on the market – not because of any prior knowledge or fawning write ups in foodie magazines, but simply because they tasted so good. The Potwell Inn tastebuds were vindicated! At that moment the maker himself – Tom Calver – turned up on the stall and I was reduced to a pitiful state of wordless admiration. Enough! you cry and I hear you.

The final synchronicity came as we feasted eclectically on the bits of cheese, porchetta, arancini and Indian street food we’d bought at the market. Life doesn’t get much better. I was (intolerable rudely) googling an article on Westcombe Cheddar when I had to ask Madame “who do you think is Tom Calver’s partner?” – “go on” –” It’s your hairdresser!” Drum roll for Mr Jung please.

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