Monday, 21 November 2011

My Favourite Shop

Orford General Store - Nominated for National Village Shop of the Year
The beating heart of any village is the village shop.  In Orford we are privileged to have one of the best.  That’s not just my opinion; The Orford General Store has been shortlisted for the Countryside Alliance’s Village Shop of the Year award.  This week I caught up with the owner, Penny Teale to find out what her formula was.
DSFH: “You took over the Orford village shop a year ago.  But 600 rural shops close in England every year, so my first question has to be, are you mad?”
PT: “I don’t think so.  I gave up a lucrative career in corporate retailing to take on this business.  This isn’t a hobby, it’s a livelihood. You don’t make that kind of decision without doing a huge amount of research and being pretty sure that you can make a go of it.  Many of those failing shops may not have been run very well or with a keen eye on costs and the customer offer, but I realized that it was possible to take the things that supermarkets do well and apply them to a small business.  I used my retail experience to put in solid processes and apply up to date technology.  I try to keep on top of my stock control and my market as Tesco or Sainsburys would, but I am able to combine that with a business that has great local product and personality.”
As if to back this up she starts to spout a range of facts and figures.
“My catchment area is 5 or 6 miles.  People come from 5 villages and those villages contain 2000 people”
DSFH: “But what about that market?  You’ve actually got a number of very different constituencies within a village like this?”
PT: “Three. (She nods her head) There are the local people who rely on the village shop for everyday provisions.  They buy little and often.  They are very price conscious and quite conservative.  They are really important because they are here all year round.  I actually keep a close watch on supermarket prices.  We can’t afford to be too far out of sync.  Even though a trip to Woodbridge or Saxmundham is likely to cost £5 or £6 when you add up the fuel and total cost of running a car, people don’t look at it that way.  Also supermarkets aren’t as cheap as you think.  They use a variety of tricks such as hi-lo pricing.  They put things on the shelf at a high price so they can then discount them later.”
“Then there’s the ‘second homers’ and visitors  or what I call the ‘four and threes’, people who call Orford home but in reality they spend half the week in London.  They are almost the exact opposite.  Price is less important to them but they demand quality and they want to be delighted by the range, local product and high quality veggies.  The third group are die-hard Tesco or Waitrose shoppers, who dip in and out around their weekly shop.

DSFH: “So is there a conflict in serving such different needs?  After all you have to decide what you give shelf space to?”
PT: “Not really.  I use the ‘good, better, best’ rule to all of the ranges.  For instance I re-jigged the wine section.  Now you can buy a bottle of wine for as little as £3, £5, or up to £15 depending on your budget.  Take canned produce like beans; we’ve got Happy Shopper in the ‘good’ range, Heinz in the ‘better’ range and Epicure in the ‘best’, for people who want something different.  So everyone can find something suitable.”
DSFH: “So what are your best sellers?”
PT: “We do sell an awful lot of pies!  Locally made homemade pies just seem to fly off the shelves.  But the Deli section generally does ever so well”
DSFH:  “You touched on it briefly but a village shop in a place like Orford can almost be regarded as a social service as much as a business.  Is that a double edged sword?”
PT: “Not at all.  You are right, we are often the first to notice if an elderly customer doesn’t pop in, and you get some people who just come in for a chat, but that makes us a sort of communications hub.  From a business perspective it’s a privileged position.  Customers do expect you to remember their names though.  Everyone knows who I am, so it can be a real challenge remembering theirs!”
DSFH:  “You carry a lot of local produce. How important is that?”
PT: “Absolutely crucial! As a retailer I want to know the provenance of the food I sell.  If a bag of potatoes were harvested from the field in Leiston yesterday afternoon I can be pretty sure that they will be fresh and the customer will be happy.  But it’s more than that.  I’ve now got over 20 suppliers within a fifteen mile radius (and growing).  30% of my shelf space is allocated to local products.  Being local is part of the brand that differentiates us from the supermarket chains.  But Suffolk is a great food-producing county with some wonderful local products.  As a retailer of course I want to tap in to that.”
DSFH: “So did you find local suppliers were ready and prepared to supply a local, small business?”
PT: “Most of them were very enthusiastic but with some we have had to work together on things like packaging or branding.”
DSFH: “You actually run a portfolio of businesses in the village don’t you?  Is that part of a strategy?”
PT: “Absolutely.  There’s The General Store, The Suffolk Butcher and Penny’s Café.  They are all distinct brands that will allow us to do different things with them.  But it’s also about making Orford into a ‘destination food village’.  After all, we don’t get any passing trade out here.  But the other businesses in Orford: the smokehouses, the bakery, pubs, hotel and the craft shop all contribute to make it somewhere people will consciously come to.  We get customers now who regularly come from a wider catchment area to visit us."
Penny's Cafe - Helping to make Orford into a Destination Food Village

DSFH: “But how much can you really expand the market? Ultimately you are restricted by demographics aren’t you?”
PT: “A lot of people do come in to the area: second homers, day trippers and so on. Trade in a place like Orford is very seasonal, but the thing is to extend the season.  We are working with the Orford Business Association to do just that.  I’ve held ‘tasting events’ for wine and local products and we have a Carol singing planned for the 22nd of December.  There’s a lot more events planned for next year.”
DSFH:  “So the future of the village shop is bright is it?”
PT: “Well I am ahead of schedule according to my business plan.  Year one was all about getting the basics sorted out, but this year will be about growth: more tastings, expanding the range, building a website.”
DSFH:  “And is Orford a unique location or would your treatment work in other village shops?”
PT:  “The model will work in other locations, if the timing and opportunities come up.  But that’s in the future, Christmas is the immediate focus.”

