Supermarket vs local market

Filling a trolley once a week at a supermarket has got to be cheaper than picking up what you need at local markets and speciality shops, or is it?

  Catherine Cleary weighing up the  pros and cons of shopping in small shops and markets versus supermarkets. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Catherine Cleary weighing up the pros and cons of shopping in small shops and markets versus supermarkets. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


It’s a wet Saturday morning and the “here we go” look has just flashed across my husband’s face. We’re mapping out the rules of a household experiment. For seven days we won’t cross the threshold of a supermarket. Everything we buy is going to come from a local market or small independent shops. “What about loo roll?” he wonders.

Next we will follow up with a week shopping entirely in supermarkets. By the end of a fortnight we’ll have an idea of what it costs to put your money where your mouth is.

As a restaurant critic I preach about the importance of food coming from growers, farmers and suppliers who care. But I have become a clockwork shopper. On weekly supermarket trips I sleepwalk an identical route around the aisles, buying virtually the same food each time. I barely register what individual things cost just as long as the final bill isn’t too painful.

I like the convenience of supermarkets. With three sons to feed, a full fridge is a happy sight. But I’m bored with the routine and worried about the dominance of supermarkets in Ireland. Yes, it’s a comfortable complaint when food poverty is a real issue. But what would it cost to shop like Nigel Slater, or a French person, the type who strolls to the market everyday to pick up whatever looks good?

As the economy picks up we’re embracing the “big weekly shop” once again, for everything from loo roll to blueberries to bargain cycling lycra. We might rail against massive warehouses leeching the life out of towns and main streets but we vote with our feet.

Bord Bia lists 139 farmers’ markets and 64 country markets in Ireland. Yet you don’t see lots of people carrying two or three heavy bags at farmers’ markets. A pack of artisan sausages, six cupcakes and some gnarly carrots with their tops on do not a weekly shop make.

Supermarkets provide thousands of jobs and support thousands of Irish farmers. But their power is daunting. Ask Irish beef farmers how the relationship feels after the recent decision by British retailers to change the age of finished beef and you won’t hear a lot of happiness. Two British supermarkets were said to have told bull beef farmers they were only accepting 16-month old animals, a drop from the previous level of 18 months, which in turn had fallen from 24-month old animals. The issue was called a crisis in the Seanad where it was claimed that processors and retailers are calling the shots in the Irish beef industry.

Irish food consumption is an hourglass model. Millions of consumers and thousands of producers meet in the funnel of a tiny number of giant companies.

So I’m in the Dublin Food Co-op in Newmarket Square looking at a jar of maple syrup that costs more than €9. Ouch. The Aldi bottle is €3.99. It’s too painful a leap so I reach for a tiny bottle of Highbank Orchard Syrup for €3.90 instead. It will be drizzled on far less lavishly than cheaper maple syrup.

There’s a lot to think about here. This isn’t a blissful stroll around smiling stallholders with a wicker basket. It’s quite a stressful shop. The small dry goods and milk part of the co-op is busy and I don’t know where anything is. After banishing the children to wait outside with the dog I get through most of the things on the list.

Three items are significantly more expensive. The first is milk. Two litres of Mossfield organic milk costs €3.38, or €1.69 a litre. This milk looks nothing like the bright white homogenised non-organic milk I buy in Aldi for 74.5 cent a litre. Supermarket milk has had its fat globules mechanically broken so they are suspended evenly throughout the liquid rather than rising to the top as cream. It makes a whiter milk with a longer shelf life. Mossfield milk is vanilla coloured and has a layer of cream at the top. The friendly woman at the till says she pours the cream into her coffee.

The second item is a bag of Ballybrado porridge oats for €3.78, and the third is a 250g pack of French organic butter for €3.85. The bill for milk, fruit, yoghurt, rice cakes, pasta, pittas, porridge, apple juice, apple syrup, sultanas, chickpeas, lentils and mustard comes to €43.84.

At the nearby Green Door Market, I spend €18.95 on organic fruit and vegetables. I pick my carrots, pears, apples, avocados and other goods individually out of crates. I buy a chunk of Gruyère cheese for €4.40. At the Coolanowle meat stall I spend €5.35 on a half kilo of minced organic beef. The meat from this organic farm in Carlow is sold on a polystyrene tray and tightly wrapped in clingfilm. Something very interesting happens to it when I put it in my fridge. After a couple of days the mince has turned brown, although it’s well within its best-before date and still firmly wrapped in clingfilm. I ring Coolanowle farm and get Bernadine Mulhall. I’m not the first customer to call. “We often have calls from people saying the meat looks brown. It looks gone off. When you mince it it’s lovely and red and it’ll remain red for a small amount of time,” she says. Her French visitors (she runs a guesthouse on the farm) know that brown meat is perfectly edible. “But Irish people will only buy it if it’s red.”

