Culinary Ambassadors: Grocery Shopping in the UK
Serious Eats' Culinary Ambassadors check in from time to time with reports on food fare in their homeland or countries of residence. Here's the latest! (Find out more about CA or join here!) —The Mgmt.
It may come as a shock, but the UK public is obsessed with food. British food has a reputation as being a stodgy, greasy, bland accompaniment to beer — or nameless, boiled, blobby things served at school dinners (the possible exception being curries introduced by the large South Asian population). The past 10 or 15 years have greatly changed what's available to eat here, however, and the diversity of people's diets is very much reflected in, and abetted by, the supermarkets.
Recall that Britain is an island of about 65 million people. You can drive from one end to the other, nonstop, in less than a 24-hour period. There are six major supermarket chains, not regionally concentrated but more or less directly overlapping geographically, and hence competing pretty much everywhere. There is stratification by market: Waitrose and Marks & Spencer aim for more affluent customers, while others — particularly ASDA, which is owned by Walmart — specialize in a customer base that prioritizes low prices. Others are somewhere in the middle, while the biggest chain, Tesco, increasingly competes at all levels of the market (though it doesn't feature the fancy lighting or displays found in Waitrose), and not just for food. Tesco now sells kitchenware, home electronics, clothing, and banking services and has recently announced that it will be marketing new homes. Imagine living in a Tesco village, and imagine how many loyalty-card points you'd get! Tesco's other means of competing is vertical: it offers two or three levels of quality of a given item, from the super-cheap, plain-packaging version to the more upscale "Finest" version, which is meant to compete with Waitrose's overall yuppier product offerings.
And then, of course, there are the organic, local, and fair-trade distinctions, and you start to see that the weekly shopping trip gets a bit complicated. But I'll focus on provenance. Supermarket displays or packaging are labeled with an item's country of origin. Eating locally produced food is an attractive selling-point in terms of carbon footprint, and consumers get to decide whether it's worthwhile to eat raspberries in February if they are flown in from Chile.
But it goes deeper than that, as many foods are labeled by UK region or even county: East Anglian lettuce, for example, or Cambridgeshire blackberries (setting aside the fact that you can go out and pick them yourself, in abundance, for free). Here, you can't help but reflect on the relationship of the UK to Europe. Britain has long taken a somewhat cautious view of the European Union: They've joined, but kept their own currency. And they've tried hard to show a certain self-sufficiency, which is illustrated nicely — and mostly non-jingoistically — through encouraging the production of quality British food of all kinds.
"Best of British" does not imply provincialism, however. The same supermarkets that half a generation ago stocked endless shelves with jars and tubes of mystery-meat sandwich pastes and salad creme now have aisles full of specialty ingredients from around the world. Thai food, for example, is a fairly recent favorite, and you can make your own curry pastes from the supermarket produce section — or you can buy them ready made. I'm sure I never found red curry paste at any mainstream US supermarket. Some of these food trends in home-cooking are driven by beloved TV chefs, such as Delia Smith and Rick Stein, who appear on TV in prime time, and whose broadcast recipes have caused well-documented runs on novel ingredients. This phenomenon forces the supermarkets to keep up their sourcing diligently. And then there's the booze, readily available in any British supermarket: you have to look closely to see the Marks & Spencer licensing marks on their ever-changing selection of wines and, as with screw tops, it's not necessarily an insult to gift a host with a vintage that's been well-reviewed.
I love shopping at and supporting the many ethnic grocery stores here in Cambridge, an academic community that attracts scholars from everywhere you can imagine. Their owners are very helpful in guiding one to the best products. And recently we signed up for a weekly organic veg box, in part as a spur to kitchen-creativity. But the mega-supermarket Tesco is only a 7-minute walk from our house, and I squirm a bit as I admit that it's hard to ignore the convenience. Its bakery staff even gives me, for free, small bits of fresh yeast so that I can bake my own. Its fresh pesto from Italy is amazing, and it offers several kinds of fair-trade chocolate. Would I buy pet insurance or a wide-screen TV there (they do sell them)? Well, probably not, but if the price were right....