Bread was delivered three days a week, unsliced loaves permitting “doorstep” sandwiches for hungry mouths; a cottage loaf coming as a treat on a Saturday, fresh from the oven its aroma would fill the kitchen. Milk deliveries were daily, two bottles of gold top and two of silver; silver top seems now to be regarded as “full cream,” is gold top milk still available, or is it deemed too detrimental to health? Once a week, a local farmer would call with a box of seasonal vegetables; in wintertime, roots and brassicas, in summer, a selection as colourful as it was fresh. Meat was from a local butcher, a fishmonger toured the village on a Friday.
The diet was plain and unsophisticated. Breakfast was corn flakes or Weetabix, or Rice Krispies. The cooked meal each evening was meat, potatoes and vegetables. The sandwiches at lunchtime were cheese or ham.
With the arrival of supermarket shopping came the possibility of previously unimagined choices; the previous staples seemed dull and boring compared to what was available in the new shops. Food in packets and jars and tins came with slick television advertising and attractive packaging. Cabbage and bacon and boiled potatoes hadn’t the tempting qualities of food that came with labels and catchy names. There was a practical side to covenience foods: working life meant having little time to spare, being able to open something and heat it in a matter of minutes made stuff from packets or tins an easy choice.
Perhaps the people who should have known did know, perhaps it was known that the processed foods that filled the shop shelves would bring health problems, but there seemed few voices suggesting that our shopping habits might not be good for us. But, even if there were no health or environmental issues, the loss of tastes should have persuaded us that the traditional ways were better.
Buttering a slice of bread from a cottage loaf, there was a moment of recall of the baker calling to the door with fresh loaves. Shops now have an abundance of fruit and vegetables and local producers find space on the shelves of independent retailers. We have been spending a significantly smaller proportion of our incomes on food than we did in former times, so it is not that the food from organic and independent suppliers is expensive, it is that we have become accustomed to food that is overly cheap.
If food is about more than sustenance, then the taste of the fresh and the local and the simple is something unmatched.
Ever since I stayed a while in France I knew then just where we on these islands were going wrong.
They saw the shortages of the two wars as a way to become inventive and make new ways, but to exit them relatively rapidly and return to the good basics. Me, I think that goes back to Henry of Navarre had his chicken in every pot idea. But how they differ from us is in things like bread. They might make a bread out of Lupin flour but they would never stretch wheat with it. And certainly wouldn’t hide it.
We remain in that space with food companies that existed in the 1940s. And they are being facilitated by the universities and food safety agencies.
We seem to have entered a world of blandness.