Aubergines. Let me make that quite clear before anyone assumes anything else… this is a food blog, after all.
Once upon a time It was almost impossible to get aubergines around here; if I wanted to make ratatouille ten years ago I either had to grow my own or take a chance that a stray aubergine had escaped from captivity and sneaked onto the shelves at the local Co-op. There was no guarantee they’d be there – they were missing more often than not – and there was no guarantee they’d be in a decent condition if they were present. Ratatouille became an improvised treat, one organised on the hoof if aubergines were in stock, as did baba ganoush and any of a whole variety of smoked aubergine dips. When I saw them, I grabbed them.
The whole situation was summed up in a conversation my brother had when he was on a similar quest several years earlier. He had returned with his family to the North Yorkshire coast, had gone into one of the two local greengrocers (both – incidentally – very good, if what you wanted was ‘normal’ – quote). He looked around, didn’t see what he wanted:
Bro: ‘Have you got any aubergines?’
Girl behind till: ??? [Pause] ‘Do-REEN! Have we got any aubergines?’
Woman sticks head out of door at back. ‘Aubergines?’
Bro and GBT: ‘Yes.’
Doreen: ‘Are them them purple things?’
Doreen: [Pause 2] ‘We had two of them but they went off.’
Today, by contrast, I wanted to make a ratatouille. The courgettes have gone a bit mad, possibly a swan song as they’ve also gone rather yellow, and I have to make lunch for a visiting friend. I had in mind a rather delicious ratatouille quiche, but I’d no ratatouille left in the freezer (it freezes so very well that some always ends up in there). So I took myself off to the Co-op, nice and early before all the holidaymakers filled up the car park, and bought my aubergine along with the rest of the shopping. And it’s a beauty, rotund and gleaming, in perfect condition. I also had my choice of peppers – unremarkable if you live in many places, but they were once also difficult to find in useable condition.
How very much things have changed in eleven years.
Then we had one branch of the Co-op, somewhat unreconstructed and five miles away, and another, even worse, ten miles in the other direction; they were my closest supermarkets. There was and still is a Spar in the village; there’s a great butcher but you wouldn’t want to rely on it for anything else. If I was in one of the towns – Bangor, perhaps, 30-odd miles away – or on a longer trip to, say, the bright lights of Llandudno, I would take a cool bag and make sure I popped into a bigger supermarket. I didn’t regard doing this as letting the side down because the Co-op let me down often enough, running out of exotica like bread and milk by 10 a.m.
Now? Well, while there isn’t the same selection that you’d get in a less remote area, things have improved vastly. And I do mean improved, despite the fact that one of the changes was the arrival of Tesco. It’s not an enormous branch, and I have had several arguments about its selection of goods (some used to appear during the summer season and then vanish – when I asked why once I was told ‘oh, the locals won’t buy things like that’; grr – I am ****** local and call me fussy but I actually wanted crème fraiche) it is a Tesco. To my delight this was shortly followed by both Lidl and Aldi and, even more to my delight, their presence seems to have revived, rather than killed, the local town. There’s even less of the holiday-season availability nonsense in Tesco, no doubt because when they come out with that sort of excuse you can pop round the corner and buy whatever outrageous thing you require in Aldi or Lidl. Yes, the Co-op closed soon after the trio arrived but it was often like being in a holiday airport in winter – empty and echoing, with a few people wandering about muttering to themselves. Probably about the fact that they were unable to buy bread.
Even better, it’s not just supermarkets. There were one or two local producers of particular things: Halen Mon, with their gorgeous sea salt; some cheesemakers and meat producers. Now there are many more. For instance, there are two excellent sources for local honey, several suppliers of delicious organic eggs, there’s a great chocolatier and even a mushroom farm, and obtaining mutton, great dry-cured bacon and a wonderful range of sausages is easy at one of the two local farmers’ markets. Yes, I still have a list for when I have to be in Bangor (Waitrose have opened a small but perfectly formed branch in Menai Bridge, plus the big Tesco there has many specialist ingredients I might need when editing and recipe testing), but now my list is full of the weird and wonderful rather than the basics. ‘Normal’ has been redefined, and not just in greengrocers.