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How I learnt to shop for food

"You know you are in love when the two of you can go grocery shopping together." Woody Harrelson

An interesting idea but not really what I was going to write about, although there might be a little bit about early marriage coming up.


Tomorrow we are hosting our grandchildren for the day so I was planning a project of them cooking the dinner for everyone in the evening. As well as the cooking I was planning to have them choose what to cook, and then to go and shop for what was needed. I thought it would be a good opportunity to pass on some tips on how to shop for food.


Which is how I got to here, and this picture of a shop in Dublin in the 1950s which looks very much like the first grocery shop that I remember in East Ham in the London docklands. Dark and crowded but friendly, with the goods for sale stacked on shelves behind the counter and around the room. The butter was cut off blocks as was the cheese, and that line strung above the counter may well be like the line my shop had on which hung little containers into which one's money was put and the change delivered. The containers somehow zipped along the line. It was rather magical for a small child.


Of course we all first learn to shop by watching our mother as we shop with her and I certainly did a bit of that. I also played shops with my sister with old ration books - because shopping in my childhood was based on shopping with ration books. Not that we had any fancy equipment. I think we borrowed tins and things from my mother set them up on the table and used old ration books that hadn't been used up.


When I was a bit older I was sometimes sent to buy things on my own - but I would have had a list, and besides in those days there was not the mind-boggling choice that there is today. Sugar was sugar and flour was flour. I can't say I really learnt much from my mother about what to look for when shopping, which may be a bit unfair. The shops were small and the goods were chosen by the shopkeeper. I guess getting good fruit and vegetables depended on the relationship you had with the shopkeeper.


No, I think I learnt most about how to choose fruit, vegetables, cheese, from this young girl - Monette - who lived in the beautiful little village of Meung-sur-Loire near Orléans in France. She was about twelve or thirteen when I first met her. She may be a little bit older in this photo.


Anyway her father was the town clerk and her mother also worked - I think for a lawyer. She came home at lunchtime to cook lunch for us and, of course, she cooked dinner in the evening. But Monette, I think, did most of the shopping. She would have had a list of what to buy, so we would set off into the village and visit each purveyor for whatever it was they sold. I'm sure Madame Coutant must also have done some shopping, but Monette did a whole lot of it. And the shopkeepers knew her.


So let me tell you some of the things she taught me. As did the French in general.


Bread - the daily order was 'un pain et deux baguettes' - a pain being slightly thicker than a baguette. As now, the baker would test each loaf for crunch before deciding which one to hand over. I don't know whether Monette was a favourite, but the bread was delicious and the ends often got eaten before we got home.


Cheese - particularly camembert which was the family's favourite. Not mine alas. I did try it but didn't like it, so they bought gruyère for me. The camembert though was often displayed on tables, sometimes outside the shop and Monette would prod the middle of each one until she found one that met the requirement of being squidgy enough. I was always given the chance to do the same, so that I would know.

Melons were sniffed at the top. And pressed slightly. Again, it was passed to me so that I knew what the right smell and texture were. Beans were individually selected - literally individually - and for many, many years I chose my beans like this as well. Today I am too lazy to do so.


This is the main shopping street of the village today and it hasn't changed all that much. I cannot remember many more details of how particular things were chosen, and obviously a certain amount of trust was placed in the shopkeepers, particularly in butchers and bakers. Most importantly though I picked up that it was important to spend a moment or two deciding which cheese to select, which melon was the best, and so on. It's something that has stayed with me and keeps me away from plastic packaged fruit and vegetables. Mostly. If I really have to stick with something that is already in plastic then I turn it around as much as I can to see if all is well.

My shopping education continues many years later when I married, and this is where David and I would shop. I gather it is no longer there. Although we lived in Hampstead, we somehow often shopped in Sainsbury's in Marylebone High Street. For we are now in the era of supermarkets. And looking at Woody Harrelson's quote about love and shopping I have to say that we have always, enjoyed shopping together - well for food anyway. We still do. And alas, and somewhat stupidly perhaps, we are both still value shoppers, having grown up with little money and therefore are always looking for the specials, and the slightly overripe.


When it comes to meat I just have to explain two learning experiences. The first was, I think, before we were married. David shared a flat in London with a university friend and I would visit at weekends. Near the flat there was a tiny, tiny butcher's shop with just one butcher. I vaguely remember just one large wooden chopping board with the meat hung around the walls. He would ask you what you were cooking and help you to choose a cut that was prepared for you there and then. The quality was wonderful. I somehow think his shop was even smaller and not quite as ordered looking as this one, and he certainly wasn't as neat and tidy as this particular butcher. He didn't wear a hat either. It did teach me you shouldn't be put off by appearances.

Then there was my shopping in Stoke Newington, a then poor inner suburb of London where I was teaching. In my lunchtime I would dash across the road to buy the meat for dinner. It looked a little like this. The area was largely West Indian, and the West Indian ladies were careful shoppers. They would always insist on a particular piece of meat, and not allow the butcher to choose for them. So I learnt to do the same. This was my Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier era and through them I learnt which were the cheap cuts and what to do with them.


The other thing I learnt about the Stoke Newington experience - remember we were living in Hampstead, and then nearby Highgate at the time - was that it was much cheaper to do my shopping in Stoke Newington than in Hampstead or Highgate - both very well to do neighbourhoods. Which is probably why we shopped in Sainsbury's in Marylebone for our groceries. Marylebone because David's mother lived there and we would visit at the weekend.


So I Iearnt a few lessons. How to make little money go a long way. How to know the characteristics of various foodstuffs that would make them good - i.e. how to choose a good melon, and basically to take care in what you chose to buy in the fresh food area.


Since then shopping has changed. Yes the French still have wonderful little village shops but they also have hypermarkets which are totally glorious in a very different way. Nowadays you have to master new skills. Reading labels. Where does it come from? Is it certified as sustainable, ethical, healthy, etc. What's in it? How much does it cost per unit as opposed to another variety? When is its use by date - and when to care if it is approaching it?


Then there are the decisions to be made around specials - do you buy products only when they are on special - and there is always the niggling little worry that doing this is squeezing the producers just that little bit more? And of course you should buy fresh fruit and vegetables only when in season - even if those seasons have now stretched. When they are in season they are better as well as cheaper.


I was going to pass on some of these little bits of wisdom I have picked up over the years to my grandchildren tomorrow, but they are now coming rather later than I expected so there will be no time for a shop. They will just have to make do with what I have. A challenge in itself. It was a slight change of plan that saw me do a large shop of potential foods for dinner this afternoon. But it will have to be chicken. .I thought chicken would give them more options. I bought some mince as well, so I guess they could choose that too.


Mind you they are teenagers now so I am not expecting huge amounts of enthusiasm. I just hope it doesn't descend into grumbling and revolution!


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