Friday, 18 November 2011

Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr. Osborne?

Is there anybody who doesn’t know that we are in the middle of the worst economic recession since the war?  This week UK unemployment reached its highest point in 15 years, inflation is running at 5%, real wages are falling and business confidence is being held down by the crisis in the Eurozone.  Even if all that has somehow passed you by, you could tell something big was happening just by listening to the language of our politicians.  David Cameron in his first leader’s speech as Prime Minister resurrected Lord Kitchener’s call to arms telling his party “Your country needs you”.  George Osborne, The Chancellor of the Exchequer, caught the prevailing mood and revived his own wartime slogan to tell voters “We are all in it together”, conveniently ignoring the fact that some of us are more ‘in it’ than others in the way that only a multi millionaire could.  Even the Green Party has recently called for a ‘new home front’ against climate change, Caroline Lucas, the party’s only MP comparing climate deniers to appeasers of the Nazis in the 1930s.
Maybe it really is time to look to the 1940s for parallels in our present circumstances.  After all, the whole of Europe is occupied with the plight of the Euro and in thrall to the Germans. Britain alone, it seems, stands on the outside ready to fight the contagion of Eurozone uncertainty on the beaches.  For the most part, the British public has adopted austerity with the usual blend of sangfroid and chirpy resignation.  There is something in the British character that appears to make the hair shirt almost as comfortable as the ubiquitous shell suit, or in the case of George Osborne, the Barbour jacket and green wellies.
I wonder if all this wartime retrospection is having an impact on the nation’s eating habits yet.  After all the extraordinary fact is that the Second World War was the only time in modern history when the entire population of Britain has enjoyed a healthy balanced diet.  In both WWI and WWII when the UK introduced conscription they found many working class men unfit for military service because of malnourishment.  Almost immediately, as affluence returned in the 1960s, a new disease of obesity began to manifest itself, and is now running at epidemic proportions.  But for a few years in the middle of the twentieth century, government rationing ensured that everyone got a fair share and everyone had the basics for healthy living.
In 1939, (for American readers that’s when WWII started for the rest of us) Britain was completely locked in to the Empire System,  which meant we imported 75% of our food: wheat from Canada; butter, cheese and sheep meat from Australia and New Zealand; sugar from the Caribbean and so on.  Next time you hear someone talking about ‘food security’ think about that.  More than 50% of meat was imported, 70% of cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 70% of cereals and fats.
The Germans knew that the quickest way to force Britain to surrender was literally to starve her into submission.  That is what led to the Battle of the Atlantic where convoys of merchant ships ran the gauntlet of U Boats in order to bring basic food stuffs into the British Isles.
As the blockade began to bite, the government had no choice but to take a firm grip on food distribution and introduce rationing for all.  The minimum weekly allowance of butter per person was only 2oz (57g), cheese was even tighter at 1oz (28g) and sugar was only 8oz (57g).  Eggs were rationed at 1 per week, but only if available.  They usually weren’t.  Meat was rationed by price, but again availability governed consumption more often than the official measure.
The only things that were not rationed at any stage during the war were bread and fresh vegetables.  Ironically bread and potatoes only went on ration after the end of the war, as Britain assumed the additional responsibility for feeding liberated Europe.  In fact as members of the public were urged to ‘Dig for Victory’ the supply of home grown vegetables grew steadily.  The whole country it seems  willingly dug up their lawns and flower beds to grow spuds and leeks.  That hair shirt mentality again!  By 1943 over 1 million tons of vegetables were being produced from gardens and allotments.

The Ministry of Food then set about providing information and recipes to help people make the most of their rations.  Marguerite Patten, who later became a famous food writer, was employed to come up with nourishing recipes which she broadcast on the BBC.  Most famous of all was the vegetable pie which came to be named after the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, but which was in fact created at the Savoy Hotel in London by the head Chef, Francis Latry.
Frederick Marquis,
1st Earl of Woolton
This diet, rich in vegetables, low in meat and fats, was sufficient to “Keep Britain Fighting Fit,” in the words of yet another wartime slogan, and by the end of the war Britain produced almost 80% of its own food.  The figure today by the way, stands at around 60%.
When rich politicians decide to preach to the public, or when they urge people to tighten their belts while standing in front of their chauffeur driven Jaguars, it naturally falls on deaf ears.  The public simply does not believe that they are all in it together while they see bankers receiving huge and unjustifiable bonuses, or MPs fiddling their expenses.  But anyone who is nervously watching inflation erode their savings, or struggling to survive on Job Seekers Allowance could do a lot worse than taking up gardening.  Digging is therapeutic and fresh vegetables are delicious.  You will also find that growing and eating your own vegetables is good for your health, good for your wallet and good for the planet.

