Saturday, 14 February 2009

S is for Saturday, shopping and stock

It’s a rather sybaritic day, in other words.

As I plod into middle age, it becomes increasingly clear that food is truly one of life’s great pleasures.

Thus my Saturday, as so often, started with a mug of coffee, a few cookery books and paper for the compiling of lists. There are two lists – menus for three days and then the shopping list itself.

It is said that real foodies descend on the market sans such lists: they are prepared for whatever treasures they might unearth, and able instantly to know what they’ll conjure with their finds.

I am nowhere near that experienced or confident: it’s a racing certainty that, if I tried it, I’d forget something important. Like the wine or the crème fraîche – you know. So I sit up in bed with a coffee, browsing my books and making my lists.

For almost five years now, our little corner of Hackney has entertained a farmers’ market. It’s a haven for those who don’t share the rather widespread British belief that the belly is best served by taking a trolley around a supermarket and filling it with a week’s worth of ready-made meals, selections of crisps in perverse ‘favours’ such as Cajun squirrel and builder’s breakfast, and bottles of lemonade that have never been within a million miles of a lemon.

Until the farmer’s market arrived, helping to breathe new life into a street that had been three-quarters derelict for decades, I too had to endure the supermarket trip.

Now, I start by delivering my empty egg boxes back to the farmer I bought eggs from seven days earlier. If I have meat I want from him, I order it then and pick it up on the way back.

The next port of call is Vicki, my fishmonger. She has a small stall, full of wet fish, gleaming and bright on a bed of ice. This is a paradise all of its own – and as near as I get to that list-less shopping. The new-old shopping experience of the market means, today, waiting quite a while as, with consummate skill, she fillets eight herring for the customer in front of me.

The British have forgotten herring. We used to eat it by the ton, but now we neglect it. Unfortunately, The Other Half isn’t a big fan, so I take a nice piece of tuna, which will be poached later in a tomato sauce with garlic, chilli and rosemary. A Spurs fan, she has us all, I suspect, categorised by our interest or otherwise in the game. Mr Herring is a West Ham follower: they discuss the possibility of coach Gianfranco Zola being poached by Chelsea (but not quite as nicely as my tuna). When it’s my turn, we consider Manchester City’s chances this afternoon at Portsmouth.

At a stall that sells Dartmoor beef, the farmer tells me in jovial fashion about dealing with the recent snow.

At the French deli, Stephane updates me on how well the move to their new premises is going.

And as always, I exchange pleasantries with Turkish Tony in the general shop.

This is shopping as it should be: a sociable affair; friendly and not rushed. Food is worth taking time for: producers and shopkeepers worth building relationships with.

Back home, once everything has been unpacked and put away, I roughly chop onion, carrot and celery. Celery is one of the miracles of the market – it comes covered in soil, and it smells and tastes, for goodness sake. Smells and tastes, not of water and insipid nothingness, but of celery – real celery. Peppercorns, bay leaves from the tree in the garden, parsley stalks and crushed garlic cloves go into the pot too, before the water is added. I’m in the mood for more risotto in the coming days, and good stock is essential.

And it’s hardly as though making stock is difficult or expensive. This is another joy – knowing how do make these building bricks, and knowing what a difference they make.

Then it’s time to consider lunch: since we’re doing our own thing, I chop more celery, a couple of shallots, some chilli and some more garlic and sauté them gently in olive oil. Re-hydrated couscous is added, together with a few pine kernels and some raisins. Then the whole mix is seasoned and packed into a halved and cored courgette and a yellow pepper to be baked. How easy is this? Tasty, cheap and healthy too.

Some locals complain about the market. They complain about the £3.50 loaves of bread that have taken on an almost mythical status amongst those who have heard, who have never been but who like to carp.

One day, a neighbour was complaining thus to me in my local pub. Every so often, she went outside for a cigarette (over a fiver for 20), between swigs of an almost-£3-a-pint stout. How odd to think that £3.50 for an organic seven-day sour is considered particularly expensive alongside much more ephemeral pleasures.

But that’s what so many Britons seem to think – that food is merely fuel: it should be cheap as chips, should take as little time as possible to prepare and should be consumed in front of the telly, in a house that doesn't even have a dining table.

For myself, I’ll continue to take my time, to appreciate and learn, thank you. It’s the only properly sybaritic approach.


  1. Syb,

    Should things not work out with The Other Half, will you marry me? :)

  2. ~~LOL~~ You can go to the top of the list, Irene.