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What have supermarkets done for us then?

We just went to our local Aldi. Neat as a pin, and good prices. They have some very posh freezers in rows, it makes the place look like Waitrose. I found myself wondering if food on a budget was easier to come by these days than in my Grandmother’s day. Certainly the food was indeed very cheap indeed.

But then I looked at the actual food.

So, tinned stuff is tinned stuff, and really doesn’t vary much I suppose from year to year. You can buy very cheap tinned tomatoes, lots of soups, lots of wine etc. There was one freezer dedicated to frozen vegetarian ready meals, and quite a few with other kinds of ready meals.

All very interesting and on the face of it really helpful for people like us with a bank balance that doesn’t stretch to infinity. But do supermarkets actually make life easier for us?

On the face of it, yes. But at what cost? Let me explain a little.

In Grandma’s day you bought ingredients, mostly, and cooked food from scratch. Even frozen food was still mostly ingredients. Why is this significant? Well, for a start, ingredients didn’t have much of a shelf life because it wasn’t generally messed about with to prolong its saleability.

Ingredients tend to be fresh and certainly a couple of generations ago were largely unmolested with chemicals, flowing agents, enzymes, hormones and goodness knows what else.

Secondly, the variety of foods you could get a good meal for pennies thatcher than (ahem) shillings was huge. You could make a brilliant soup from chicken’s feet for almost nothing (Nope, you didn’t eat the feet, just made the stock from them). Similarly bones, ox tails, heads (yes, I know, you wouldn’t fancy eating one), lights, pigeons, rabbits, boiling fowl, shanks, bacon ribs, heart and tripe, were all once cheap food that were widely available but are now quite expensive.

Try buying pig’s trotters these days, your butcher will get them for you, but it will take him three days!

The average eater of food in the UK has little but what is put in front of him in the supermarket, and that’s what he buys. But this has implications, not the least for our knowledge of food, and yes, it is important.

Take a simple thing like ox tail. Boil it until the meat falls off the bone, collect it together and make a stew, or a soup. Nothing could be easier, more nourishing and more tasty, but how many people would know how to do that very simple kitchen operation? I bet if ox tails were to be found in a supermarket, they would be cut like steaks and sold on plastic trays for £1.00 a slice, with just as little clue how the customer is going to use it than anyone else.

Even simple standards such as liver and bacon, cabbage and ribs (with a few home made chips) are biting the dust.

The supermarket is also influencing how our produce is grown and prepared. For example, try to get back fat for a pork pie these days. You won’t find it on the deli counter, they will look at you blankly.

But if you find a traditional butcher, whose prices are sky high because that’s the only way they can survive, they will tell you they can only get carcasses that are lean, with hardly any fat on them at all. So you have to go to a traditional breed farmer who sells his meat butchered, but you will find their prices higher still, making the pork pie, another staple under pressure, almost too expensive to contemplate.

It’s all very sad, as you contemplate yet another way to cook a chicken breast or bit of pork loin.

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