When I look at the fish on display at supermarkets, the overwhelming feeling is one of sadness on my part and tiredness on the part of the fish. Granted that most of the fish is thawing after an unknown period in the freezer, and that which is nominally fresh has been vacuum-wrapped to within an inch of its life, but mostly it all looks lifeless and unappetising. Consequently, I don’t tend to buy fish from supermarkets.
The meat isn’t much better, but seems infused with an artificial colour, possibly the after-effects of vacuum packing but I also realise that the way supermarkets sell meat is to encourage breeders to develop the leanest cuts possible from their animals. Superficially, it looks more attractive but the reality is that by growing your meat as rapidly as possible and with as little fat, it will never develop the true flavour of real meat matured slowly. The fact is that a good marbling of fat offers flavour and natural basting of the meat, for which no amount of basting can compensate. Ironically, nowhere is the flavour divide between divine and awful more true than with chickens, which in the supermarket guise have an alarming tendency to taste of precisely nothing.
Living in rural Essex, there are plenty of alternatives to be tried. It’s not difficult to find them and you don’t need to go far either – just open your eyes and look, or alternatively Google!
There is a nice fishmonger in nearby Kelvedon who will not only sell you a wide variety of very fresh fish direct from the markets and prepare it to your instructions, though the best fish is always at the coast and straight off the boats. Nowhere is this more so than Mersea island, a 20-minute drive by the backroads from my place. As I’ve written before, The Company Shed is the perfect location for perfect seafood, and when it’s there, available at source, why would you choose to buy from a supermarket and pay more for the privilege?
As for meat, I’ve found lots of farms hereabouts specialising in different meats. The quality is invariably excellent, and fully justifies the cost. Just to quote a few: Wicks Manor sells sublime pork and bacon products; Barrons Farm sold me a first class slow-grown bronze turkey, one Christmas; Layer Marney Lamb does exactly what it says on the tin – prime quality meat, including good old-fashioned mutton (when did you last see that at Tesco or Asda?) Not only that, but some friends buy meat direct from the abattoir, which again is one way to get quality product at far less than retail prices, providing you are happy to do some of your own butchery.
And talking of butchers, there are lots of great butchers in local villages and towns, all of which provide a full service to their customers. This might include butchery of meat to order, obtaining special items that are difficult to obtain, making their own high-quality sausages, pies and many more meat-based products. My local butcher has a range of ready-prepared specialties not sold in supermarkets, and will happily tell you how to cook them, if you need telling!
Many, like Buntings in Maldon, are licensed to supply game, and have never disappointed in that respect. My own local butcher, Millins of Tiptree, and Holts of Witham provide excellent meat and far more too – a butcher/deli/greengrocer/grocer, purveyor of many delights. Almost like a small-scale old-fashioned high street general store before supermarkets took over. Small specialist butchers are more expensive, on average, but then the quality of meat is noticeably better – matured longer, fresher, hung longer, prepared according to your needs. Maybe you wouldn’t use them every day but good use of your butcher will actually mean less waste and far greater satisfaction with your cooking.
More to the point, your butcher or fishmonger will suggest things to try – and let’s face it, people are devoid of ideas. We no longer plan our menus as we had to in wartime years, for example. We have become so lazy about shopping, cooking and eating, in spite of the TV chefs encouraging us to love fine fresh raw materials and cooking them for our families. While the convenience food aficionados would tell you it’s because their lives are so hectic they don’t have time to cook, but that’s not true. It doesn’t necessarily take long to cook good food, particularly if you have the nous to research ideas in recipe books or online, to ask your local suppliers and just to try things out. Learning by experience is the best way to find wonderful dishes. Just try it!
The problem at root is that we have lost our love of eating and prefer instead to refuel. The French live to eat, way too many of we Brits apparently eat to live. That must change!