Friday, 1 July 2011


Good grief, can it be July already?
A Happy New Month to you all, and may the weather be less utterly bastardly to you, this month, than it was in June.  What a perfectly putrid 30 days!  Couldn't make up its mind, down our particular kink in the lane, whether to be a fridge, a blow drier or an oven.  It was the wind that was most hateful and that's still blowing as I write.

Why doesn't my own pitiful vegetable garden look this pretty?  Answer - this one is a mock-up for a flower show. [As always, CLICK ON ANY PICTURE TO MAKE IT BIGGER.]

Two rants today!

1. WHY are Britain's supermarkets so absolutely bloody awful?

Since the PG has been convalescing from her surgery, and forbidden to drive, I've been chauffeuring her to and from various Sainsco, Waitrissons and Marks Expensives and helping her with routine victualling exercises.

Although I frequently pop in and out of such soulless places, I haven't gone through the whole intricate process of pricing, selecting, carting and packing a week's worth of groceries for a very long time, other than in France - but more of that in mo.

The first and most obvious thing to hit me like a sledgehammer was the cost.  I've always reckoned that with Government Statistics, the golden rule is to note the official figure and double it.  Thus, if the official rate of inflation is about 4.5%, as it is at present, the real rate is at least 9%.  But when I paid something like  £1.49 for a tiny packet of skinny broccoli spears and £1.25 for a cauliflower, I realised that even my GSIF (Government Statistics Interpretation Formula) is faulty.

The last cauliflower I bought was in, I think, October, and was from a small trader in the neighbouring village.  It cost 25p and had been grown less than 3 miles away.  So cauliflower inflation, here in Lincolnshire is around 500%

But once I'd recovered from the cauterising prices - and one has to admit, those aren't entirely the fault of the egregious oligopoly that owns and runs Britain's supermarkets - it dawned on me that the place I was in was not where I wanted to be. Not at all. Standing in a street in a force 8 gale with driving rain, noxious exhaust fumes and a burst sewer main up-wind might have afforded more pleasure than being in that awful barn of a supermarket.  They ought to call them infernomarkets.  I had to resist the burning impulse to abandon my half full trolley and, well, just run.

Wheeling the thing down those aisles of sterile opulence, I began to realise how limited British supermarkets are.  For example, out of the zillions of cheeses on display, I failed to find a single one made with unpasteurised milk.  And although there were at least four kinds of melon, not one was fit to eat.  Not only were they unripe but they had no hope of ripening. Ever.  They'd been harvested too young and would stay rock hard and odourless for weeks, and then suddenly decay and stink.

My own 'Sungold'  tomatoes, but last year's.  Supermarket tomatoes, in Britain, are bland and unappetising, despite looking uniform and gorgeous.

We do we Brits tolerate such crap produce?  Why can't we buy seeded grapes that have flavour?  Or peaches in edible condition?  Or plums that have juice?  Or tomatoes that may not look beautiful but taste?  Why do supermarket meat counters bring on a death wish and why is supermarket bread like fluffed up cardboard?

Nip through the Channel Tunnel to the Carrefour at Coquelles, or drive on to the nearest Auchan and you can buy beautifully ripe melons by the sackful.   For next to nothing, you can buy a huge, old hen ready for casseroling or traditional Poule au Pot.  You'll find any offals you might need, too, and the cheese department staff will discuss the merits of their wares, both pasteurised and untreated, in detail and with knowledge.  The pâtés will taste good, rather than like high class cat food and there will be about fifty to choose from.  And that's just a supermarket, in France.

An old lady in Carrefour once found me fondling the melons and looking perplexed.  She took pity and showed me how to choose.  'C'est pour aujourd'hui ou demain?' she asked. I said I'd like one ready to eatl  So she got stuck in and began to weighed the fruits in her hands, telling me one must pick the heaviest because weight means maturity and therefore sweetness.  And one must then smell the blossom end. If it's alcoholic, it's too far gone.  If aromatic, and if the melon gives a little, when gently pressed, it is ready.

The poor PG has another couple of weeks before she can drive.  I hope my ranting doesn't drive her too nuts in that time.  Anyway today, we're off to a farmer's market.  Now we're talking!

Death of the strawberry.  I haven't bought a strawberry with flavour, in Britain, for about 30 years.

Rant number two will be briefer, I promise.

Who, I'd like to know, is responsible for the death of the English Strawberry?

It simply isn't possible, now, to buy strawberries that taste really good.  Oh, they look all right.  Some of the supermarket ones look gorgous.  But they taste of slightly acidulated water and have the texture of baby turnips.

