Tag Archives: Shopping

30 days without supermarkets #19: pleasures of the haphazard


Home-made muesli bars

Cereal bars are  one of the things I used to buy regularly from supermarkets. It’s only laziness that stopped me from making my own. They don’t take much time at all, and are probably much cheaper and more nutritious. Best of all, they taste different every time you make them.

I don’t really have a recipe, just principles of how to throw them together. Muesli bars are a great way to use up stuff that’s been languishing in the kitchen, because they use up bits of everything. This batch started with the fact that I had a bowl of soaked prunes that I’d lost interest in.

Muesli bars

This isn’t a recipe, so much as an account of what I managed to use up. The things that muesli bars absolutely have to have is some fruit juice and/or pulp (to avoid using too much fat) , some fat (but not too much) something naturally sweet  (to avoid using sugar), muesli, and – for my taste – nuts, to give them crunch and protein. Beyond that, you can use pretty much anything you’ve got left, the details don’t matter. Amounts depend on the size of your tin. As long as the mixture binds together well, you can take a guess at the ratio of liquid to dry stuff.

  • Juice and grated zest of an old orange
  • 1 whole grated apple – to save it from being wasted
  • 1 tablespoon treacle – the end of a tin
  • About 1/4 cup of sunflower oil
  • Bowl of prunes that had been soaked in water
  • Chopped mixed nuts – cheap in Holland & Barratt, need using up
  • Chopped walnuts – don’t know how old they are, time to get rid of them
  • Sultanas – because they need using up
  • A bit of mixed fruit soaked in cherry brandy that I found in the freezer
  • A tablespoon of semolina (don’t ask me why, it was just a passing thought)
  • Holland & Barratt muesli base. Not sure how much  – it depends on the size of the tin.
  • Heaped teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon of grated nutmeg

Mix it all up, so that it’s a moderately stiff mixture, though not dry. Spread the mixture flat in a shallow oblong  baking tin lined with non-stick baking parchment and cook at around 160 (fan) for about maybe 20-30 minutes, depending on what’s in the mixture. Keep an eye on them, and rescue them before they burn. Cut them into slices immediately, and try to lift them onto a wire rack early, so that they dry out rather than sweat on the paper. They’ll be softer than the average cereal bar, so don’t try and cook them til the’re crisp – they won’t ever be.

These turned out as some of the nicest I’ve made, and I put that down to the dark, sweet flavours of the treacle and prunes, and the old alcohol in the fruit. Who knows. That’s  the fun of real cooking, the iterative process of trying stuff out until you find things that work, the variability of ingredients, the additions and subtractions, the forces of circumstance that subtly change the chemistry of what you’re making. This is precisely what you don’t get with all that stuff that you buy by the box in supermarkets.

30 days without supermarkets #18: do you really need all that stuff?


Today I had to go to a supermarket because I was shopping for someone else.  In only 17 days, I’ve got completely out of the habit of thinking like a supermarket junkie. I used to be quite excited at the idea of going to an enormous Sainsburys like the one in Balham – you could buy anything and as much of anything as you like! But after a couple of weeks away from them, supermarket shelves begin to look ridiculous to me. It’s as if a child had vomited her idea of what heaven would look like into an aircraft hangar.

If you had to go to an off-licence every time you wanted a bottle of wine rather than picking one up as you pass the bread aisle, would you drink so much? If you could only buy sweets in a sweet shop, would you buy chocolate everytime you went to the shops? Who needs so many biscuits? When did Kit-Kats diversify into so many combinations of size, flavour and shape? And – to return to one of the earliest themes – who needs bottled water?

30 days without supermarkets #17: How the middle class destroyed the high street


I have nothing to report, particularly, on the progress of my challenge, because frankly, it’s all going fine and far from ‘suffering’ from a loss of supermarkets, I’ve benefited in more ways than I could have imagined. It has made me particularly impatient with a certain breed of shopper, though.

Two months ago, almost to the day, This is Money published a story about how the middle classes were flocking to Poundland to buy, amongst other things, DVDs of Hamlet. The Daily Mail seem to be a bit slow in the uptake, publishing almost the same story on Friday two days ago, albeit with revised figures.  Nobody could accuse them of hacking a phone for that story.