Recipe – Lord Woolton’s Pie


1lb diced potatoes
1lb cauliflower
1lb diced carrots
1lb diced swede
3 spring onions
1 teaspoon vegetable extract
1 tablespoon oatmeal

Salt and pepper to taste
A little chopped parsley


 Cook everything together with just enough water to cover, stirring often to prevent it sticking to the pan. Let the mixture cool. Spoon into a pie dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Cover with a crust of potatoes or whole meal pastry. Bake in a moderate oven until golden brown. Serve hot with gravy.

Wooltons Pie with potato crust
Notes:  I’m not sure what was meant by ‘vegetable extract’ in the 1940s, but I used Marmite.  Also the original recipe suggests varying the selection of vegetables according to season and availability.  Although I have a long standing love affair with swede we are currently not on talking terms, so I substituted some butternut squash.   I didn’t have spring onions so in the interest of austerity I substituted a small red onion.  I’ve also read comments that the pie could be a bit bland, so I added a chopped leek and used a cheese mash for the crust.  I probably blew my ration for the month!

Verdict:  Using a mashed potato topping made this into a kind of vegetarian shepherd’s pie and it had the same comforting, homely feel.  The taste was evocative of my childhood somehow and I thoroughly enjoyed it, which is just as well because even though I halved the quantities there’s enough for two more main meals.  Quite acceptable as a filling, midweek dinner and economical too.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Moules Marinière

Autumn is well and truly here now.  It’s probably my favourite season of the whole year.  I love the way that it assails all your senses at once.  There’s nothing I like more than walking in the Autumn countryside.  Those dank, dark days where your breath hangs in front of your face and smoke rises vertically from cottage chimneys in the still air.  The only sounds are the doleful cawing of crows in the nearby beeches.   The air heavy with rotting leaves and over ripe fruit still clinging to bare trees.  The whole day seems to be only a precursor to night, with lights burning brightly in distant windows in mid afternoon.
The long period of summer fruitfulness is over, and now is the time to turn from salads and abundant fresh produce to warm nourishing and hearty fare.  Personally I love thick homemade soups and rich slow-cooked casseroles.  How good is it to come home cold and damp from a long walk to the kitchen, warmed by the oven, and the smell of cooking permeating the whole house?
Among the greatest pleasures of the Autumn is the return of new season mussels to the fishmonger.  Mussels are relatively cheap.  I pay £3 for a kilo (£5 for 2kg) which serves two people as a starter, or one person,( me), as a main course.
Thankfully they are also completely green.  Most commercially available mussels are farmed, so they are renewable, and they are reared organically.  Unlike other forms of aquaculture they do not rely on fish meal as food. Mussels are filter feeders; they clean the sea water rather than polluting it.  They are not treated with any artificial chemicals.
If you live anywhere near the sea there’s a good chance that they might be reasonably local too.  Mine come from just up the coast from Blakeney in Norfolk.
Many years ago the first recipe I ever tried with mussels was the French classic Moules Marinière and I loved it so much I have never looked much beyond it.  It makes a quick and delicious lunch or light supper and it could hardly be easier to cook.
Choose small mussels and make sure they are fresh.  Use them on the day of purchase.

Moules Mariniere
Moules Marinière - Recipe

·         1 or 2 kilos of mussels
·         1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
·         2 shallots, finely chopped
·         1 knob of butter
·         a bouquet garni of fresh parsley, thyme and bay leaves
·         1 glass dry white wine
·         120ml/4fl oz double cream
·         coarsely chopped parsley for garnishing,
·         crusty bread, to serve

Begin by cleaning the mussels in the sink under lots of clean fresh water.  Live mussels should close firmly when jostled in the sink.  Discard any that don’t.   Also discard any with broken shells.
Remove any dirt, seaweed or barnacles attached to the shell, and make sure to pull off the beard.  That’s the rough, fibrous appendage that they use to attach themselves to rocks.  Also throw away any that feel particularly heavy.  They are probably just full of mud which will ruin your meal.  Drain them in a colander.
Soften the garlic and shallots in a large pan with the butter and toss the bouquet garni in.
Put the mussels and wine in the pan, turn up the heat and put a lid on the pan.  Steam them in the wine for 3 or 4 minutes only, giving the pan two or three good shakes.
Remove from the heat and take out the bouquet.  Add the wine and chopped parsley.
Ladle into bowls, giving each person plenty of creamy sauce.  Discard any that haven’t opened properly.
Eat immediately with the crusty bread and the rest of the wine