One thing I’m looking forward to when going back the UK is the supermarkets. When it comes to supermarkets, the British are up there with the best of ’em, beaten only perhaps by the Americans who sell heavy weaponry just beside the eggs and milk.
British supermarkets used to be appalling, but sometime in the late 1990s Tesco really got their act together and overhauled their stores. They made them bright and welcoming instead of looking like a Soviet warehouse with a couple of tills at the front. They started offering products which went beyond what is required to make standard British stodge, meaning they introduced a foreign food section, exotic fruits and vegetables, and a range of interesting ready-made meals. Tesco soon became the number one supermarket in the UK, displacing Sainsbury’s who had to up their game to compete. I’m not sure when Waitrose became popular – Pembroke and Manchester were hardly hotbeds of upper middle class housewives with excess cash – but these days they’re about as good as you’ll find anywhere. Even Asda, which was where the chavs went, was pretty good by the time I left the UK in 2003.
When I moved to Dubai I used to shop at Spinney’s, which seemed to have some connection with one of the British supermarkets because their branded products would appear on the shelves. This was about as good as a British ASDA, except their pork products were in separate section including the bacon-flavoured crisps which some imaginative fellow had assumed contained something related to a pig. I remember using a lot of Dolmio ready-made sauces when I lived there as, sick of club sandwiches in the local bars, I gingerly started cooking for myself.
My grocery shopping experience plummeted when I moved to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in 2006. There was what called itself a supermarket next to the first apartment I rented. A quarter of the shelf space was dedicated to alcohol, mostly beer and more brands of vodka than I ever thought could possibly exist. I quickly learned you could drink about four of them safely, while really taking your chances with the rest. They sold eggs in polythene bags, a decision perhaps inspired by the British in the 1980s who for some unfathomable reason thought selling milk in bags was a good idea, leaving them on doorsteps in a nation full of cats. When I looked for meat I found a freezer full of unlabeled dark lumps, butchered with a chainsaw. The first time I went I bought a jar of Heinz spaghetti sauce and some pasta and ate that for two days before I found a better supermarket. In fairness, there were two and they weren’t bad. They were at least clean. The problem was stock. One day you’d have something and the next it would be gone never to return, so if you saw something you liked – HP sauce, for example – you’d buy a year’s supply on the spot. This is why most expat houses on Sakhalin looked as though they were preparing for a nuclear holocaust. I managed to get half-decent mince and chicken if I got there early enough but there were almost no ready-made sauces, so I had to learn to make stuff from scratch. This is probably where I first started cooking properly. Because of the stock problems, I’d often find myself in a version of Ready Steady Cook where I had to make a dinner out of some frozen scallops, an onion, and a lump of rubbery cheese because that’s all they had left. The one thing I never found was proper, fresh milk. I saw some cows on Sakhalin and they looked as though they’d been through the horrors of Auschwitz. Grass grew for about two months between the snow melting and the cold coming back. They did produce milk locally but it was disgusting, sour stuff, so I was on UHT the whole time I was there. The Russians do a good range of concentrated fruit juices though, which becomes less of a surprise when you find out tumblers of juice accompany vodka shots during heavy drinking sessions. To be fair, things improved rapidly over the four years I was there, and just before I left a decent, western-style supermarket opened up near the airport which, this being Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, wasn’t very far away.
The only big supermarket I used in Patong was Carrefour, which got bought out by Big C shortly after I started going there. There was an excellent Tesco in Phuket town but I had no car and it’s not worth risking your life in a Thai taxi in order to eat Shreddies. And the Carrefour/Big C wasn’t bad, but it did smell a bit, I think because of all the meat they had lying out on the counters. Decent orange juice was surprisingly hard to find, as was cheese. I’ve been told Asians find cheese disgusting, which is understandable. You take some milk and you leave it to go bad for a couple of months, then you eat it. And we recoil at them eating cockroaches.
