A Briton born 100 years ago, resurrected and propelled around the typical modern supermarket, would be astounded at the staggering choice that’s on offer there. Entering via the fruit and vegetable aisle, he or she might even conclude that his children’s children live in a latter-day Garden of Eden. How else would you explain that eye-catching cornucopia? Modern consumers who actually eat the stuff, however, are less impressed.
In 2002 an article I wrote for The Guardian entitled ‘Strange fruit’, which attacked the quality of supermarket fruit and vegetables, received an unusually large, impassioned and supportive postbag. One Cambridgeshire reader wrote in referring to the ‘gastronomical tyranny’ of the supermarket fruit and vegetable shelves. ‘The supermarkets’ dumbing down of our taste experience isn’t just confined to selecting varieties with longest shelf life and least flavour,’ he continued and went on to relate a personal taste experiment. ‘Last week I compared a Victoria plum from our garden with one bought from Sainsbury’s. One was full of flavour and a succulent mouthful, the other tasteless pap. You can guess which was which.’ A reader from Gloucestershire yearned for produce that ‘tasted good as well as looked good’. A London reader was angered by a supermarket spokesman quoted in the article who had insisted that consumers were happy with their offering. ‘He needs to know,’ she wrote, ‘that people are not happy with what they are getting and that we don’t want ‘‘freshly prepared lines to fit modern lifestyles’’. We want seasonal produce with flavour. It’s time to boycott supermarket produce and refamiliarise ourselves with our local greengrocers,’ she concluded.
Increasingly, people have become disenchanted with supermarket produce. One reason is that it is predicated on a new nature-defying order in which every conceivable fruit and vegetable grown anywhere is available all the time; I named it ‘permanent global summertime’ (PGST). Supermarkets’ pursuit of PGST means that they cannot be honest with customers. In January, for example, a knowledgeable greengrocer would know that there are no peaches to be had anywhere in the world that are worth eating by the time they arrive in the UK and would simply stop stocking them. Confronted with a customer seeking parsnips in May, he might gently suggest that they were out of season and recommend a more appropriate alternative. But supermarkets don’t have this option, because such candour would give the lie to the dream they peddle in which it is both feasible and reasonable for the UK shopper to expect virtually every horticultural product on the planet every day.
Supermarkets promote this ‘artificial reality’ because they know that fruit and vegetables are a ‘destination category’: they form an initial impression that can clinch a consumer’s choice of store. The fruit and veg section is attractive window-dressing for everything else from washing powder to custard creams. Supermarkets would hate us to get the idea that one chain is very much like another. So to enhance the impression of astounding choice throughout their stores, they stock as many different types of fruit and vegetables as possible.
PGST may look good, but in the name of consumer choice and public health the irregularity and diversity of the natural order have been eliminated – not to benefit consumers, but to fit the way our big food retailers like to do business. In essence, that means sourcing vast quantities of easy-to-retail, long shelf-life standard varieties that are grown to rigid size and cosmetic specifications and can be supplied 365 days a year. ‘Quality in supermarket terms means a constant supply of produce that matches their stereotype in terms of shape, size and colour,’ one packer told me. ‘It must have acceptable sugar and pressure levels, and mustn’t taste actively unpleasant. Hi-tech, low-taste, odour-free produce is the norm.’
