Not Evangelism

Friday, November 5, 2010

On The Subject of Provenance (including the Fish Man and the Butcher)

Simply put, provenance is where something came from; its origin. In foodie circles the word is used to describe the information about where a particular animal was reared or what it was fed. It helps understand that it came from decent stock, was well-treated, had a decent life perhaps.

Provenance is important to my personal principles of pragmatic environmentalism too. It's important to me to understand where something I'm buying came from, particularly when it comes to food.

The Fish Man

Every Tuesday, we are visited by the Fish Man. He drives from Grimsby on the east coast of Yorkshire with the fish of the day, and sells it door to door in my local area.

I think the Fish Man is a Very Good Thing.

When I buy from the Fish Man, I know when the fish was landed; I know how far it has travelled. I've no idea (and no practical way of finding out) this information for the fish in the supermarket. Oh, they can tell me when it arrived at the store, but where and when it was landed?  And how far it's travelled since then - to be packed, to be sent to a central distribution point, to the local store? It's unknowable. Every time I visit the store, I have to ask for this information, for every type of fish they offer. Gathering the information is complex and tedious.

With the Fish Man, I know when his fish is landed; firstly because I asked him, and even more fundamentally - because it's built into the system. I don't have to think about it.  I asked once. I don't have to ask him all the time.

And (a real bonus!) when I buy from the Fish Man, I'm buying from someone that genuinely knows and cares about what they're selling - passion being one of the great advantages of small businesses.

By contrast, the friendly lady on the fish counter at the supermarket freely admitted that she didn't like fish.  She may be well-trained and eager, she may have all the certificates for handling food; and she may be cheerful and helpful.  But she just can't compete with the passion and enthusiasm of the Fish Man. And he brings it right to my door.

The Butcher

There are a number of traditional butcher shops near where I live. I count myself very lucky that some of them are very good indeed.

One in particular is a truly fine example of how the trade should be. The shop is a joy; glass-fronted cabinets filled with neat trays of meat, dressed joints, sauces and marinades, and various cooked delicacies - pies, pates, brawn.  It's a shop to inspire, to make the mouth water; a place to browse and plan meals.

Behind the counter, there are little chalkboards naming the breed of the beef or pork on offer, and the farm it came from.  The butcher will gladly answer questions about how long the meat has been hung - how many days matured it is, to use the language of the supermarkets. He knows because he's hung it himself, on the premises.

Again, if I go to the supermarket, this information is in short supply. Without some real effort, and a spot of luck, it's nigh-impossible to answer these questions. With the butcher, it's perhaps marginally harder to discover than it is with the Fish Man, but the discovery is effortless, a joy.

So when people ask me about the time, money and effort I spend shopping from small businesses, rather than the efficiencies of buying everything in a single visit to the supermarket, I ask them where their fish was caught, and how long ago. I enquire after the breed of pig their bacon came from, where their beef was reared.

And then I tell them about the Fish Man and the butcher. And I offer them his number.

That's what provenance means to me.

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