Taking in the country fare

The days of the corner shop may be numbered, but in the countryside supermarkets often find it hard to compete against locally grown produce.

SBHD: The days of the corner shop may be numbered, but in the countryside supermarkets often find it hard to compete against locally grown produce.

I’ve liked them ever since I was first let loose with a shopping list and a large banknote at Sainsbury’s in Richmond, Surrey, and made the wondrous discovery that there was an unlimited supply of chocolate yogurts and Sovereign cigarettes within minutes of my school.

And my fascination with supermarkets – particularly their determination to put everyone from chemists to post offices out of business as they seek total domination of our shopping needs – has continued ever since.

I have found myself defending the philosophy of supermarket shopping against those who criticise its blandness, soullessness and sheer lack of human comfort. This has extended to praising its variety and convenience, superior levels of hygiene and the competitive pricing when set against the economic tyranny of the small store.

I have shrugged off persistent allegations of price-fixing, the claims that suppliers are persistently bullied, even the charge that supermarkets deliberately refuse to stock items of minority taste in favour of wall-to-wall oven chips.

I freely forgive my local supermarket for substituting the taramasalata for tea-towels in those infuriating shelf reorganisations and laugh in the face of freezers stocked with cow-sized haunches of meat when I’m only buying for two.

And yes, I have been understanding when assistants snap. After all, I tell myself, how jolly would you be if your sole creative outlet was in the artistic stacking of toilet rolls?

I’ll freely admit that having seen what passes for supermarket shopping abroad – particularly in southern France where so many of the supermarkets are shabby and ill-stocked – I have longed for a Tesco or a Safeway to materialise in the shimmering heat.

In short, I have grown up with supermarkets, paid my dues to supermarkets and stuck loyally to supermarkets – even when they’ve been assailed by enemies.

But that was before I was given a choice. One of the most striking things about moving out of London and into Sussex, where the slower pace of life belies the closeness to the capital, is that supermarkets do not yet rule the roost.

In many parts of London, the shopping choice is stark. Either drive to a supermarket and buy everything in one hit or risk dying the death of a thousand cuts as you find yourself ripped off in a succession of tiny stores where their only means of survival is to sell inferior brands at king’s ransom prices.

Yet outside the capital there is apparently limitless choice. Astonishingly, there is no pressing need to enter a supermarket’s portals unless you are in urgent need of enough nappies for a set of quads. Or one of those indescribable cook-in sauces.

In my village there is a poultry farmer who delivers free-range eggs and chicken (tastes like a dream and is only slightly dearer than the watery fowls I’ve bought from supermarkets for years) and an organic grower whose fruit and vegetable prices are no dearer than at the Budgens store in town.

Everyday dairy products are sold at a farm shop just three miles away, there is a bakery van that parks outside the village hall and a travelling fresh fish man whose van would put a typical supermarket selection to shame.

Then there is a posh farmhouse cider producer who delivers to your door on the way to his real job in the City. Although Mr Hangover, as he’s known locally, can prove beyond doubt that his name isn’t Grundy, it’s the sort of cider that Eddie and Joe brew whenever Clarrie isn’t looking. It’s fine for the Cat and Fiddle crowd but definitely not for those with a finer constitution.

As I list just some of growers and suppliers who now provide the stuff of life chez Matthews, I am amazed to report that, in this part of the world, cottage industries are apparently not only thriving but multiplying.

Although the door-to-door businesses count cheeriness as part of the service, many other traders are quirkily invisible – leaving jam-jars for the money alongside the eggs, logs or mushrooms they are selling.

I am told that these same people will spring from nowhere to challenge those rare customers who insolently take the products without first laying down the correct money.

But what about all the time it must take, I hear you asking, whilst spluttering with indignation at my so typically ex-townie, romantic view of life in the country. And then there’s all that toing and froing down country lanes to what look like holes in the hedge, yo-yoing back and forth with tiny brown paper parcels when a single trip to Sainsbury’s will suffice and still get you back in time for Any Answers.

However, I find that faced with one small punnet of farm-fresh tomatoes rather than a mound large enough to feed Europe I can be surprisingly quick. I also find that visiting shops I genuinely do want to buy from, rather than spending time in the supermarket lingering over things that I don’t want, can also speed up the entire process.

Just as I feel a peculiar exhilaration at driving past Sainsbury’s or Tesco and knowing that I am no longer obliged to go in, I also find shopping has become a pleasure.

I’ve always found overt friendliness in shop assistants to be somewhat overrated. I’d rather a taciturn but efficient cashier to a talkative but useless one. But the joy of giving money to a trader who actually appears to want to do business with you, and who doesn’t make you queue while he uses his intercom to ask Miss Phillips about the price of your turnips, is considerable. As is buying from a trader who doesn’t tempt your child with sweets at the checkout and then look frostily at you because of the subsequent tantrum.

I know in my head that the days of the small specialist shop are numbered. As are the days when a small child (me) could be sent by her giggling older sisters to the local ironmonger to ask for “a pound of elbow grease”. But having so easily weaned myself off one-stop shopping, there can be no turning back.

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