No wonder the nation’s fruit and vegetable consumption is declining. Eating ‘five a day’ is indeed a daunting and unrewarding mission if you shop in a supermarket selling Midwich Cuckoo-style produce. And in practical terms, by fostering the concept of the one-stop, weekly shop, supermarkets have drastically reduced our opportunities to purchase fruit and vegetables of any kind. Many consumers have entirely given up buying pricey items such as plums, strawberries, peaches and apricots because they are such a dismal let-down. The frisson of excitement that true seasonality provides and the appetite-whetting response it should generate are absent. Inspiration is shrivelled, for example, by the stultifying knowledge that, whether it’s March, July or November, you will always find grapes in the middle of gondola three, on aisle number two, and they will always be Thomson Seedless. Food writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall put it this way: ‘The downside of the culture of infinite year-round choice is a kind of options paralysis: there’s so much on offer you don’t know where to start. Understanding the seasons brings a sense of structure, rhythm and rightness to your shopping and cooking. In a world where the methods of food production are rapidly unravelling into madness, seasonality is sanity, offering the best and quickest solution to the never-ending question: “What shall I cook today?”’ When Sainsbury’s canvassed shoppers in its prestige Cromwell Road store in London as to what they most wanted from a supermarket, they put their fingers very accurately on our supermarkets’ shortcomings. They said they wanted ‘very fresh produce, in season, that reawakened their interest in food’; in other words, the opposite of what they usually get from supermarkets, which is unripe, low-risk, far-travelled unseasonal produce that deadens any instinct to cook.
Chef Dennis Cotter astutely summed up consumers’ alienation with supermarket fruit and vegetables thus: ‘Peaches, tomatoes, avocados, asparagus, broad beans, sugar snap peas, parsnips, leeks, aubergines, sweet peppers, apples, pears... These are extraordinary foods that can give us unique pleasure. Ironically, the more poor imitations we eat, the less pleasure we take. For many of us, the pleasure associated with these wonderful foods has been gradually replaced in our minds by a dull, nagging ordinariness bordering on disappointment, and ultimately we forget they were ever wonderful. When the foods have finally been reduced to ordinariness, we can pass them in the supermarket aisles without even noticing them.’
The problem isn’t just the never-changing produce that is on the shelves, but also what ought to be there yet strangely isn’t. Our fellow Europeans expect that the lion’s share of produce in their shops and markets will be home produce, coming from identifiable native regions, or at least sold under a generic national label. In Italy, you’ll see produce marked ‘nostrano’, literally ‘local’ – a point of fact, but also a statement of pride, evidence of a country with a thriving horticulture. The French use the tag ‘pays’ in the same way. To visiting European nationals, accustomed to buying overwhelmingly their own country’s produce and only a small proportion of imported lines, UK supermarket shelves must seem positively outlandish. I asked fruit growers why UK fruit was so poorly represented. ‘Supermarkets can’t be hassled with UK fruit, 300 boxes here, 400 boxes there. They can’t even be bothered switching on the computer for that,’ one grower told me. ‘Even companies with turnovers of £2m to £3m are seen as too small to bother with. Supermarkets just want to deal with multinational conglomerates,’ said another.
Herbs are another striking example of supermarkets’ preference for doing business with major players – even if they are thousands of miles away. Almost all the herbs on sale in UK supermarkets come from Israel, where big horticultural companies can guarantee a year-round supply. Yet several popular culinary herbs such as thyme, rosemary and bay grow all year round in the UK. Others such as chives, sage, mint, rocket and parsley will grow in the UK for a good six months of the year. It is really only the most tender, sun-seeking herbs like basil and coriander that are problematic for our climate. If supermarkets were committed to supporting British production, they could sell British herbs when available and supplement them with ones from abroad only as necessary. But it is administratively much easier for our big food retailers to strike a deal with an Israeli consortium for a 365-days-a-year supply.
The sorry state of many less robust supermarket vegetables is an obvious consequence of supermarkets’ preparedness to defy local, even European, seasons and source globally at the drop of a hat. Once unwrapped at home, and no longer under flattering lighting, these items are likely to resemble airport-weary, jet-lagged travellers. Much supermarket produce never tastes of anything much, because it has been harvested prematurely to stop it deteriorating during transportation and on the shelf.
Although the big chains all like to make great play of the sophisticated technology that theoretically permits all kinds of fragile produce to be transported thousands of miles yet taste as good as when it was picked, the fact is that fresh produce simply doesn’t travel well. No surprise then that consumers are encouraged by supermarkets to shop with the eyes only and all other senses suspended. Smells that might inform the foreign shopper about ripeness, in melons or peaches say, are outlawed. They don’t fit in with ‘aroma management’, the aim of which is to have a uniform smell throughout the store, save for the come-on smells of the in-store bakery. Indeed, aromas raise a dangerous spectre whose existence UK supermarkets deny: of seasonality, living material in a constant state of flux, development and decay.
