One of the nicest things to happen this year was a surprise gift of coffee all the way from Lebanon. And all because of a blog.
Last year, I did a 30 days without supermarkets challenge, in which I aimed to buy all my food from local, small traders. The day I ran out of coffee, I discovered that my favourite Tooting Store, Daily Fresh, sold a very attractive looking Lebanese coffee brand called Maatouk (see earlier blog Wake up and smell the (Lebanese) coffee. As you’ll see from the comment on that post, my coffee adventure was picked up by none other than the nice people at Maatouk itself, in Lebanon. And as promised, the other day, a big parcel arrived for me with a load of different Maatouk coffees to try, a rakweh, and a boxed set of Private Blend that included a very pretty designer coffee cup.
Private Blend is has a rich, chocolatey taste with no bitter aftertaste. There’s something about the coffee ritual that I love, but especially when it’s made this way. I don’t know which part of the equation is the most important, but there was something about this blend, the rakweh, the cup and the method that turned out one of the best cups of coffee I ever tasted. It’s also convinced me that the short, strong hit of coffee like this in the afternoon is better than anything the milky cappucino has to offer. I probably shouldn’t do, but I love ‘accidentally’ eating the coffee grounds too. It feels as wrongly right as eating a bar of chocolate in one go. There’ll be more on this topic as I try the other coffees. Watch this space.
I’m no Luddite. I was an early-adopter of computers and the internet. I earn about 25% of my salary from playing the piano, and 75% from being a pretty expert user of all kinds of software. I use the internet all the time for research, and I’d be lost without my computer and my iPhone. The world is full of incredible opportunities now that were not available to me when I was an undergraduate or at school. That’s wonderful, and I use those opportunities all the time.
But not a week passes when I am not even more blissed out by libraries and what they have to offer. This last few weeks I’ve been doing an ‘Info and Lit’ course at the IoE, and I’ve learned so much from our tutor Nazlin Bhimani in those sessions that I never got from sitting for hours in front of a screen. Through really good guidance and teaching, I’ve learned to make better use of the resources that I’ve already had available to me for years, and all because when you’ve got a real human in front of you, you learn how to use stuff, how to evaluate, what to ignore and avoid.
I’d live in the IOE library if I could, but I equally love my local library in Tooting, not least because it’s only 5 minutes away. I go there when I need to concentrate, somewhere quiet but where other people are working so you feel motivated to do the same. The staff are amazingly helpful – I’ve seen so many instances where they’ll help someone out with using the internet, teaching them how to search, for example, and nothing is too much trouble. The study room has always been packed (but spacious) when I’ve been there. They have lots of new books, a range of newspapers.
My favourite library moment was on Thursday this week. I’d been scrolling through the Musicology Must-reads over at the Taruskin challenge blog, and noticed Thomas Clifton’s Music as Heard, a book advocating a phenomenological approach to musical experience. As this is right up my particular research street, I decided to hunt it out. Could I find a copy anywhere? Not on Amazon, not in the IoE library, and Abe Books were £90+ for the only two remaining copies. So I took my tutor’s advice, and searched the Senate House catalogue. And sure enough, there it was. When you know how hard-to-get a book is, the moment when you hold it in your hands is one of awe and excitement. And it’s a fabulous book.
Ironically, today was the day that I finally got a Kindle to see if would be any use to my parents. It’s not. As with most gadgets, they didn’t think about the elderly or people with poor motor skills. I also thought I might be converted if I actually had one. I’m not. I hate it with a passion, and I hate the way that Amazon are helping people to forget what libraries do, and that you could go to a local charity shop and buy a paperback for 50p, and then give that to someone else.
But worst of all, the Kindle doesn’t supply you with the computer, the power, the wifi, the money, the quiet, the space, the chair, the desk, the teacher, the other like minded readers to sit and enjoy the space with. This is why Sadiq Khan was so right when he wrote this to Edward Lister at Wandsworth Council last year:
Popularity and utility cannot only be measured by the number of books issued in any given year – there is a wider social benefit to a community that comes from the local provision of good IT facilities, or a quiet place for children to do homework. (Sadiq Khan)
If you don’t believe that, go to your local library and have a look. Long live libraries.
The last 5 days of the no-supermarket challenge were scuppered by spending them in Prague where at least for the first couple of days, I defaulted to Tesco because I knew where it was and what it did.
As the days have gone past, I have discovered where the small shops are – there are refreshingly large numbers of minimarkets, even in central Prague, though I suspect it will not long before they too will be replaced or outdone by Tesco Express stores as in the UK.
For the 25 days while I was in London, however, I accomplished my no-supermarket challenge without a hitch, and it was one of the most satisfying and creatively stimulating things I’ve done in a long time. I learned a lot along the way, including:
- Forcing one small change in any area of your life seems to have a knock-on effect in your thinking in other areas.
- A small creative challenge is as good as, if not better, than a big one, because it’s do-able.
- Shopping at supermarkets is fundamentally a depressing and numbing experience that stifles original, creative thought about the miniature challenges of everyday life.
