20 AUGUST 1988, Page 49


Imperative cooking: supermarkets

I HAVE been to a supermarket. There were a number of reasons. On the positive side — from the supermarket's point of view, assuming, that is, that they want to attract Imperative cooks — there were those delicious quail at Caryl and Gala's which he said came from the supermarket. Rather more sceptically, there was an interview in a Sunday paper with a BBC bureaucrat called Jenny Abramsky. Her style was so soft, feminine and engaging: 'I am ambitious . . . I've spent years as almost the only woman around here, and I bloody well want to show people that it can work.' Miss Abramsky cooks coq au yin and kidneys in red wine. She declares, 'I am a good cook,' and reveals she goes to Sainsbury's. I had had no idea that super- markets sold the sort of chicken necessary for coq au yin.

Lastly, there was the conversation over- heard: 'But it's wonderful. They've got parrot fish and lots of others all flown in from the Seychelles.' Now, frankly, parrot fish is rather dull, fade as the Frogs say, but clearly supermarkets had changed. I often dash into supermarkets to buy cheap wine, bleach or even, if I haven't got to the Italian shop, olive oil, but I had never seriously looked at the meat, cheese, fish and vegetable counters, always supposing that supermarkets were there to provide good, inexpensive, easily accessible food for the masses rather than catering for us few Imperative eccentrics. It's not quite that simple. No doubt the millions of new Spectator readers are su- permarket regulars and know more about them than I. But, for what it's worth, the Anderson highly unscientific survey finds as follows. On the credit side, the range of food has enormously expanded. Splendid to find basil all the year round, tiny artichokes and lots of different green salads, especially during the summer when decent salad is unobtainable from English greengrocers who sell nothing but tasteless watery Webbs, plastic Cos and those dreadful cabbage lettuces. Indeed, the vegetables were probably the best thing, nearly as good as, though far more expen- sive than those sold by Indian or Chinese shops. I can't obviously comment on the quality of the meat on the basis of viewing only but many of the things Imperative Cooks want were not there or not there in the form we want. In Mr Benford's we can get out all the stock of wild rabbits, discuss when they were shot, choose the right aged one for the dish to be cooked and bargain for a few duck giblets which the hotel down the road (that bought the ducks to do something ghastly involving fruit with) couldn't be bothered to use.

Unlike Mr Benford, the supermarket has no sheep's intestines. No blood. No- thing resembling a free-range chicken, though many frozen chickens, some with fruit stuck on their chests, and some corn-fed birds. It has brains but they are in a plastic container not a bullock's head. Imperative cooks want to talk to the butcher about their meat and now this is possible in the supermarket with a butch- ery counter supplementing the plastic con- tainers with pre-cut meat. However, the amount and variety of meat dealt with by the butchery counter seemed limited and, what is more important and totally beyond the responsibility of the supermarket, the customers were not asking for the right things, the things Imperative cooks want.

The cheese range is not very extensive. That need not matter: better by far three or four well-chosen non-industrially pro- duced cheeses at the peak of their condi- tion — I am not talking about new goats' cheeses which taste of little except sour milk and lemon and are produced by alternative people in Cornwall and con- tinually written up in the Guardian, still less of the continual revival of traditional English cheeses it would be kinder to leave dead. The supermarket cheeses I have tasted often at other persons' houses are adequate but seldom stunning. And with both meat and fish and, even more, poul- try, there is a problem: the sheer quantity of things there which an Imperative cook doesn't want, would never want, miles and miles of modern bacon, burgers, tinned `Perhaps we should consider changing our distinctive plumage.' fruit, made-up pizzas and biscuits. Of course, after a bit of practice one could find one's way through all this stuff to the bottle of anchovy essence one wanted but it is so depressing being surrounded by these things and, even worse, thinking of what will be done to them.

One assumption had to be not revised but discarded completely. Supermarkets, at least up-market supermarkets, are not cheap. They do, indeed, provide a wider and better range of vegetables than the traditional English greengrocer, at roughly the same prices. But that, given the quality of the traditional English greengrocer, is not too hard a task. The instructive com- parison is of supermarket with market. When I went to the supermarket, it was immediately after a visit to Luton market, a market which is not as cheap as it was since it was forcibly incorporated in a concrete shopping centre with higher rents. Still, onions there were 15 pence a pound, equivalent supermarket onions were 31; potatoes 8 pence compared to 21; courget- tes 25 and 49; tomatoes 25 and 45; peppers 40 and 85; broad beans 18 and 39; cherries 80 and 1.45.

Fish price differences were not as great. The much praised parrot fish was 2.28 in the market, 2.95 in the supermarket; mackerel 60 and 85 pence; monk 2.20 and 3.95; crabs 1.20 and 1.45. Meat in the supermarket was some 30 per cent more expensive than at my butcher.

It is important not to misinterpret these differences. The supermarket was consis- tently providing food which was as cheap or cheaper, of equal quality or better, and of more variety than that found in the average high street shop. It clearly is doing a very successful job in catering to the vast majority of the population's wants.

But it has not replaced and is unlikely to replace the best small shops sought out by the Imperative cook. Put it the other way, Imperative cooks still have to seek out their own shops. These may include a supermarket but it will not be their major source of supplies. As for the poor, who may number some Imperative cooks among them, they should stick to tradition- al markets, or rather revert to them: I saw far too many of them wandering round the supermarket. I also saw a man I recognised from the pub, one of the newly if tempor- arily impoverished yuppies. He had been boring the saloon bar with his mortgage problems. Food is still an important, if declining proportion of the budget, espe- cially among low-income families. Neither he nor the traditional poor has any busi- ness to be spending twice as much as necessary, often of other people's money, on their children's onions. It is time the poverty lobby, so vociferous when it comes to demanding more handouts or attacking providers of credit, devoted its energies to directing these people loudly and firmly to Luton.

Digby Anderson