Now that’s what I call sacrilege. Dutch rhubarb on sale in a supermarket less than a mile from where the annual Yorkshire rhubarb festival was in full swing…
This was in Wakefield, a city that’s on the apex of the Yorkshire rhubarb triangle where forced rhubarb creaks and groans its way to the candlelight in special growing sheds.
This stuff – the Yorkshire variety, of course – is a ruby jewel of gourmand unctuousness. The taste, whether used in sweet or savoury dishes, is sublime. As a result it’s much sought after and just like Champagne, now has European protected status.
Which means that poor substitutes like the Dutch sticks on the Sainsbury’s Wakefield shelves is such an insult. For it’s not beyond such a monolithic organisation like that with a massive PR outfit at its disposal to have the wherewithal and intelligence to work with local growers to sell Yorkshire forced rhubarb when its very existence is being celebrated only a few paces up the road.
But this is supermarkets all over isn’t it? They pay lip service to local produce and when they do have it see it as justification for whacking up the price. Which is why local farmers’ markets, farm shops and food festivals are having a field day.
Estimates say there are something like 4,000 farm shops in the UK which is more than the Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda stores combined. They turn over £2.5 billion a year, boost the local economy and reduce transport costs. Plus there’s something infinitely nicer about getting your fresh-pulled mucky carrots from the farmyard down the road instead of bags of them that have scrubbed to within an inch of their lives and been sitting in a distribution warehouse for weeks before they end up in your shopping trolley.
The local food ethos is a real alternative to supermarket Britain, increasingly appreciated by consumers who want newer, fresher experiences, and to feel they are making a contribution to local businesses.
But is there a danger that the bubble might burst? Have we become so fixated with farmers’ markets and food festivals that we’re in danger of turning them into outdoor supermarkets where unscrupulous big brother producers muscle in claiming ‘artisan’ credentials and set up stall to the detriment of the smaller craft producer?
I watched one such outfit that had commandeered a big pitch at a Yorkshire food festival and was busily selling pheasant like it was going out of fashion. This was in September, when pheasant are out of the game season – a good seven months out, to be precise. Which means the pheasant were frozen and presumably had been for more than half a year.
Yet people were snapping them up, perhaps without realising that they weren’t buying in season and probably not local either. But such is the trend for seasonal and local we’ve become saturated by it – yet many of us still don’t have an understanding of what really is in season, because thanks to the supermarkets, we can get so much of our food year round.
But the real danger of bigger producers muscling in on the shop-local trend is to the smaller, real artisan producers who can’t hope to compete against those who elbow their way in to trade on their doorstep.
Add to that farm shops who, for example, buy in Spanish tomatoes – and there are some Yorkshire ones that do just that – or places that claim to have only Yorkshire produce but sell biscuits from Kent, and you can see why the seasonal local approach sometimes gets blurred at the edges, to the detriment of the truly local producers who are working so hard to create something of quality and taste.