- The mind of the supermarket becomes implanted in your brain. Taking yourself out of them for a while is a liberating experience, and opens your eyes to other opportunities.
- Genuine, friendly interactions with people in local shops make every day that much more pleasant. Scripted, enforced interactions with supermarket cashiers are a source of stress.
Several people have asked me whether I will continue to avoid supermarkets once the challenge is over. The answer is a resounding yes, not because I want to live in a permanent state of protest against them, but simply because living without them has been a joyful experience that has added many positive things to my daily life, and removed many negative ones.
I finally threw away the džezva that I bought in a department store in Belgrade in 1979 last year. My recent discovery of Lebanese coffee at Daily Fresh in Tooting means I need another one, though it should really be a rakweh. The Greek friend I’m staying with tells me it’s a called briki in Greek. I bought this one at Kotva in Prague, where it’s also called a džezva. This is making me slightly sentimental for the subject of my first (unfinished) PhD which was lexical variation in the cooking vocabulary of Serbo-Croat. Really.
Much as I feared, I had to abandon the challenge today as the prospect of quickly finding a suitable independent food retailer in central Prague was as likely as finding a greengrocer in Oxford Circus. There is one big fat supermarket in Prague, and it’s Tesco. I’m intriqued to know why by last year they had completely rebranded it in natural green and orange and with the name ‘My národní‘ with the Tesco logo and colours almost invisible in a tiny patch on the front of the 6-storey building.
One of my favourite shops in Prague is the household department of Kotva. The only thing that even nearly approaches this is the basement of Peter Jones, but this is several leagues better than that. This is a shop where you can buy several sizes and brands of implements and devices whose function you can only guess at. This is a shop where you can get something that will slice a cucumber into one continuous spiral, or a bag of metal lids that can be clamped onto storage jars with the right jar-clamper, or a curved tube that turns a bottle of water into a jug, or a plastic screw-top onion that can be used to store unused bits of onion in the fridge (left).
I couldn’t quite place why I love this shop so much, and why it feels so different to similar shops in England, until I realised that it’s because it’s full of things that help you to do things yourself, rather than convenience and the pre-packaged.
It doesn’t matter how much you push the idea of healthy eating, low-fat options, fresh ingredients, 5-a-day fruit and vegetables and a well-balanced diet, if in the end you offer pizza and ice-cream half price on a sign this big before you get into the shop, then that says a lot about your values and what you are actually promoting.
You could argue that they’re just doing good deals on what ‘people’ want. But in fact, without supermarkets, ‘people’ wouldn’t think “I know, I’ll have a pizza’ every time they thought about food. If you’re looking for a reason that there’s an obesity epidemic, this may be a good place to start.
In the spirit of my non-wasteful ambitions of recent posts, i just had to finish up some butter and a couple of lemons, so I made some lemon shortbread biscuits, and used up the end of a bag of ground almonds as well as semolina that the recipe called for. It took minutes, and though I say it myself, they were delicious. They also made four people that bit happier today.
That wasn’t quite it though. I also had a lime, two lemons and a pot of double cream about to expire. I quickly whipped up a lemon ice cream, adding the end of a bottle of rosé instead of the water in the recipe.
That’s it – absolutely nothing wasted this week, and a bunch of delights in the process.
One unmistakeable effect of this no-supermarket challenge is that I simply don’t waste food anymore. Yesterday was the last chance to use up a lot of things I had left from the beginning of the week – onions, peppers, carrots, half a kohlrabi, mild green chilis, some quark. I made a big mixed vegetable curry out of all of it, using the quark to thicken it (something I’d never thought of doing before, but it works like a dream).
I probably wouldn’t have done that before. I would have looked at it and wondered what to do with it, because it doesn’t fit into the food-framing that Sainsburys does for you: it must involve meat, particularly chicken breasts, and vegetables are an accompaniment, not a feature (at Tooting, for example, meat is near the front door, vegetables are at the back). What’s more, there must always be a luxury ingredient, and you shouldn’t have to work too hard.
Now, I’m not saying any of this is necessarily explicit or Sainsbury’s fault, but it’s what walking round Sainsbury’s does to me. After 3 weeks of not going there, I feel like I’ve got my life back. I’m also aware that sometimes I’d just go to a supermarket and get more stuff that was easy to make into a meal, rather than work out what to do with what I’d got. There’s something insidious about the way that celebrity chefs, magazines, food journalism and food retail all work together to create a kind of a food-porn that reconstructs what cooking and eating means for us and sells it back to us as if it was what we wanted all along. It takes effort and definitive action to step outside it and think for yourself.
I’d never tried harissa before a few months ago, and only really heard of it about a year ago. I made a special trip to Waitrose once to get a jar so I could try it, since I’d given up finding it anywhere else. I tried it, I liked it. It’s one of those magic ingredients that you don’t need much of to lift even the dullest food out of its torpor.
Since avoiding supermarkets for the last 22 days, I’ve discovered that in fact my local shop, Daily Fresh, has loads of harissa, and not at yuppie prices. What’s more, it has the the wonderful brand name of Le Phare du Cap Bon. Who could resist?