I missed food shopping during lockdown. I missed being able to wander each aisle without having to follow one-way systems, waiting for a two-metre gap between each shopper. Although I’ve usually got a clear idea of the meals I’m shopping for, I love(d) exploring the aisles of the Big Asda and the smaller Sri Lankan supermarkets nearby, looking for inspiration among ingredients I’d only heard of in recipe books (usually solving an Ottolenghi mystery). Every supermarket is completely different depending on the area’s population, catering to different households. A trip to a new supermarket anywhere in the world is something I look forward to, though it’s better if I go on my own; these trips often last a while as I spend time googling the unfamiliar ingredients and observing what the locals are buying.
Family holidays usually consist of more than fifteen of us staying in one house, so trips to the supermarkets abroad took time and planning: the ordeal of this is enjoyed by a few of us who welcome the challenge. On trips to France as a child, a trip to a hypermarché was a day out: shelves towered higher than I’d ever seen, there was a section for toys and clothes alongside huge vegetable stalls, enormous cheese, meat and fish counters, whole bakeries with hundreds of pastries. My grandad always emerged from the meat counter with something we’d never seen before – the image of pig intestines curled up to look like a spiral lollipop is still clear in my mind.
My dad recently described the great location of a Spanish Airbnb by saying ‘it’s near a Mercadonna’ – a supermarket we’d only visited a few times. We found lemons bigger than the biggest grapefruit, enormous, juicy nectarines and the reddest, ripest tomatoes (we didn’t realise until we reached the checkout that you’re supposed to weigh fresh produce before getting to the cashier; cue lots of eye rolls from the locals as we rushed back and forth with bags of fruit). We found a whole shrink-wrapped piglet and a watermelon bigger than Charlie. Tins of sardines and paprika filled an entire aisle and cartons of sangria cost less than two euros.
In New Zealand, New World sells cheese and marmite rolls, tonnes of different craft beers and countless types of honey. Shopping for dinner in the Philippines as a vegetarian was near impossible (we ended up with a jar of salsa and crisps); their shelves are stuffed with thousands of instant noodles and tinned meats. In India the markets are filled with bags of dried spices to be weighed out and ground into smaller blends of garam masala. I spent a few hours of a long layover in LAX airport walking down a highway to a Ralph’s to see an American supermarket for the first time. The bread aisle was filled with the types of tortillas I'd never seen before – I took forty eight mini tortillas back through security with me.
Covered markets in Italy are never too busy, shoppers wander calmly and confidently, picking up focaccia from one stall, asparagus and aubergine from another, butter and cheese from dairy stalls. In the Italian equivalent of a small Co-op - Coop - there are stacks of grissini, various brands of 00 flour and yellow - ‘giallo’ - eggs for making pasta.
I missed the interaction at food stalls: when there was time on a Saturday morning I’d browse each stall at Brockley Market to find ingredients for a weekend meal. At markets you aren’t restricted to choosing a pack of industry-standard sized fruit or vegetables, you can pick the squash which is the perfect size for two. It looks like this years’ tomato season won’t be a place where it’s acceptable to feel each misshapen fruit to get the perfect ripeness for the dish you had in mind.