It’s OK to shop at Lidl

I will admit it: I am a bit of a food snob. I love things that taste great.

Does that mean I only eat Kobe beef, hand-picked organic Mexican Peruano beans seasoned with Himalayan salt and cold-pressed olive oil from Mount Olympus? Well… no.

What it does mean, though, is that I want good quality food, I want variety and I want freshness. Contrary to popular belief, it is as easy to make a pig’s ear of a very fine magret de canard as it is to make something delicious out of a bunch of humble radishes. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but most things take a little tweaking to give up their best for the good of our taste buds.

How do I shop?

I tend to buy mainly “raw materials” that need peeling, chopping, marinating, cooking… It means I tend to spend a lot of time in the kitchen doing all these things, but not necessarily.

Having said that, I enjoy cooking very much, so I don’t see it as a chore. In fact, I do a lot of the stuff in the kitchen on auto-pilot and can multi-task to the point of peeling spuds and reading a book on my iPad at the same time. Also, all those chopping, weighing, stirring actions are my way of combatting stress. My Mum used to laugh and ask what exams I had at uni that week when I took over the kitchen to make not one, but two cakes in the same day. Sometimes I wish I found running or rowing to be as therapeutic – I’d be a lot slimmer 🙂

Buying fresh produce has its advantages. Freshness, obviously, but it also means that the Findus horsemeat scandal went right over my head, since I never buy frozen dinners. It means that palm oil isn’t a problem for me, since the only time I eat palm oil is if I deliberately use it, for example in African dishes.

Buying fresh doesn’t mean buying expensive. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The manpower needed to transform foods makes them more expensive. If you do the chopping or washing, you take that out of the equation. For example, shrimp farmed in Madagascar might be sent as far as China to be peeled before being transported to Europe to be sold. Besides the cost, can you imagine the carbon footprint?

Buying fruit and vegetables when they are in season also means you’re getting a better price – it’s a simple matter of supply and demand. Strawberries in March need a greenhouse = extra cost.

There are certain things I just don’t buy because they come from too far away. Don’t be silly, of course I buy bananas from Martinique and pineapple from Ivory Coast! They don’t grow in Europe. I don’t, however, buy mange-tout beans from Kenya. They grow beautifully in your back garden, so no. I also kicked up a royal stink at my local Carrefour when all I could find was either Spanish or Argentinian garlic, when WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF GARLIC COUNTRY!!!!! Seriously???

Try to be smart about the quantities you buy. There is a lot of discussion about supermarkets pushing people to over-consume with 3 for 2 offers, or extra fidelity points on the store card if you buy, for example, three bags of pre-washed lettuce in one go. It’s simple, really. I only buy the things I want and/or need. I tend to have a list and stick to it. If, and only if, the things on super-duper offer are something I would usually buy AND they’re long conservation (dry/canned goods, for example)… why not?

(I will admit that I have been known to take a bunch of 5 large leeks from the dumpster beside the supermarket because there was nothing at all wrong with them, washed and trimmed them a bit more generously than usual, and turned them into leek-and-feta pie. Wasting food is not on.)

Compare kilo prices. Don’t fall for the “economic pack” and “family-size” labels – often they’re not cheaper at all. Having leftovers is no biggie, though. I’m awesome at rearranging leftovers.

Yes, I get ridiculously excited over fancy and exotic foods. When I taste truffles or visit a ibérico ham producer in Spain, I grin stupidly with the thrill of seeing where the magic happens. It’s better than Disneyland! But who eats Jabugo every day?

I have a budget, three kids, a job, a house to run, limited time, and if I want to be other things than a slave to my convictions, I have to make some choices.

Lidl has been the supermarket closest to our house for 8 years now. It’s on the road to the kids’ school. And I love it. It’s small, so my shopping is done in 20 minutes. It carries all the basics, plus a weekly selection of all sorts of fancy gear. It’s a German company to start with, so it tends to carry German stuff I can’t get anywhere else and its frozen pretzel dough makes my little heart beat faster.

