What’s the best way to shop fresh?

When wandering the aisles of our supermarkets, I’m struck by how often we are urged to buy locally. While there are the obvious market benefits to this, how important is it to the quality of our dishes?

The answer is – its nothing to do with quality. In my years as a chef I have always been a champion of using local suppliers, farmers, growers and producers wherever possible. It supports local businesses and seasonality should never be an issue – however it can be restrictive thanks to our delightful British climate!

What if we really want some ripe strawberries with our granola at breakfast time but we’ve not had a great season? Or a juicy tomato salad packed with flavour? Is using ingredients from outside our local area really such a treacherous thing? I say, seasonality and growing conditions should be the top priorities. I would never allow the pressure to use home grown produce to take from the quality of my dishes. And if you can do that and stay local, all the better – you just need to know what is best to buy at the time!

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Tomatoes should be deep red, plump and slightly giving when squeezed.

The smell of ripe strawberries should hit you from 6 feet away.

Don’t expect the strawberries in autumn/winter to be sweet and plump  – instead make the most of the fantastic English apples and pears.

Carrots are only at their best up until the end of September so after this why not try some celeriac instead?

Lettuce and cabbages should be vivid green and look like they have just been picked.

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In supermarkets we are bombarded with union jack flags displaying proudly that we should ‘buy British!’ –  urging us with a sense of national pride to fill our baskets with uniform shaped vegetables carefully selected for their picture perfect image. In contrast, when you visit a supermarket on the continent (especially around the Mediterranean) we are presented with a vast selection of fruit and vegetables of all ranges of shapes sizes. Selected not for their uniform look and weight but for their taste. The quality of these basic ingredients is what makes the difference between a mediocre dish and a phenomenal one! It really is as simple as that.

What doesn’t help is that as modern Britons we’ve also fallen in to a habit of doing one ‘big shop’ when we get the majority of food supplies for the week. This means that when buying fresh produce, shelf life becomes a big factor. Our supermarkets in particular know this about us (I am also guilty!), and the steps they take to meet our expectations actually results in less-than-mindblowing flavours than those found on the continent.

When a piece of fresh fruit or vegetable is ripe and perfect for eating, it will only stay that way for a short amount of time. In order to allow for the picking, cleaning, sorting, packing, delivery and then sale of the item, they have to be picked before the item is at its optimum eating time. If you then factor in the average 5-day shelf life a supermarket would offer it’s no wonder you can never quite recreate that tomato salad you had in Sicily or your rocket just isn’t quite as peppery.

There’s a reason certain foods are traditionally eaten at specific celebrations throughout the year, and its because that’s when they’re at their best. Strawberries at Wimbledon is a British institution because they are at their best in the middle of our summer. Pumpkins are connected to Halloween because they are in abundance in the Autumn. Use them and any of the vast variety of squashes to make warming soups or curries during this time. We have parsnips and sprouts with our Christmas dinner because they are made all the sweeter when they have been caught by that little bit of British frost.

Food should excite all of the senses but we have become conditioned to expect uniformity of size colour and shape in every supermarket up and down our country. Look for individual ingredients that are at their best instead of a display that looks commercially structured.

So I say where possible….yes, shop locally, but if you do, shop small! Support your local green grocer, farm shop or butcher, and buy fresh produce on the day or the day before you are going to eat it. But don’t worry if you can’t live solely on whats grown on your doorstep. If you want to have the best ingredients don’t worry too much about where they have been grown but instead think if they have been picked at the right time and in the best conditions.

Before thinking you absolutely have to shop British, I always follow the mantra of shop smart, shop small, and shop seasonally!

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