A brand new branch of Aldi opened yesterday about a mile and a half straight up the hill from my house. I was so excited to get myself into it this morning.
The German supermarket chain which, along with the competing brand Lidl (and they’re owned by competing brothers, just to add to the intrigue), is cutting swathes through the UK food retail scene.
Supermarkets own food here in a way they haven’t quite yet managed to do in Australia and while it has to be said that a branch of Waitrose, or Sainsburys is a pleasure to shop in (Tesco, Morrisons and Asda, not so much), their overbearing dominance has meant the death of many a fine high street, where a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker – plus a fruit and veg shop and a fishmongers – had served the community for generations.
They can’t possibly compete on price with such giants of economies of scale.
The ‘big four’ (T, M, A and S above) have come to be seen as rather unscrupulous consumer-fleecing, producer-murdering corporate machines by the British public, so there has been a rather joyful uptake of these more recent arrivals with their quirky European stock, no frills sets up – and astonishing prices.
When it first arrived in the UK, Lidl was seen as rather a desperation destination, but now it’s positively chic to shop there.
My mum – always an early uptaker, I’ve just taken possession of a desk she bought from Habitat’s very first collection – has been going on about Lidl for years, ever since she was taken to one in Germany by a rather grand family friend.
‘If Hanne shops there,’ she says, ‘it must be good quality.’
And it is, that’s the extraordinary thing.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been doing my main shop up at Sainsburys, then stopping at Lidl on the way home to get specific things: the amazing huge tubs of the best Greek yogurt you can buy; free range British chickens for £5; delicious bags of pretzels; really good bread; great smoked salmon and all kinds of charcuterie, wurst and pork products.
The salami with fennel seeds is one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
It’s not all great. The tinned tomatoes are watery and weird (although my foodie friend Henrietta Green told me that if you boil them down a bit and add a bit of sugar, before using, they are as good as the premium brands). My cat walks away from the pouched food. The really cheap wine is nasty. But mostly it’s really good and I usually spend about £40.
So I’m delighted to have this Aldi just up the road, a much more direct drive than Lidl and a spanking new store, where the trolleys still go in the same direction as you. (That won’t last long.)
It’s pretty similar to Lidl, although they don’t do the Greek yogurt, annoyingly, so I’ll have to make a side trip to pick that up, or the family will protest. But I got my free range chicken and they had some things Lidl don’t do, such as frozen raspberries. (Great for trifles.)
A feature of both brands is a strange ‘middle aisle’, which is like a dodgy market in a Calais car park, where they pile up random stuff, usually seasonal, at ridic prices.
One week you might find document shredders, socket sets and children’s snow suits. The next, sprinklers, chocolate fountains and slug pellets. It’s bonkers.
I don’t normally bother with it, as it just seems like a temptation to bring more crap into the house, but today I got some really nice wool socks for my husband’s Christmas stocking and a true bargain – flock-covered, queen size air beds, with integral battery-operated air pumps. £22.99.
The last ones we had (for camping and sleepovers and now knackered from years of hard use) were £70 each.
The chrysanthemums in the picture at the top were £2 a bunch. Two makes an impressive show in the corner of my sitting room.
But while I’m delighted to have this alternative supermarket nearby, I will continue to buy my fruit and veg from the wonderful independent greengrocers, Carroll’s, nearby. They sell the biggest potatoes I have ever seen and wonderful fresh herbs.
In other shop news, ‘Paddy Patel’ as the hilarious Irish proprietors of my local corner store call themselves, have really gone to town on their Christmas grotto this year.
One of the santas sings…