After shopping and cooking for himself for an entire weekend the DH remarked at to me, over a quiet cuppa, how expensive everything is nowadays. It's not that he's completely unconnected to our domestic sphere, but that shopping and meal planning and budgeting has been my responsibility since I gave up work, and I've always tended to stretch out the food budget without moaning too much about lack of (what Bertie Wooster calls) spondoolicks...it's not that I'm a moan-free homemaking saint (see previous post!), but that I'm just grateful we have enough to feed the family well. I did point out to the DH that he was seeing sharp rises because he shopped at the supermarket whilst I was away, and it is in supermarket prices we see these rises, and other dodgy practices such advertising that prices have stayed the same, when in reality the product is weight for weight much smaller than last year!
These rises however, have not been seen in the farm shops around the Warickshire-Leicestershire borders. I regularly visit three farm shops and all three are advertising themselves as being far better value than the major supermarkets. That's right, not only are their products better tasting than the supermarket equivalent and more ethical than the supermarket equivalent, they are for the first time better for your wallet too. So perhaps now is the time to abandon the supermarket and turn to local food for our daily meals. If you haven't visited your local farm shop for some time, I urge you to go this weekend, I imagine you'll be a little surprised at what good value local food now is. However, not all farm shops are created equal, so here are my top tips for getting the best out of your local shopping experience.
- First, avoid posh farm shops. They are often very big, full of limp veg, overpriced local cheeses, naff nic-nacs, and have a cafe and small garden centre/antique centre/craft shop attached. Go there by all means and buy a cuppa and a birthday card for Aunt Jean, but don't see them as representative of local food. Often their produce is imported and of poor quality.
- When driving about the countryside look for blackboards outside of farms which advertise a sack of potatoes for a fiver (or less). Go in, buy the spuds and see what else they have. Often you'll find they sell free range eggs (my local farm shop sells free-range eggs for 65p per half dozen, compared to my local supermarket price of around £1.30), veg and meat.
- Look out for bulk buys. Half a pig, or half a lamb is a good investment and often the owners of one farm will put you in touch with the owner of another who sells produce which they don't stock but always use. So the spud man, will invariably know the goose man, who will know the bloke with a herd of Dexter beef cattle. In proper farms shops you will be served by the farmer himself, his wife or his kids, not a bored-to-tears A' level student, so you get a level of service, knowledge and expertise which you simply won't find in large farm shops and supermarkets.
- Use farmers' markets with discretion. Confession time -- I'm a foodie, I'm a greenie, but I think farmers' markets are a bit of a waste of time in terms of practical, everyday cooking and homemaking. First, they are far too expensive. Secondly, they are a once permonth affair. Thirdly, they're just not local any more. I recently tried some lovely cheese from my farmers' market and I asked the chap where he was based simply because I knew that I would like to buy some more. He replied that he was at the market every month, but he was based in Essex. That's right, he drove all the way from Essex to Leicestershire to our market, he travels all over the country (oh, and there wasn't a Stilton seller...in a Leicesterhire market!!). Farmers' markets are a bit too chi-chi, they're an "experience" rather than a practical alternative to supermarket shopping. The average family is better off going to a proper weekly market in their local market town. However, amongst the purple cauliflowers, southern cheese sellers, fragrant candles and organic coffee there will be real, local farmers. You'll know them because their stalls are small and sparse and not at all singing and dancing. Talk to these chappies and ask about their farm shops. They'll be glad to give you a leaflet, and you may find a really good local producer.
- It is rarely a good idea to buy cakes and bread at farm shops. Make your own or pop to the bakers. However, many farm shops sell excellent meat pies, made by themselves and containing good quality meat and no additives. If you're not a pie maker it is worth investing in a few for your freezer.
- Finally, use your time and your petrol wisely. Plan your visit so that you buy enough food for a few weeks, and combine your visit with a walk or trip to a nice pub or other country pursuits, then your shopping time will be really pleasant!