Take a look at these people – most of whom have no need to shop in Poundland. These will be the same people who will lament the loss of local community, probably voted for the ‘big society’, and will lament the way the high street has suffered at the hands of the supermarket. Yet they will do nothing to support local shopkeepers.  It’s true you can get great ‘bargains’, you have to ask yourself whether you actually wanted any of them before you went in. As the author of the This is Money article says, you save money, but you also buy a ton of stuff you never needed. More to the point, Mr Kiplings Bakewells might be cheaper in Poundland, but imagine if you just didn’t buy them at all? How cheap would that be!

Oh and the birds in my garden can’t stand the fat balls from Poundland. They leave them completely untouched, whereas the ones from the pet shop in Tooting Market disappear in days.  Just saying.

30 days without supermarkets #16: Less is definitely more


Living without supermarkets is the  kind of challenge that’s  easier when you’re leading a fairly predictable life at home, less so when you’re on the road.  That’s not entirely true: what’s difficult is to get out of the habit of being unprepared because you know some supermarket or coffee shop chain will be just waiting to help you out at stations, service stations and garages. I was determined not to drop the good habits on a couple of long away-day trips to Birmingham, in a studio where there’s no food unless you bring it with you.

I’m glad I didn’t, because along the way I discovered a kind of instant coronation chicken sandwich filling that’s a keeper, and is a great use for the green tomato chutney I made last year, and the last of the tandoori chicken I made. Chop up the  chicken at a spoonful of  low-fat mayonnaise and a spoonful of chutney. Mix it up, put in a large wholemeal pitta bread and take to work. I also added a box of crudités made from carrots, kohlrabi & red pepper.

Not only has this saved me a lot of money that I would have spent in M&S, it’s also stretched out the food that I’ve bought in my local Tooting shops virtually to the end of the week. It’s also a lot more filling than an M&S sandwich.

30 days without supermarkets #15: A fridge full of food, a pocket full of money


I can’t quite remember when, but at my local shop, Daily Fresh, I bought four large chicken legs for £2.65, and a kilo of lamb mince for under a fiver, without much idea of what I’d do with them. We’ve had 3 days worth of kheema matar and tandoori chicken (thanks to my favourite Indian recipe book, left). I couldn’t be bothered to spend much time with the remainder of the mince, so I made wonderful meatballs that had yoghurt & mint in, from the same book. Sainsbury’s tends to drive you into thinking a meal at a time, rather than having a continuous supply of things that you might eat together, separately, for lunch, dinner, or hell why not, breakfast.

And while I seem to be talking about nothing except food, I’ve in fact lost 51lb in the last two weeks, as a result, I think, of eating less of more interesting food. It’s a strange equation, and I don’t pretend to understand how it works.

30 days without supermarkets #14: The power of old bananas


Banana muffins

This isn’t a direct result of not shopping at a supermarket, but it’s the kind of thing that happens more when you’re not living in a Tesco-induced stupour.

I rescued three bananas on their last legs on Sunday night, and while my coffee was brewing on Monday morning, turned them into banana muffins, thus using up not only the bananas, but a few other things that might have languished in the cupboard or fridge. Now I can’t use 12 muffins, so I kept two, and took the rest to work to hand out.  Why not.

I can’t really explain why shopping locally should have made me much more aware of waste, but it has. I think it has a lot to do with being able to buy what you need, and not allowing yourself the luxury of nipping out at any time of night to the supermarket. It’s not a luxury. You pay for laziness in a kitchen.


30 days without supermarkets #13: What £5.50 can buy you


7 carrots, ginger, 1 kohlrabi, 4 oranges, 4 apples, 2 aubergines, 5 onions, 1 cucumber: £5.50

Although the bag of fruit and vegetables I got from Daily Fresh at £5.50 round the corner was cheaper by far than it would have been in Sainsbury’s it’s not the price that’s the point. It’s the fact that you buy what you want.  I worked out a long time ago that the aim of a supermarket is to get you to spend a number on an item, not buy an amount of something. It’s £1, £2, or £5, and somehow they’ll get you to spend it. Apples? Don’t buy what you want, buy a £2 bag. Onions? Buy a bag. Carrots? Have a cheap bag for a £1. Oranges? £2 for a bag. New potatoes? Buy a bag for £1.99. You end up either throwing them away, eating more than you want, or having to use them up because you’ve got more than enough. Although you don’t have to buy bags of most stuff at Sainsbury’s, it only takes one or two to hike the price up beyond what you would pay if you selected the amounts yourself. And there’s the catch, and that’s yet another reason why I’m loving the challenge.


