Monday, 5 October 2009

A riot for the senses

When I was growing up, one of my favourite parts of the autumn was harvest festival. In terms of low-church Christianity, there's not really a lot of colour and celebration in the course of the year; no equivalent to Catholicism's embracing of Mardi Gras and many similar festivals – chances to let off steam with licence.

But harvest offered a riot of colour; even the hymns seemed more unapologetically joyous. With hindsight, it seems rather obvious that it was so enjoyable. Not just the colour and smells, but the sense of fecundity and sensuality. Indeed, it was really rather more pagan than evangelical Christianity with links to Puritanism.

And autumn seduces in a culinary sense too, with the chance to indulge in the sort of comfort food that, if you're worried about calories, is simply sinful.

Over the weekend, I placed an online order with a supermarket. I do it about every two or three months; stocking up on kitchen paper, loo roll, cat food and other store cupboard essentials. But since I had today to myself at home, it seemed appropriate to give myself a little treat. The first crumpets of the colder months. With plenty of butter to melt into the toasted dough.

Messy food to leave greasy fingers – and a very contented belly.

Almost as soon as all the bags were in the kitchen, Boudicca came sniffing around and instantly decided that I'd been a well-trained servant who had purchased just the right trays of meat for her: she then sat pertly by her meat bowl and waited for a fresh serving. She's also in the mood for comfort eating, it seems.

Bovril was also on the shopping list. A reminder of frozen afternoons beside a football pitch up in the Pennines. Comfort and nostalgia.

Not that autumn is all a million miles from health food. Broadway Market has now been with us in this part of Hackney for around five and half years. Until then, I don't think I'd realised just how many different apples there are in this country: and what I can buy on a Saturday now is only a tiny selection of all the types that are grown in the UK.

It takes time and a sort of mental training, too, to stop grimacing at fruit that isn't 'perfect': "perfect", that is, in the way that supermarkets demand – just so when it comes to shape and colour, with never a mark to be seen. You could be forgiven for not realising that apples do actually grow on trees and do actually fall down at this time of year, with the inevitable consequences.

Coincidentally, last week at the Labour Party conference, I overheard a group of small shopkeepers talking to Ed Milliband, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, about how the major supermarket chains are now opening small 'metro' shops all over the place. By opening small stores, it avoids some of the planning questions that larger stores would attract. And of course, it's impacting on independent – local businesses.

I've heard the argument, time and time again, that supermarkets bring choice that shoppers never previously had.

Well, for some things, yes: if you need two whole aisles of crisps, then they're brilliant. If you want out-of-season asparagus that's been flown from peru or watercress (for goodness sake!) that's been flown from the US, then they're brilliant. But if you want a variety of British apples to choose from, forget it. And I've yet to find a really decent wet fish counter in a supermarket, where they struggle to offer more than the most limited range of what Brits will eat.

I'm not opposed to supermarkets per se – as should be evident from my earlier comments about using them. But I do object to the rampant spread of them, at the expense of small, independent shops, with the boost that this gives to the homogenisation of our streets and towns as well as our diets.

On the subject of 'real food'. a new cookery tome arrived on my doorstep this morning: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Everyday. I like what I've seen of his stuff in the Guardian magazine every Saturday, so took up that publication on a special offer to get the new book. It came signed – the first signed cookery volume on my shelves! But the reason was that it's apparently full of ideas for midweek – and that always stumps me. I want good food – but without hours of labour every evening after work.

I'm looking forward to curling up with a cup of tea (or Bovril) and seeing just what he suggests: that's a comfort occupation for the season.

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