Shopping in supermarkets is not all what it seems…
An abundance of orange varieties lumped together as ‘easy peelers’; an exotic array of potatoes that you can’t buy loose; all manner of chickens, but not a giblet to be seen… Our in-store options are not what they seem, says Felicity Cloake
Read on to find out why choice when you shop is just an illusion.
Is it just me, or are easy peelers taking over the world? Where once the shelves were full of clementines and tangerines, satsumas and minneolas, now my local supermarket displays no fewer than six permutations, including organic and miniature, of a variety hitherto unknown to me: the boring and uniquely unappetising sounding ‘easy peeler’.
Until fairly recently, easy peeler was a trade term for the whole mandarin family. Now, I suspect, it’s adopted more widely to allow supermarkets to choose whatever variety is cheapest at the time, without changing the packaging. That would be fine if it was equally easy to know what variety was inside; I happen to like the tartness of a tangerine and I don’t want to find myself with a bag of puffy, bland satsumas instead. I have fingernails and I’m prepared to use them.
A similar trick is at play over in the veg aisle, where they offer potatoes in 16 distinct forms, only three of which are loose. Woe betide the lone shopper who goes in for a couple of wonderful maris pipers, as they only come in 2kg bags. We’re told that we live in an era of unprecedented choice (and it’s true: even my Irish granny would have been amazed at this cornucopia of spuds) but we rarely hear the flipside: those choices are carefully controlled and restricted by retailers themselves to boost their bottom line.
And while I’m happy for businesses to make a profit, I’m sad when that means it’s almost impossible for most of us to buy a chicken with giblets because it shortens the shelf life, fish offcuts for making soup or, increasingly, dried beans and lentils rather than more expensive cooked, vacuum-packed ones.
What makes it even more frustrating is that these disappearing foods are often the unglamorous items that are so useful on a budget: lamb neck, skirt steak, and fruit and veg sold loose so you can buy only as much as you need.
While extortionate bagged salads proliferate, it’s often hard to find a soft lettuce, even in summer; shiny pink lady apples are sold in plastic all year round, but blink and you’ll miss the ugly-delicious British russet, even at the peak of its autumn season; and I’m beginning to wonder if unstrained yogurt still exists now we’ve all gone Greek (or Icelandic).
It’s not like you can just take your money elsewhere. In central London, I’m lucky enough to have a great butcher, greengrocer and fishmonger, but that’s a privilege rarer than a ripe plum tomato these days. Maybe I have unfashionable tastes – but giblets disappeared, the supermarkets say, because customers no longer knew what to do with this package of unfamiliar meat.
It’s a salutary warning: first they came for the offal, next they’ll be after your wings and drumsticks, claiming no one wants to bother with bones when skinless breast fillets are so much easier to eat. So put the oven on, my friends, and grab your peri peri sauce: the revolution starts tonight.