LOCAL PRODUCE? NOT NECESSARILY...


Sure, some local produce is delicious, and there's always the ecological question of food miles. But (for example) I've just plain given up on local asparagus, because not only is it much more expensive than the stuff that's imported from Spain: it's grossly inferior. Woody and lacking in flavour, what you find at the local markets is hardly worth buying at any price, let alone at 50% more than the much better Spanish stuff you can get at Lidl.


Spanish asparagus from Lidl

In all fairness, this is because the French like blanched asparagus, the sort where the stems look like unusually pallid porn stars' penises: they don't really "get" green asparagus, though I once met one asparagus grower who did, and who confided that it was far and away her favourite. And guess what? Hers was the only good French-grown green asparagus I've ever bought. It's a simple enough pleasure, asparagus, boiled and served with melted butter. Why can't the Gauls understand that? Apart, presumably, from the ones that shop at Lidl.

Then again, the French don't really do beef, either. I have heard from a couple of local butcher acquaintances that there are a few butchers in France who hang it long enough to develop some flavour, but they are all a long way away. 

By contrast, local veal is superb, and so are the black chickens provided you avoid the battery variety and go for those that have (literally) scratched a living in the open air. French lamb is good, too, but I just can't afford much of it: a leg of French lamb is about twice the price per kilo of New Zealand lamb, and 50% more than imported Irish or even English lamb. Yes, it's much better than the imported frozen stuff, and a bit better than imported chilled lamb, but that's academic if I can't afford it. For that matter, last Christmas (2016) I bought some Aquitanian caviar. It wasn't as good as the trout eggs I normally buy, either in texture or in flavour. Admittedly, neither it or the trout eggs are a patch on good Russian malossol oscietra; but given that 100g (3.5 ounces) of the latter can easily cost £130 (110€, $150), the Russian stuff should be good. I acquired a taste for it on my first trip to Russia in the dying days of the Soviet Union but in those days it was rather less a fifth of the price it is today. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not bad-mouthing the food you can buy in France. Frances and I eat better for less than would ever be possible in the UK. But a lot of it is imported -- Greek yogurt, German sweet corn, Lithuanian rollmops -- and it's often impossible, at least outside Paris and one or two other cities, to get really top quality food at a reasonable price. Our favourite Spanish hams are maybe 75€ each (£65, $85) at Ezquerra's village shop (they also have a curing-house) in Biota. I have yet to find anything of that quality anywhere in France, even at twice the price.


Spanish ham from Ezquerra's in Biota

That's quite apart from what I call The Great Market Myth: the belief that you can get better food, cheaper, at a weekly market. You can't. You may be able to get some better food, at a better price, if it's in season and if it's grown locally, but this can make for a somewhat monotonous diet. If you live as our daughter does in Brittany, which is pretty much the market garden of France, you're in with a chance; but it's less interesting if the main cash crops are wheat, barley, cattle (meat and dairy), sunflowers, oilseed rape and linseed, as is the case where we live. Besides, the Bretons are pretty cynical about battery chickens and battery pigs. Then again, someone has recently opened a free-range duck farm in the next village -- we eat a lot of duck, so we're hoping this will feed through to the local economy  -- and some friends in our own village have a goat farm making excellent cheeses.

Most of the time, though, what's for sale in the markets on one day a week is identical to what you can buy in the supermarkets six days a week for 10% to 50% less money: the slightly under-ripe tomatoes, the (non-battery) "plein air" eggs, the "Greek-style" black olives (mostly from Morocco), the generic more-or-less local potatoes. You probably won't find the growing basil at all. I just checked the last two pots I bought (1.59€ a pot in Lidl, and "organic" at that) and found that they were grown over 100km away; well over 60 miles.

Which further raises the question of the meaning of "local". Noirmoutier isn't far from where we live. They grow some of the best potatoes in the world there (and certainly among the most expensive). Even the best potatoes in the world are not however going to walk and swim the 200km or so that separates them from me. I hesitate to buy produce flown in from other continents, but I'm not too worried about shipping basil 60 miles (we can't seem to get it to grow in our garden, and it's a long drive to the nearest nursery that grows it), luxury potatoes 120 miles or asparagus 600 miles.

So yes: buy local produce as much as possible. But equally, if that means living in caves (no imported bricks or cement) and eating raw food, no thanks. For that matter, if it means giving up the basil in my pa amb tomaquet, no thanks. You have to strike a balance. Which I try to do. 


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017