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A trip to Sainsbury’s

April 16, 2011

I’m not one for the sweeping generalisations, but, by and large, I loathe the major supermarkets because they embody everything I dislike about British food culture.


Anyway, despite living near a large Sainsbury’s and a Tesco Metro, I can normally contrive to avoid them. I have the veg box, and am blessed to live in a part of London which has lots of Turkish supermarkets where I can normally get everything else (with some help from the SOAS food coop). Once in a while, though, I need a random selection of things that would require me to go to half a dozen different places, and I decide to overcome my natural revulsion and save time by getting them all under one roof.

This happens, on average, once every three to four months, with tedious regularity. I leave the house with a list and some shopping bags, walk to the mega-Sainsbury’s over the road (at least three times as far as my nearest Turkish supermarket) and tell myself it cannot possibly be as bad as I think it’s going to be.

It starts in the fruit and veg section. The Turkish supermarket has lots of tasty, colourful, fresh-looking, reasonably priced loose fruit and veg. Sainsbury’s does not. I wander round trying to find something to eat for the next few days, only to find it unripe, imported needlessly from somewhere far away, or only available pre-packaged in quantities suitable for a family of four. I don’t have a family of four who might want to eat unripe avocados, so I’m pretty much limited to potatoes and onions. Today, however, I paid £1.50 for a small bag of something called ‘bistro salad’. It was pretty much the only thing that wasn’t iceberg lettuce, and I estimated that a normal person could probably manage to eat it before it went off.

So far, a little overpriced.

Then I venture into the part of the shop that has Things In Fridges. These are the sorts of things you can’t normally buy in Turkish supermarkets and definitely don’t come in the veg box. Fresh pasta. Fresh pasta sauces. Pizza. Fishcakes. Things I could make myself if I weren’t writing my damn dissertation. Oh brave new world of processed food! Every time, EVERY SINGLE TIME, I get seduced. Today, I came home with four smoked mackerel fishcakes (there were also some salmon ones, but I rejected these since their claims that their salmon was ‘responsibly sourced’ didn’t actually seem to be backed up by any kind of legally recognised, enforceable standard), two packets of fresh pasta (from the posh range, which seem to be differentiated from the bog-standard range by virtue of being bigger and having fillings containing wine – nay, named wines, like Chianti or Pinot Grigio), some tomato sauce to eat them with, two pizzas which were on offer, and also some milk and yoghurt and useful stuff like that. I’m always let down by these things though (perhaps not the pizza). The fresh pasta always tastes rubbery, and the pesto I got last time was very bland. Still. I think it will be different, EVERY SINGLE TIME and fall for it all over again.

Still, these hold the promise of exciting, hassle-free foodstuffs that I do not normally get to eat. I’m a little skeptical, but still on track.

Then I come to the cheese aisle.

On the last two trips, this has been where the wheels fall off the cheerful illusion that supermarkets and I can coexist. I can deal with the fact that they can make processed food more attractive than fresh veg, but I cannot shop somewhere that has such a fundamentally different view of cheese.

The cheese aisle is helpfully subdivided into different kinds of cheese, and signed accordingly. Basic ‘Cheese’ appears to consist of things like Dairylea or Cheesestrings. I feel this is a, shall we say, charitable interpretation of the term cheese. Next to this, there is ‘Healthier cheese’. Note, it doesn’t claim to be healthy, just implies that actual cheese may kill you. This section seems to contain things that share names with cheeses that grown-ups might eat, but specifically crafted to taste much less good. Next, the middle two thirds of the aisle are dedicated to cheddar. Aside from a few brand names, these are all variants on Sainsbury’s Cheddar, ranging in strength from 1-5, in different sizes, but ultimately the same cheese in different packaging. I wonder how exactly Cheddar came to epitomise cheese like this. It is at around this point that I begin to contemplate emigrating to France.

New since last time is the ‘Recipe cheeses’ section. This includes feta helpfully already cut into little cubes (because it’s so difficult to crumble), and things like mozzarella or ricotta. Presumably, this is designed to go along with the recipe cards and similar promotions, so that people who are cooking recipes but unfamiliar with ingredients can find the right cheese easily. This might actually be helpful. I wonder if it works. At the same time, it creates a helpful distinction between plain Cheddar/Dairylea/’British’ type cheeses that you put in sandwiches and weird foreign cheeses that you can cook with.

Stuck at the very end of the aisle at the back of the shop, is the ‘Artisan cheeses’ section. (It’s been renamed since last time, but I’ve forgotten what they’re calling it now.) This is where you find things that are actually proper cheeses. None of them seem particularly artisanal. I wonder how artisan Cheddar producers feel about this. And I couldn’t find any Brie.

The scales have fallen from my eyes by this point, and I’ve spent so long dithering over trying to pick the least unappetising fresh veg or the most ripe-looking cheese, or the best value pizza, that I might as well have just gone to four or five different shops in the first place. I’d probably be at home with a cup of tea by now. However, I have a heavy basket full of overpackaged Italian-inspired convenience food, and I’m damned if I’m leaving it to start all over again somewhere else.

Also, I’ve earned that pasta sauce. This is the second coping mechanism (after the excitement about things in packets making life easier). This experience is so horrendous that I deserve some junk food. I wonder round the rest of the shop in a daze, adding creme eggs and rosé to the basket as if I were a toddler who needed bribing, rather than an adult in control of my destiny, guided by a continued weakness for Things You Can’t Buy in Turkish Supermarkets. (Elderflower cordial, in case you were wondering.)

This is usually accompanied by a dogged determination to BEAT THE SYSTEM by spotting where it’s cheaper to buy larger quantities. Price per weight/volume/teabag is indicated on the label, and I scrutinise this closely. ‘Aha!’ I think to myself. ‘You can’t fool me. I am a smart person. I can read. And do basic maths. Even despite your attempts at sensory deprivation, you evil, bright orange corporation. No, you can’t fool me. I can see that the £1.79 bread is much bigger than the £1.59 bread, more so than the extra 20p would justify.* I will buy the larger bread! I win! Ha!’

And that is how I end up with more sourdough than a 5’2” person could really eat before it goes stale.

I stagger to the checkout, with a basket full of stuff I bought because I impulsively decided fresh pasta was the most exciting thing in the world, or because I told myself I’d earned it, rather than because I actually needed it. On the way out, I realise I forgot half the things I intended to buy, and haven’t got any fruit or veg. I therefore end up going to the Turkish supermarket anyway to buy spinach and toothpaste.

I never learn. I remember it for about three or four months, until I need to buy kale, light bulbs, cough medicine, gelatine sheets, cornflour and camembert and decide it would save time to get it all under one roof. And then I’m back, and the whole hideous cycle starts over again.

Incidentally, the supermarkets I don’t hate are Waitrose and Iceland. Waitrose because I am terribly middle class, they make some concessions towards transparency, they treat their staff well, and some of their fresh fruit and veg actually tastes good. Iceland because they are honest, and their staff are really friendly and not snooty about you taking loads of cardboard boxes to move house with. (M&S comes in third, but only because they have good special offers.) The whole system is essentially geared towards providing cheap, processed food in ways that could be seen as convenient. Iceland does this. Waitrose keeps the convience and charges you more-or-less-appropriately for more-or-less-decent fresh stuff. The others seem to be trying to give you Waitrose at Iceland prices. And it doesn’t work. Nobody wins.


* This is where I forget everything I know about how ingredients costs are a mind-bogglingly tiny part of the costs of food production.

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