Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Now is the Time

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)'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 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!
Well, I imagine you have your own experiences with buying local. I'd very much like to hear about them, the regional differences, if you feel they are good value for money and whether you have and decent farm shops or farmers' markets in your area. I've given my strident views (lol) now have your say!


Left-Handed Housewife said...

I wrote about farmers' markets recently on my blog, about how I don't enjoy shopping at them. I agree with your comments about them--too expensive, too much of an "experience" to be had as opposed to a good shopping trip. I wish we had more farm shops around here. There is one the next town over that I'd like to try, as they raise and sell their own meat. In the meantime, my husband and I are trying to grow as much of our own produce as we can, with plans for expansion next summer. And we're hoping that a city ordinance will be passed soon that will allow us to raise chickens. This excites me unreasonably!

One good thing about the local farmers' markets here--what's sold has to be local--no imports from far away. And I read somewhere recently that grocery store managers are often responsive when you ask them to sell more local goods. So I guess I better go talking to the guys over at the Harris Teeter (a big North Carolina grocery store).

Great post!

Mrs Pea said...

I agree on farmers' markets. I have only been to two and just laughed out loud at prices/green wellies/pretensions etc.

But for me, going to Tesco is my best option. Our local market is more expensive for less good quality, poorly packed/presented and everything seems about to spoil. Local butcher - I bring home something that looks like it died when Noah was caring for it and pay full whack, when if I wanted a semi-fossilised chicken I could buy a reduced one at Tesco. And I can't buy half a sheep or anything because I lack freezer space or space/cash to invest in a chest freezer. The local farm shops aren't really posh but they are long way out from the city, aren't noticeably cheaper, and I haven't time to do multiple shopping stops - in fact dh does all the shopping, and as there are no hmm, that is in a pretty packet style impulse buys by me, he brings it in under budget.

I only wish we could shop cheaply and conveniently in some "prettier", greener way but I have tried and tried and it doesn't work here. Maybe we should move up your way!

Simone said...

I'm from 'down south' and haven't really got any 'local' farm shops. The nearest farm shop to where I live sell imported fruits and vegetables (bananas for instance!) I would love to support local shops but my local shops are the supermarkets. When I moved here 10 years ago there were 3 local butcher shops. They have since all closed down due to rising rates. They always had queues out of the doors and were very popular. The independent florist, bakery and hardware store have all closed too to be replaced by estate agents and nail salons.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Frances
We have a small town garden and we too try to grow as much as we can. I could get more out of my garden I'm sure, if I could only organise myself a little better. Alas, my garden is too small for poultry...I dream of chickens and fresh eggs!

I didn't know that large grocery stores are responsive to requests for local food. But I suppose it will only happen if there is consumer demand, so as consumers we should demand! I've heard a lot about American food co-ops, they seem like such a good idea. Do you have any around your way?

Hi Mrs Pea
The local food scene around your way sounds pretty desultory. I think I may be spoiled. My area is the poor relation to Stratford and Warwick. I live on the Staffs/Leic/Warks borders and it's quite rural and the towns are poor. However, when I visit Warwick and Stratford I get irritated by their chi-chiness. All chai bars and over-priced cheese shops! I'd prefer to live in poor old N Warks...three butchers on my high street, a greengrocer, a twice weekly market (I often buy veg from the market gardener who's been coming to the market for donkeys years), a farm shop in my suburb (not organic, but good quality), a farm shop in my nan's village...Yes, I'm spoiled!

Hi Simone
This is what I fear for my town. I worry that when the old folks are gone, there will be no demand for the butchers and greengrocers. I always seem to be the youngest woman in the queue at my favourite butcher. Our local food scene is just a kind of old-fashioned-ness, it's not a conscious thing...I'd be really fed up if the independent shops all left just so we could have yet another mobile phone shop in our high street!

Anonymous said...

Sadly our nearest Farmer's market is miles away. There were hints of one coming to the village, but not yet. We don't really have any local farm shops either. Very tedious. We do have a local sheep farm where you can buy half an organic sheep...and you can buy local eggs and some local veg from the veg shop and butchers.