As a soft fruit, strawberries never were outstanding, unless you could find them ripened to a red perfection. In that almost unheard of state, they should NEVER be washed, and must be eaten while still sun-warmed.  If you ever felt the need to add sugar, the strawberries were substandard, and the very thought of polluting such gorgeous fruit with cream should would have been as unthinkable as farting at the Queen's Chelsea drinks reception.

I suppose infernomarkets are guilty here, too, just as they're guilty for buggering up grapes.  If a strawberry picked in Wisbech  has to be trucked to, say, Spalding, for packing, and then trundled down to Plymouth or up to Newcastle, to be thumped down on Sainsco's produce shelves, it needs to have more staying power than a Rugby forward.

When I was a boy, we would buy fresh strawberries, on Ely or Cambridge market and if you didn't eat them within about 6 hours, they would deteriorate.

Then came Elsanta, the most horrible variety ever bred.  Even the word is worse than swearing. Elsanta!  Elsinner would be more apt, or 'Elstinka.' A mockery of a strawberry.  Shiny, red, conveniently sized and oh so tempting in the punnet.  It even smells like a beautiful, ripe strawberry.  But when you pop this travesty into your mouth, the disappointment is so keen that you're likely to become traumatised.

It's such  a shame.  I used to love strawberries.  Now I never eat them because I can't grow them, and because no one sells decent ones any more.  Pity.

I'm listening to Abba for some bizarre reason.  Fernando.

This day in 2006 I was gathering yellow rattle seeds from a certain location not far from here.  Our minimeadow benefited hugely from them and we now have a thriving colony of the semi-parasite.

This week's film was Nightwatch. Nattevagten. A nicely turned, grizzly nasty about necrophilia, student pranks and serial murder.  I expected to be revolted, but it was handled with great skill by writer director Ole Bornedal and above all, it starred the peerlessly marvellous Sofie Grabol, who is so good in The Killing. 

Byee! And thanks for listening.


  1. Oh dear... its unbearable isn't it. We have the same rant every week in our house. I suggested we gave the various rants numbers like on a Chinese takeaway menus so we could just say "Rant no 3" and not have to go through the whole thing again.

    The Bedsock loves to visit shops and even hypermarkets in France. (Although I think Carrefour has lost some of its charms it is still better than our offerings.) I don't think it does the Bedsock's blood pressure any good to get so upset that just over the sea from Brighton we could buy fruit and veg in a market that actually had some taste!

  2. Very clever calling your offering a "rant", thereby you can not be dismissed as someone "just having a rant. I grew strawberries this year in one of those plastic sacks with the kangaroo pouches around the side. I forgot to water them once or twice as the fruit was swelling. They were totally inedible but could sole my shoes. To me strawberries are like politicians: they promise a lot but rarely deliver.

  3. The problem isn't limited to British supermarkets. Michele Owens, in her book "Grow the Good Life" explains how the crappy produce at her local supermarket prompted her to start growing all her own produce. It's market forces (needing to pick produce before it's ripe so it will survive the cross-country or cross-hemisphere trip) and the public's refusal to accept slightly blemished produce that is to blame.

  4. It seems this is a common problem when produce must be moved great distances in "perfect" condition (which apparently does not include good taste!). Our west coast supermarkets have lots of cardboard fruit & veggies as well as some local grown produce which is generally excellent. We try to shop at the local farmer's market whenever possible, as well as grow our own - 'tho our so called summer (fridge & blowdrier so far this year) has not been at all conducive to ripening anything at all! Good raddish aside...Best lemons I've ever tasted are from our indoor meyer lemon tree - maybe the problem is that many consumers are unaware how "just picked" fruit should taste. Now what we really need is someone to develop a tasty travelling fruit! (hmm maybe not!) Enjoy reading your blog - always interesting rants & all.

  5. Here's hoping you found just what you wanted at the Farmer's Market.

    I'll add to your rant: why don't we celebrate the seasonality of food anymore? Remember when there was just a few short weeks round about now when you could buy the sweetest, juiciest cherries ever? It was an annual treat to look forward to and be savoured.

    Now all that blandness is down to year-round availability and supercos wanting to transport the stuff without it getting all battered and bruised, so only armour plated varieties are grown by the producers.

    I've just done a piece for local radio today about my garden - managed to slip in (completely unplanned) how few varieties of apple are available in the shops, yet Brogdale has 2,000. Is crazy.

    *Stomps off in disgust to the allotment to pick some peas for dinner* *And some strawberries* *And some cherries*

  6. I totally agree with both your rants. i'm lucky enough to have a village butcher and a local farm shop. plus I grow most of my own veg. I get round the whole depressing having to traipse round the supermarket thing by ordering groceries online from Ocado each week. Then I enjoy my saturday morning jaunt to the butchers.
    We are also lucky enough to have a holiday home in Normandy France so I wait for Fresh (until lunchtime) Strawberries and Melons on my visits abroad, when I have time to shop each day at the local markets

  7. Here in the north west we have Booths supermarkets - still a supermarket with all the usual stuff - but each store has local buying flexibility - and the veg is displayed loose. It's a whole different experience.