30 days without supermarkets #12: Lemons and notebooks



The advantage of cycling round London, even if it's raining, is that you can stop and take photos like this.

The best book I have read in a long, long time is John Kay’s Obliquity . The idea – that ‘complex goals are best achieved obliquely‘ – is both the story of my life and one of my touchstones for the future.  I haven’t much to report on food today, because I’ve had no reason to panic buy at a supermarket.  But this rather odd challenge has helped solve a number of other more complex problems.

I’ve had nearly 6 weeks of writer’s block. Only if you’ve had it can you know what it feels like. I sit down at a computer, and words float around in my head like fridge-magnet poetry on a continent-sized fridge. It’s as if I’d never learned to string two words together, or even worse, as if I just learned the skill of unjoining them.  I’m not talking about blogging, but about stuff that you have to write. It’s a similar feeling as I have had many times at 9.00 o’clock at night in a supermarket, when you know you need something to eat, but you don’t know how to piece it together from what’s available in the shop, or even what you want.

Something about my no-supermarket challenge made me think that if I’ve sat for 6 weeks at a computer and written nothing, then maybe sitting at a computer was the wrong approach. So  before the familiar dread of the blank page could set in,  I cycled up to the Southbank with a notebook & pen to the wonderful BFI café a couple of hours before my lunchtime meeting at the opera house, and tried that instead.

It worked, like a dream.   Much as I love computers, there are times when they become like mental supermarkets  – they offer you stuff, but they eventually leave you powerless to think.  If you’re not careful, they become the two-for-one satsumas or the shrink-wrapped courgettes of the mind. Technology is what works: a bike ride, a notebook, a pen, a deep sofa, low lighting, an Americano, a pain au chocolat,  and the Gotan Project.

Lemons? Reading other people’s blogs about their non-supermarket challenges, I came across one where they’d rediscovered old cleaning methods and materials, like using vinegar & bicarbonate of soda. Just for fun, I tried cleaning the sink with the remains of a lemon that I found in the fridge. You want to know what a shiny sink looks like? Try it.


30 days without supermarkets #11: Hello kohlrabi


Kohlrabi: great for cutting into crudités

Although there’s nothing particularly exotic about the kohlrabi – my friend Andrew Williams’ parents used to grow them in the back garden in Bournemouth – I actually have never eaten one until prompted by my 30-day challenge.

I discovered through a Delia Smith recipe that the stalks of broccoli are much more interesting to eat, sliced like matchsticks,  than the florets. Kohlrabi as a brassica is like an enormous round broccoli stalk, but slightly less peppery.

I was starving when I was chopping it up, so I ate a quarter of it raw like crudités. I like it. I put the rest into a vegetable curry, and it was great. It adds body, depth and crunch.  What I’m looking forward to next time is making a kohlrabi-apple-mint coleslaw from this page, though I’ll probably replace the 1/4 cup of cream with something less rich.

After only 11 days, I’m already looking back on my pre-challenge shopping habits, and thinking how dull it all was. I have spent less, shopped less, eaten less, and enjoyed food much more since I started this. It feels like I have some control and imagination back.

I’ve given up listing everything that’s cheaper. Chicken legs, lamb mince, tomatoes, chilli powder, lemons. Oh and what a relief to be able to tell the butcher how much you want, rather than having to decide between packs that are too big or too small.

Life without supermarkets #10: Hello parval



One of the first things that occurred to me when I started this challenge was that it would finally prompt me to take advantage of everything the local shops have to offer, including the vegetables that I have no idea what to do with.

Today it was time to try parval, a very small gourd-type vegetable about 2-3 inches long. I found a recipe for parval curry online. I have a feeling that the parval with potato curry  might be more interesting, but I didn’t have any potatoes.

You have to peel and quarter them, so it’s not quick. I added some creamed coconut because it was a bit bland, but they have a great texture, a cross between marrow and watermelon – crunchy, even when they’re cooked.  And definitely more interesting than those bags of pre-chopped carrot, cauliflower & broccoli that you pay pounds for in supermarkets.

Me, an activist? 

10 days in, and the challenge is beginning to have another unexpected effect on me. It’s been so enjoyable to make a small difference by giving my  money to local shops rather than Sainsburys and to stop being a mindless consumer that when I came across a book called The Everyday Activist I  was hooked.  Step one: donate to the East Africa drought appeal. Step two? Watch this space.