Tag Archives: 30 days without a supermarket

Supermarkets: will we (or they) ever learn?

Picture of courgettes and price tickets in Sainsburys in 2010.

Misleading? Courgette pricing in Sainsburys in 2010. Have they got any better? Check at your local store!

For those who enjoyed my 30 days without a supermarket challenge, you might be interested in this news in today’s Guardian – UK supermarkets criticised over misleading pricing tactics. Which? have lodged a “super-complaint” about dodgy dealing by supermarkets – including the kind of misleading or confusing pricing that I’ve banged on about in the past about courgettes and digestive biscuits.


How much is a packet of digestives? You do the math…

Picture of value pack of digestives, 2 x 400g

The biscuits on the shelf at Sainsburys in Balham on 29th July 2012

When I was doing my 30-days-without-supermarkets challenge last year, I discovered that there is nothing more slippery and variable than the price of a digestive biscuit.  It’s now even more slippery, to the extent that I completely gave up trying to work out who had the best deal. So back at the lab, here is my analysis of the results:

1. Iceland have a deal where you can buy 400g for the price of 300g (90p). Price per 100g = 22.5p

2. Sainsburys sell 250g of digestives for 89p – price per 100g = 35.6p

3. Sainsburys in Balham advertise a pack of 2 x 500g of digestives for £1.99 –  price on the ticket, 100g = 19.9p p.

However, look closely at the packet, and you’ll find that they’re not 500g packets, they’re 400g, which means that you’re getting 2x400g = 800g for £1.99 which is 100g = 24.8p per 100g.  So you’re better off going to Iceland and buying 400g for the price of 300g, thereby saving 2p. But if you don’t look carefully, you might look at a 250g packet for 89p, thinking that it’s the same thing as the 300g packet that was 90p in Iceland, and therefore 1p cheaper, whereas in fact, you’re getting 50g less. Confused? You bet I am. 250g of digestives often cost 99p, which is 39.6p per 100g – so if you ever did manage to buy 2x500g for £1.99 as Sainsburys advertise, then you could be paying double the price for the same product. Oh and if you buy a packet of 500g online, you can currently get that for 85p, which is better than buying two 400g for £1.99.

Update on 24/1/2013

I think I’ve sussed it now: the real price of Digestives is 99p for 400g. The reason? Because you can get Digestives in Poundland – the 400g variety, for – you guessed it, a pound. If they have to shave off the 100g from their biscuits in order to bring the price to a pound and remain profitable, then I guess 400g for £1 is the bottom line, when it comes to Digestives. And if the 99p store also has them, then the price is 99p per 400g. In short, if you’re buying 400g of Digestives, it matters very little where you buy them, except that Poundland is currently (pro rata) more expensive than Sainsburys (this week at least – last week of January) where it’s £1.70 for a double pack of 400g packets.   It’s only when you buy small packets (250g) that you could be paying through the nose, and again, it doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll pay too much (though M&S local have been some of the most expensive, in my experience).

All Digestive prices trivia welcome in the comments.

How blogging helped me make the best cup of coffee ever


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.

The Maatouk set with rakweh

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A darker shade of chocolate: Green and Black’s and Ben Goldacre


If like me you’re a bit overwhelmed by the ubiquity of Green & Black’s chocolate, you might be interested to see this broadside from its founder Craig Sams against Bad Science good-guy Ben Goldacre. Read about it on Ben’s website here. Green and Black’s was one of the first things to disappear from my shopping basket once I stopped shopping at the big supermarkets (see earlier post). I’m even more pleased about that now I’ve read Mr Sams’  rant.

30 days without supermarkets #28-30: wrapping up


Smoked ham

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.


30 days without supermarkets #27: My new briki


Briki from the household department at Kotva

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.

30 days without supermarkets #26: defeat in Prague and glory of kitchen departments


An onion-storer for the fridge

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.

30 days without supermarkets #25: Selling sugar, salt and fat cheap


Promotion at Sainsburys, Colliers Wood

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.

30 days without supermarkets #24: Lemon shortbread


Lemon shortbread biscuits

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.

30 days without supermarkets #23: How I learned to stop throwing stuff away


Watermelons in Nokta by Tooting Bec

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.