Premature picking and over-refrigeration are not the only devices supermarkets employ to create the impression of true freshness, while simultaneously stretching shelf life to its limits. Selecting out certain problematic lines is another. Leeks, for example, are now routinely sold ‘de-flagged’, without their green stalks. The supermarket justification for this is that shoppers don’t have the time or inclination for green flags, because they might contain soil and need to be cleaned. The real reason is that if you leave flags on, leeks look older and sadder more quickly. So it is better for supermarkets just to whack them off and present the de-flagging as a helping hand towards convenience and easing the pressure of modern life. Add to that the advantage that the leeks can be made to fill exactly the shelf space allocated to them. Whole celery is becoming harder to buy. Supermarkets would really prefer to have growers dump the outer stalks and just sell packs of heads, because they have a longer shelf life. If supermarkets were to sell large-leaf British spinach loose, it would need to be sold in one or two days if it were not to look past its best. So supermarkets have simply stopped stocking large-leaf spinach, replacing it with infinitely more expensive baby-leaf spinach, often sold in pillow packs so as to artificially extend its shelf life. And, as any cook can tell you, the typical supermarket 20-gram pack of herbs is pretty useless. What cooks need is decent-sized bunches. But if you sell herbs in a sparkly stiff plastic carton, most of which is covered by a label, even tired and flaccid herbs can be given the illusion of freshness. Minimally wrapped fresh herb bunches, on the other hand, give a more accurate indication of age.
To sell really fresh leafy vegetables or herbs successfully, you need experienced greengrocers actively working to achieve a good turnaround. But such expertise is scarce in supermarkets. Store managers simply accept consignments of commodities pre-groomed to reduce all possible risk of spoilage. This skills-and-experience deficit extends to part-time shelf-stackers, who are not expected to know whether a Jersey Royal is a potato, a breed of cow or a Channel Island monarch. Further up the horticultural buying chain, there is also a vacuum where experience should be. An importer of Italian salads told me of his experience visiting one of the large supermarkets with samples. ‘I met their boss man for fresh produce. He said he was looking to source something a bit different and I showed him a head of trevisse [a red chicory, common in Italy, similar to radicchio, but naturally pointed in shape]. ‘‘Obviously they must grow these in tubes to get them to grow into this shape,’’ he said. He was so ignorant, I couldn’t be bothered answering him.’ An English fruit grower told me how one supermarket chain rejected a pre-agreed consignment of Worcester Pearmain apples because they were not round enough. ‘The quality controller didn’t know that this variety of apple is naturally a bit pear-shaped; hence the name. “Help,” we thought. “They don’t know this but they are dealing with our produce!”’
The only relief from the standardised tedium of supermarket produce comes in the form of speciality ranges of fruit and vegetables that appear to have more going for them. Complaints about pink sludge supermarket tomatoes, aptly named ‘Wasserbomben’ in Germany, prompted the introduction of ‘flavour-grown’ varieties. These ‘better-than-the-rest’ ranges are in themselves an admission that the standard supermarket tomato is grown to satisfy non-taste criteria. Now the concept has been extended to all manner of produce. Tesco’s Finest and Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference labels feature items such as sun-ripened Jamaican ortaniques, extra-sweet golden kiwis, Delizia tomatoes ‘grown in sandy soil to deliver [a] distinct, sweet flavour’, and bananas ‘left to ripen longer and grown exclusively on the tropical terraces of the Canaries’. In 2003 Waitrose launched a new fruit range packed in black and gold livery explicitly called ‘Perfectly Ripe’, consisting of up-market pears, stone fruit and tropical fruits such as mango and papaya that have been left to mature on the tree. These supermarket specialities cost substantially more than the standard equivalent and seek to make a virtue out of giving consumers what we always hoped we’d be getting anyway: ripe, fresh produce that actually tastes of something.
Extracted from Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman published by Fourth Estate, 2004.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004