Food for thought

One year as a greengrocer…

… has resulted in me spending a lot more time thinking about food than I used to do. I’m surrounded by it all day, every day so I guess it’s only natural for it to be on my mind so much.

hmm...

It has been just over a year now since I decided to make a huge career and lifestyle change. Before I took the plunge and decided to swap the sedentary comfort of an office based role for the physical demands of life as a greengrocer (banana boxes and sacks of spuds are heavy and awkward to shift), I’d had an inkling that I wanted to work with food in some capacity instead of continuing down the scientific career path. The only thing was that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do or how to go about getting there. After all, I had spent the best part of a decade working in science from undergraduate through to post doctoral level and the thought of making such a drastic change was scary.

According to Facebook memories, a couple of years ago I did one of those silly quizzes that tells what career you should have had and it said chef. I’ve never wanted to work in a professional kitchen, just seeing it from the perspective of a waitress in various different places when I was younger was enough to put me off. I toyed with the idea of ‘going pro’ with my blog as I know many people who have successfully managed to turn this into a career, but it just didn’t feel right for me.

Initially when my parents offered me the chance to come and work with them I thought it would probably be a temporary thing while I figured out what I wanted to do. However it turns out that selling fresh food and talking with people about it is what I really enjoy.  I’ve found that our regular customers enjoy talking about food and new recipe ideas just as much as I do. I’ve picked up some tips from them and have shared some of my own. As the business also supplies a number of local pubs, restaurants and cafes I get to chat with the chefs and find out what they’re cooking and make suggestions when new season ingredients first arrive.

Being able to talk confidently and reasonably knowledgeably (there’s still plenty I don’t know yet) about food has ended up being quite an important part of my job because we sell ingredients that aren’t commonly found in the supermarkets such as mooli (aka daikon radish), kohlrabi, okra, globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, black garlic, salsify, golden beetroot, tamarind pods, seasonal fruits such as quince, greengages, honey pomelo.  With the exception of globe artichokes and okra, I think I’ve now tried cooking every different type of vegetable we sell which helps when I get asked questions on what to do with things.

Over the past year I’ve found that my attitude to food and food shopping has changed quite a lot. Previously I bought everything in a large supermarket simply because it was the most convenient option, Tesco was the closest shop to our flat and without a car, walking distance is a key consideration when it comes to lugging shopping home. Now I divide my spending between the greengrocers (where I work), the butchers (30 second walk from work), the bakers (directly opposite work) and occasionally a supermarket (a choice of Waitrose, Morrison’s, Co-Op and Lidl ). This is  just because it’s now more convenient for me to do so. I have to go out of my way to get to a supermarket, admittedly the furthest I have to walk is about 15 minutes, but when I can get nearly everything I want in 3 small shops next to each it seems daft to go further than I need to. I know that this level of choice in a small town is unusual and I count myself very lucky that I am able to take advantage of a range of different shopping options. In addition to the shops that I use most frequently, there are also 2 more butchers, another bakery and greengrocers, a deli and a handful of independent health food shops and a couple of farm shops just a few miles away. I’ve managed to move to a foodie paradise which is probably why food is always on my mind.

More recently I’ve given myself even more reasons to think about food as I’ve started working my way through an expanding pile of books about food. This started with reading “First Bite” by Bea Wilson early this year followed by “Consider The Fork”, both excellent books about attitudes to eating and how our preferences develop and the history of cooking. At the weekend I finished reading “Bad Food Britain” by Joanna Blythman, a book that is still remarkably relevant 10 years after publication, and I’ve got a couple of chapters left of “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food” by Dan Barber. Next on my list to read are “The Omnivores Dilemma” by Michael Pollan and “Eating For England” by Nigel Slater. I’ve got a number of half formed ideas and thoughts about food floating around my head that I want to challenge by reading widely. Once I’ve read all my books, I’m planning on digging through the reference lists and reading even further (and probably buying more books). You can take the researcher out of academia but you can’t take away the desire to gain more knowledge. When I’ve processed the things that I’ve read so far, I want to share some of my thoughts on the topics raised by the writers listed above in their books. There are two things that I know I definitely want to write about, those are seasonality, local vs imported and the cost of fresh food, the latter prompted by the BBC show “Eat Well For Less” that I often watch in disbelief at how much food ends up being thrown away.

I’m interested to know if you think eating seasonally is important and whether you choose local (or at least UK grown) produce over imported fruit and veg? Do you get much choice where you shop for food or is the only option a supermarket? I know that independent shops such as the one I work in are something of a rarity, during the summer tourists often commented how they wish their town still had a greengrocers.

 

  • Janice
    September 20, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    Great post Jen. I’m glad you’ve found your niche in the food world. I am one of those convenience supermarket shoppers, having it delivered when you work f-t means no supermarket at the weekend! I try to eat seasonally and like you, am appalled by people’s shopping and eating beliefs and habits as seen on Eat Well for Less. It’s easy to forget that not everyone has the knowledge to cook and eat well and so much more cheaply. Look forward to reading your thoughts Dr Price