Shitty fruit …

Today I did something I do a lot, I shopped local, not out of some grand gesture about saving the planet, although that plays a part, but it’s also convenient.  If I’m working from home I do the school run which means I pass through my local town at around 8.30am and if I need shopping it saves time if I do it then, whilst I’m passing through, it’s less hassle.

And in some vague, befuddled, semi diluted act of pseudo social conscience, I avoid Tesco Express and opt for the local Co-op instead.  I’m such an eco warrior.  Oh and the Co-op has a bigger car park too.

But shopping at the Co-op feels better than shopping at Tesco Express. It feels less corporate. I know the Co-op is a large corporation too, albeit nowhere near as big as Tesco, but it has some pretty cool foundations as a true ‘co-operative’, a shop for the people. It also has a local feel and many of their produce has an earthy/eco/fair-trade slant which appeals to my middle class guilt too. The staff are great value as well, the Co-op are definitely an equality employer and I really like that. You get all sorts in the Co-op, on both sides of the till, and it’s a real microcosm of our society in there. And I lead such a dull social life that I often meet friends in the Co-op. It used to be the pub, but these days it’s the Co-op, so a trip to collect some bread and milk is often accompanied by a natter with an old mate and a giggle with the chatty, always happy, always cheery shelf stacker who takes great pride in telling me they got to work FIVE MINUTES TOO EARLY TODAY AS THEIR WATCH WAS WRONG!!!

The problem with the Co-op is its still a large corporation operated from a central HQ, with a corporate attitude.  That’s obvious.  Unfortunately it also suffers from many of the problems of other large supermarkets in that their pricing is structured in such a way to encourage you to buy in bulk.  It’s only 20% more to buy two bags of clementines instead of one, buy 24 apples and get 12 free, etc.

The fruit and veg in the Co-op is a bit hit and miss too.  They must operate a pretty severe just-in-time stock policy which often falls the wrong side of just-in-time, becoming just-out-of-time. Frustratingly often, even staple basics such as bread or cheese are out of stock as new deliveries are awaited, but all in all it’s not bad, and still feels better than using Tesco Express.

However, today I did something completely different after dropping my son at school. I parked on the high street and sought out a local grocers, tucked away off the high street, certainly off the beaten track and well out of sight, presumably because he can’t afford the rent on the actual high street. I was pleasantly surprised to see the shop was open at 8.30am, when most of the town outlets don’t seem to wake up before 10am. After chatting to the grocer it turns out they open around 7am, “or whenever they’re back from Spitalfields market in London” and I love that. There’s no security guard stood by the door checking his watch, turning the lock as the clock strikes the hour, no, he opens as soon as he can.

It was minus 7 today, and the heating had broken in the grocers, but at zero degrees it still felt relatively warm.  The shelves were stacked high with fruit and vegetables, vibrant colours of reds, oranges, yellows and every shade of green, all laid out in open boxes.  It was a treasure trove in there, from the exotic to the basic and mundane, they had everything.

“If you need anything or can’t find anything just let me know” said the chirpy grocer who went about his business unpacking more produce as I browsed.

What struck me first of all was how everything was unpackaged, in open cardboard boxes.  Not uniform, corporately branded boxes all the same size, no confusing pricing information printed in Helvetica size 18 font. The boxes were whatever the produce was purchased in from the market, and the pricing was handwritten on a bit of cardboard.  In felt tip, remember them?

No packaging except for the basic and original cardboard box. I could have one apple, two apples, three apples, 11 apples, 23 apples, I could have one Pink Lady, two Braeburn and just one cooking apple. There were no BOGOF offers, no pre-packaged bags of 20 neatly sealed in a plastic box and then wrapped in another, hermetically sealed plastic bag upon which the enticing offer is printed, that if I buy two packaged boxes, I get 50% off.

I wanted some blueberries but I didn’t want a large carton full.  Blueberries were one of the few items pre-packaged.  Not a problem however, as the grocer broke open a carton and told me to put what I wanted into a paper bag which he then calculated as ‘about £1’ which incidentally looked like a great deal to me compared to the pre-packaged price.

Such warmth and simplicity almost makes me emotional. That’s true customer service isn’t it? The grocer didn’t have to advertise that they had relocated their Bangalore Service Centre back to Preston to entice new customers. They didn’t have Customer SLAs on the wall exclaiming that if your call isn’t answered within 24 hrs you will get your money back. No, you want a handful of blueberries? Have a handful and I won’t rip you off pricewise either. Awesome.