Then I went to Lagos. Nigerian supermarkets are an experience in themselves. It depends which one you go to, but they generally have several things in common. One is that the baskets and trolleys haven’t been cleaned since the Biafran War. Another is the mass of people outside hassling you for money, offering to help you carry your bags the whole twelve feet to the car, or generally up to no good. You have to fight your way out the door of some Nigerian supermarkets like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon. You also have to pay in cash – nobody is daft enough to use a credit card in Nigeria – and supermarkets tend to employ people on the checkout with the attention span of a toddler in a toy shop. You hand over a fat wad of naira and stand there patiently as she giggles with her colleague and has to start the counting all over again, and again. That said, the supermarkets in Lagos had pretty much everything you’d want. Lagos is a big, commercial city and importing stuff wasn’t a problem. I remember the potatoes being bad, which is why I only ate pasta and rice, and again there was no fresh milk so I drank UHT for another three years. But you could get a litre of untaxed Wild Turkey for about $12, which more than made up for it. For meat I used to go to a Lebanese butcher who sold beef from those local, long-horned cattle with the big hump on their backs, and there was nothing wrong with it at all.
The supermarkets in Melbourne were excellent, right up to the point you came to pay and realised you need a scalpel and the assistance of someone who can swiftly remove a kidney. Australia is famous for several things: dangerous animals, thrashings at the hands of the All Blacks, and cosy duopolies in which ordinary people get utterly shafted. A mediocre bottle of wine costs around $20-25 in a supermarket (about 12-15 Euros). This is where the Australians all pile in and say no, if you sign up to a special web service and go online at the right time and buy fifteen crates of the stuff it only costs $19 per bottle and gets delivered in under a month, so f*ck off you whinging pom. In any random corner shop in France I can get a decent bottle of wine for 5-6 Euros. The difference is tax.
And finally we get to France. The French were pioneers in supermarkets back in the 1970s, and that’s where they’ve remained. True, they sell an array of cheese that could keep a mouse convention occupied for months and as I’ve said, their wine is good and cheap. The quality of meat in a French butcher is unparalleled, but even their low-end supermarket stuff is pretty good. And if you want to make something French, you’re in luck. However, the French only eat French food (and occasionally Italian). If you want something foreign other than soy sauce, you need to go to one of the giant supermarkets and even then you might come out empty-handed. But what’s worse is the overall state of the shops. Labour laws in France don’t allow shelves to be stacked at night, so they do it when the shop is open. This means that when you’re shopping you often come across an aisle blocked by a pallet and cardboard boxes strewn everywhere. Sometimes there’s even a member of staff nearby. And the places aren’t clean. Monoprix is about the best of them, but going into Auchun or Intermarche is a bit like going into an airplane toilet. You know you have no choice and you’d rather be using the nice porcelain on offer in the lobby of a Grand Hyatt, so you try your best not to touch anything or think of who else might have been there before you. And you try to avoid stepping in whatever the hell that is on the floor.
French supermarkets also have stock problems. My local Intermarche is huge, yet it regularly runs out of milk for a few days. They used to have a decent fridge full of meat, but they decided to fill it with a job-lot of cheese nobody wants to buy. As in Sakhalin, you get the impression they’re trying to shift whatever they’ve been able to lay their hands on as opposed to what the customer actually wants. The service on the tills isn’t much better, and I reckon the cashiers undergo basic training in Lagos. They seem to be split between haggard old women who look as though they wished they’d married someone else and young men who, were it not for the filthy, wrinkled supermarket waistcoat, you’d assume were about to sell you a stolen car radio rather than scan your fruit juice. The young men seem don’t seem to last long, possibly because their court date arrived curtailing their liberty. The women, on the other hand, are likely to be scowling at customers until the earth is swallowed by the sun. Understaffing (another product of high labour costs) is chronic in French supermarkets, which is why long lines at the counters are common. The look of total uninterest on a supervisor’s face when, loafing at her special desk, she spots a twelve-person queue at the solitary open checkout, is so perfect it must have taken years to master. And nobody knows despair like the desperate souls behind the person in the queue who not only uses chèque déjeuner to partly pay for his items, but whips out a chequebook to pay the remaining balance. In 2019.
So yes, I’m looking forward to once again shopping in the cathedrals which are British supermarkets.