(I don’t wish to engage a discussion about working conditions or price wars or hard discount store sourcing. I am simply talking as a customer and a cook.)

When I was a student in the USA, I had a boyfriend who emigrated from Poland at the age of 17. He told me about the first time his father had gone to an American supermarket to buy coffee. Coffee was something he had had to queue for in Poland, not always successfully, and which often was made last by adding chicory or burnt sugar. Imagine his reaction standing in the coffee aisle at WalMart – a full supermarket aisle, just for coffee! He basically had a meltdown. 

This little anecdote taught me a lesson about being humble before food. Of course we all want the best, but if we’re perfectly honest… how many different brands of white flour do we really need? How many virtually identical bags of refined sugar? How many brands of butter?

I often shop at Lidl for the basics, and usually there is only one of everything. I am not convinced that the tinned sweetcorn at Carrefour is in any way better than the one in Lidl, be it their own brand, or Bonduelle, or Green Giant. I had rather we had a larger choice of corn varieties, like the multicolored type, but I’ve never seen that anywhere. I don’t think the chunk of Grana Padano sold by Lidl is inferior to that sold shrink-wrapped by Super U. I’d rather get it cut from the wheel at the Italian deli, but it’s too expensive for every day. I don’t think E.Leclerc sell sheep’s-milk feta that is very different from the 100% sheep’s-milk feta at Lidl. I really wish I could get artisan feta. From a sheep farm where the sheep have names.

Lidl has an organic range: bananas (notorious for pesticides), lemons (I only buy organic, as I zest my life away), milk…

The time and money I save, I reinvest in going to a good butcher’s shop that only sells meat from animals raised within a 50km radius. If I do buy, say, chicken from Lidl, I make sure it’s Red Label and French. I’m pretty sure it’s the same Red Label chicken as the other supermarkets.

I buy as much fresh produce as I can from local producers at the market or straight off the farm, but when I need to, of course I buy from the supermarket. It’s up to me, the customer, to buy local (French) whenever possible, both for a short circuit sale and for the economy. If all the tomatoes are Moroccan, I don’t buy any. If the apples are from New Zealand, they are not for me.

Do I think everything Lidl sells is fantastic? Absolutely not.

I never buy bread there (or any other supermarket), because I don’t believe in undermining the trade of the bakers. I never buy ready-made meals, hamburger patties, nuggets, etc. because I make my own.

You might wonder why I am giving Lidl free advertising… I have singled them out, firstly, because Lidl is a shop I know and go to on a regular basis and, secondly, because Lidl (like all discount supermarkets) is often used as a synonym for bad quality, dodgy hygiene and, to quote an acquaintance of mine, “an inferior shopping experience”. Whatever. It’s the supermarket, not the opera.

But this is just one example.

In France, there is a supermarket chain called LeaderPrice which belongs to the French group Géant/Casino. As the name suggests, their selling point is neither their decor nor valet parking. For the past few years, their advertising has been fronted by Jean-Pierre Coffe, food critic, chef, TV and radio presenter, and vociferous defender of good food. He famously wrote a book in 2013 with the provocative title “Arrêtons de manger de la merde” (“Let’s stop eating shit”) in which he denounces industrial food processes and encourages the reader to take control of what he eats. In 2010, he published the cookbook “Le plaisir à petit prix” (“Cheap pleasures”) in which he defends the idea that one can feed a family of four for under 9€ a day – a book sold for only 4,95€, might I add.

He is often suspected by the press to lend his image to LeaderPrice purely for the money. He, on the other hand, claims that he is committed to making good, natural food available to everybody, and at a reasonable price. He meets with buyers and suppliers twice a week to oversee arrivals and work on improving produce/products by demanding the suppression of food coloring, artificial aromas, stabilizing agents, and other additives.

In an ideal world, we would all wander around a Garden of Eden, picking our way through an abundance of perfect produce full of flavor and goodness… But this is real life. And Lidl is fine.

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