So how does supermarket mince stay perfectly red for so much longer? The answer is modified-atmosphere packaging. Those sealed meat packages have had gas flushed into them to keep the meat red. It’s standard industry practice, even with organic mince. My Coolanowle meat goes into two meals, a small amount into a vegetable-heavy lasagne and the rest of it into home-made burgers. It’s so lean I have to add oil to the pan when I’m frying them.

Two big differences stand out at the end of our market shopping week. The recycling bin contains about a third of its normal load, with far less packaging waste. And we treat the food differently because it’s expensive. I soak those Ballybrado oats in water the night before for a creamier porridge. Undrunk milk no longer gets thrown down the sink. And yes, I’m on my best food behaviour because I’m writing about it, but pricey food makes you think about how you use it.

Two more market trips (€27.98), a Little Italy shop (€26.60), a meat splurge in Fallon and Byrne (€25.68), with a €2.75(!) pack of pitta breads from Donnybrook Fair brings the total for our market-only week to €155.55.

Aldi in Rathmines is a mile-and-a-half from where we live, so I get in the car on a Sunday morning and drive there. I like this supermarket. The staff are friendlier than some of the people I’ve dealt with at farmers’ markets. I know where everything is. But after a week of market food the contentment has waned.

The only fish I can find is frozen salmon at €15.16 a kilo. (Fitzsimons, the Green Door market fishmongers, are selling it fresh for €15.50 a kilo.) Aldi’s Extra Lean Round Steak Mince is €10.64 a kilo, just a few cent cheaper than the organic meat from Carlow. The Aldi meat is red. Small print on the underside of the package states: “Packaged in a protective atmosphere.”

When I ask Aldi what this means, a spokesman tells me: “Aldi’s Nature’s Isle Extra Lean Irish Round Steak mince is supplied by the ABP Food Group. As is the industry standard, the product is vacuum packed within a protected atmosphere of oxygen and carbon dioxide gases. This ensures the preservation of the product.”

The Aldi vegetables are mostly pre-packed, so I don’t get to choose my own quantity. If I want the cheapest carrots (English as opposed to Dutch) I have to buy a two kilo bag. Unless we swap the dog for a rabbit I can’t see how we would get through two kilos of carrots in a week. My bill for the trolley load is €72.59. When I extract the non-food items it comes to €60.44.

Late on a Wednesday evening I wander round SuperValu on Sundrive Road in Crumlin. Black labels mark the “Signature Tastes”. I get four apples from this range for €2.49. They’re branded “limited edition seasonal apples bursting with flavour”. The country of origin is France, where I believe apple season happened last autumn. Where have they been since then and why do they still look so perfect?

The SuperValu haul of sausages, lamb chops, oranges, tomatoes, eggs, feta, butter, juice, milk, crackers and rice cakes comes to €37.53.

Four trips to our local Tesco Express for breakfast supplies of cereal, bagels, pitta breads and juice, bring the week’s total for the supermarkets to €144.35.

So it has cost us €11.20 to avoid the supermarkets for a week. Factor in petrol costs and less waste and the difference gets slimmer. I am surprised and converted. So far so smug.

Until I watch a Ted talk called “Why we can’t shop our way to a better economy,” by Stacy Mitchell of the US Institute for Local Self-Reliance. It’s a bleak but compelling argument. She says that individual consumers who shop locally are just “swimming upstream against a powerful down-current of public policy”.

In the US, the number of farmers’ markets has doubled, yet one dollar in every $4 spent goes to Walmart. Consumers can do their best, but public policy has to shift for our desire to support good food producers to be anything other than a niche consumer trend.

After our experiment, this household is going to the market more, not least because we get more interesting and tasty food there. It may be a futile gesture, but we’ll put our money where our hearts are.

Catherine Cleary will be at Smock Alley, Dublin next Saturday, May 24th with British philosopher Julian Baggini and chef Catherine Fulvio to discuss Baggini’s book The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think.

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