My recent heavenly Sunday spent with friends who are dabbling in living the good life got me thinking about how much cooking and shopping habits have changed over the years.
Hailing originally from the North, where in some places cramped rows of terrace houses stretch as far as the eye can see, I find it easy to appreciate the unspoilt landscape we have here in the South West. A high percentage of land in Devon is used for agriculture, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’d be relatively easy to get your hands on fresh, locally produced food. But this is not necessarily the case and for the majority of us, the most convenient option is to buy often imported, over packaged produce from a supermarket.
To me, that isn’t truly convenient though. I don’t want to buy a whole bag of potatoes or a pack of parsnips, I want to pick individual items. The quality of what I’m buying matters to me more than the quantity, so when carrots are sitting half-frozen in a plastic crate as is sometimes the case in supermarkets, they just do not appeal.
Thankfully, back in 2009 a group of local people recognised the demand for a retail outlet in Exeter selling affordable, fresh, locally grown food as well as the need for a route to market for our local producers. Through a Community Benefit Society, the ‘Real Food’ project was created with members of the public invited to become ‘subscribers’, contributing a minimum of £100 to the project. Enough money was raised to lease shop premises on Paris Street and after a year and a half of hard work, The Real Food Store opened in March 2011. 12 months on, it’s clear that the hard work was worth it and the store celebrated its first birthday by offering free product tastings to customers.
In August last year I spoke to David Mezzetti, one of the Founding Directors of the Community, who told me that raising the funds to get the project off the ground was not difficult.
“Generating the money needed to form the Real Food Store was not a struggle. It was a realisation of local people that they wanted a shop, bakery and cafe providing local food in the city. They put the money in because they wanted it to exist.”
Having heard so much about this fantastic initiative I just had to see it for myself. The first floor cafe is a practical space, yet warm and welcoming. The aroma of wholesome, delicious food coming from the kitchen had me salivating even more than usual for my lunch and I chose the local potted crab on toast, served with a fresh, zesty salad which was crunchy, colourful and packed with flavour.
The food served in the cafe showcases the local products on sale in the store. The seasonal fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood and locally brewed bottled beers create a real Aladdin’s Cave of West Country goods. The prices are pleasantly surprising too.
“Affordability is important” says David. “We sell milk, bread, eggs and vegetables below supermarket prices”.
Given that it was consumers driving the need for The Real Food Store, it’s comforting some how that lots of people are looking for better quality and wider choices for their weekly shop than a lot of supermarkets offer. But it’s also about encouraging shoppers to try different foods, to experiment and not to be discouraged if they don’t immediately know how to cook with certain produce. David explains:
“Part of the mission of The Real Food Store is to provide information about cooking from scratch. One of the big limitations of the expansion of the fresh local food market is not the price, but the lack of knowledge of what to do with the produce.”
So thanks to this desire to share knowledge and make local produce more accessible, for over a year now the people of Exeter have enjoyed an alternative way to shop, where they can pick up the exact amount they require without the unnecessary packaging. They can see precisely where the product came from and they can talk to people in the store about how to use the ingredients they are buying. Yippee, I say. And thank you, The Real Food Store.