    As to cost - Warrington market has veg stalls with good veg at prices unrecognisable from the Sainsbury's all but next door.

    Shopping in markets takes more time, but it isn't a soul destroying experience.

  8. I re-watched Geoff Hamilton's Ornamental Kitchen Garden series on DVD recently, and was taken aback to see him recommend Elsanta as one of the best strawberries to grow. Are they good if picked and eaten when perfectly ripe, and just crap if picked early and "ripened" in transit?

  9. Its the fruit - why can I no longer buy fruit that is a) ripe or will ripen shortly and b) tastes of fruit - it is beyond me. I rather like having fruit in its own short season, so why it cannot be ripe when it is the season for it is also beyond me.
    Excellent rants!

  10. Went to the top soft fruit supplier 2010 yesterday, it was fascinating to see how it all works. They were about to start picking their first cherries and Ihave never eaten such gorgeous ones. They supply M&S and Waitrose and both these stores have quite vigorous controls but pay very well compared to some of the others who have a poor reputation in the way they treat suppliers. He estimated that his cherries would be in the shelves within 48 hrs and were packed on site as were the Raspberries. They are working with Waitrose this year on an English fruit campaign - so only English soft fruit will be available for the next couple of months unlike some other stores. Until we the consumer stop expecting to have fruit and veg available all year round then the supermarkets will keep supplying the rubbish. My Waitrose is lovely, good bread, excellent cheese counter etc but then Malvern has a very discerning customer base. I know that supermarkets stock their branches according to the local demographics.

    Anyway why cant you grow strawberries?

  11. Bless you all for such super comments!
    Patieng G - Your soft fruit visit must have been brilliant and yes, you do live in the epicentre of UK 'foodiness.'

    Karen, VP - I completely agree about the joy of each thing in its season. I visited Greece, once, during their extremely brief cherry season. Every meal was followed by a bold of big, ripe, sweet cherries.

    Nick - Elsanta tastes of nothing whether dead ripe or just dead. It's an abomination. Even Geoff wasn't infallible, you know.

    Sue - Ah Booths, wonderful Booths. The PG and I always stock up at a Booths, before we return from visiting relatives or friends in Lancashire. Booths is like Waitrose with knobs on.

    Clare - I should have said, we're blessed with lots of local family butchers, in our area, and farm gate sales of fruit and veg are brilliant in this fertile zone. Alas Ocado doesn't deliver out here yet, though! One day, maybe.

    Anjacouto, McGregor's d - Who decided that the Brits would only buy perfect, uniform fruits and things? Was it us, the customers, or 'them' the supermarkets?

    Arabella - I agree, Carrefour has lost some of its charm, but it still wipes the floor with UK supermarkets.
    And one tiny compensation for the collapse of our currency and the puzzlingly over-valued Euro is that there are far fewer of those loathsome but essentially British creatures wearing tattoos and those sleeveless vest things that reveal hairy armpits, trundling trollies laden with cases of Stella Artois out to their white vans.
    Oooh, now I've started on another rant, so had better stop.

  12. I agree with both "rants"..very reasonable rants I'd say!
    T***o has just opened a huge 24 hour job three miles down the valley here, on the edge of a large village...but is now "converting" (ie keeping the centre facade) a local cinema in the village centre to a smaller (ie more expensive) "local" with the sop of community use of part of the building. The village is large and has no need of it. The small shops are struggling, we already have a Sp** and a L*d* AND an A*d*, besides a decent S'bys 5 miles the other way!!
    We do have a local butcher in our village and he does sell fesh veg. But he is a tad expensive

  13. Nigel,
    I look forward to reading your blog and commenting more. I lived in Reading for just 6 months, Jan to May in 2006 and found the grocery stores quite amazing in the produce when compared to the US. Great job today summarizing Day 1 of the Trials conference at RHS Wisley. Grow grasses!
    Best, Mary Meyer

  14. Wow Nige... talk about a Victor Meldrew blog post.

    Sounds like you need more quick trips over to France to keep mind and body sane!



  15. Ditto to both your rants, isn't it a sad reflection that we all feel the same. Good read though, well done.

    Agree with Sue about Booths, they sell local produce and the staff seem to care. Our nearest Waitrose is 50 miles away so that's now a pre-Christmas treat.

  16. Hope you feel better now that you've got all that off your chest.