I wanted two fresh chilies.  I bought two fresh chilies.  No-one else in our house likes chilies and in the Co-op I have to buy a (pre-packaged) bag of six or eight, so I usually end up throwing more than half of them away.  And as much as I love Clementines, I don’t want to buy 2Kg to get the special offer, six will do me for now thanks.  I don’t like to watch my fruit slowly rotting away, making me feel guilty every night as they look slightly more sadder than yesterday.  The bizarre thing is because I can’t throw stuff away I only ever eat shitty fruit.  I look at the 18 apples in the fruit bowl and pick the shitty soft bruised one as that’s the closest one to being thrown away.  It tastes horrible but I feel good that I rescued it, for it breaks my heart to throw food away, I get emotional.  Which means that the next day, what was the second worst apple in the bowl is now the rankest, mankiest apple in the bowl and so I eat that, and so on, which means I only ever eat the shittiest, shitty fruit.

I yell at my kids if they pick up a fresh juicy apple:

“Don’t eat that! Eat that one! The bruised one!” I point
“What that really shitty one Dad?”
“No! the really, really REALLY shitty one next to the shitty one, the one with the big bruise on it!!”
“Sod that I’ll have a bag of crisps”.

No wonder obesity is becoming such a problem in this country.

At some point the system beats me, I can’t eat it all and so I end up throwing the last five apples away to replace them with another 24 I just picked up from the large supermarket because I got the last twelve for free.  It’s truly ridiculous.

At the grocers I bought six apples, seven clementines, four tomatoes, two chilies, three lemons and a scoop of blueberries. The tomatoes were ugly looking, they weren’t genetically groomed, nor perfectly spherical, instead they looked like they had grown as nature intended.  When I got home I couldn’t resist trying one and the flavour was immense, I really mean that, I kid you not.  So often I have bought tomatoes from Tesco or even the Co-op, six perfectly round tomatoes in a plastic tray covered in a plastic sealed wrapper, and so many times they taste of nothing. They’ve usually been shipped from somewhere sunny and exotic like South Africa.  But what a sell by date, two weeks.  They’re probably coated in Ronseal to make them last that long (which might explain the taste, or lack thereof).

My four not-in-the-least-bit-shitty tomatoes, what I bought

But I digress.  My four ugly tomatoes probably have a shelf life of 3-4 days, but I only have four so that’s not really a problem.  I don’t have to buy in bulk, I don’t have to buy bland, uniformly shaped, genetically modified, pesticide laden, tasteless produce any more.  I have a choice.  I can eat my four tomatoes and when I’m next passing by I can pick up another four.  No doubt these have been sprayed with pesticides too, and I’m not pretending that buying stuff that’s come from Spitalfields market necessarily means it’s organic, but it’s certainly bypassed a lot of the steps a Tesco tomato goes through on its journey from the ground and onto the shelf.  I bet its a more direct, a more traditional journey and I like that.

And I also love the fact that the grocer who is freezing his nads on in the freezing cold of his draughty shop tucked away round the corner, the bloke that was up at 4am to select his produce from the market in London and then opened his shop at 7am (ish), because he could, I’m so happy he gets my money rather than it go into the corporate coffers of some shareholder driven PLC HQ’d in London.

I spent just over a fiver in there.  The grocer scribbled some numbers on a pad of paper, did some mental arithmetic (get him!), told me my price and placed my produce in a plain brown paper bag.  I paid using coins of the realm, I didn’t get a receipt, no doubt he would have issued me with one but I really didn’t care.  And perhaps it would have been 20p cheaper per Kg in the Co-op, but perhaps not, it’s carefully designed and packaged to make the maths difficult and confusing anyway, but there’s certainly not much in it, and even if there is a small premium I am fortunate enough not to give a rats arse because it’s pleasurable, and fun, and gorgeous, and I have no packaging to get rid of, and hopefully next week I will have no rotten fruit to throw away.

I look forward to biting into a crisp, fresh apple later.  And I’m going to have another tomato this afternoon too, ‘cos they’re ace.  Shopping at your local is bloody ace and shame on me for not doing it sooner.

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