Having a Happy Period at the Confectioner's
Mona Farrugia thinks that her village confectioner stocking everything and the kitchen sink is a good. Not everybody does.
Itâ€™s Sunday morning and I am preparing lunch. Halfway between the chopping of the herbs and the hauling out of the fridge of a humungous leg of lamb I realise I do not have any bacon rashers. I could use any other recipe whereby rashers are not necessary, but it is this particular recipe that I want to make. So in my â€˜indoor clothingâ€™ finery which is not fine at all, I pop out to the local confectionery and buy a couple of pre-packed batches. The bacon is not, to put it mildly, quality, but since I only need it to protect my leg (or that of my dead lamb) it doesnâ€™t matter. What does is that it is available.
Half an hour later, as I am preparing a sausage risotto, I realise that I have run out of the most important ingredient: butter. So I pop out to the same confectionery, wearing the same clothes (pink Primark top, pink monti taâ€™ Sqallija shorts â€“ please donâ€™t laugh), to join the hordes of post-mass buyers stocking up on hobza and pastizzi (â€˜Only on Sunday!â€™) andâ€¦â€™Do you have pads?â€™ the woman in front of me asks. â€˜Ijaâ€™, Doris answers. â€˜Sensitive?â€™ â€˜Alwaysâ€™. Iâ€™m guessing that this Sunday, this woman is getting herself a happy period. From the confectioner.
Until a few months ago, the only confectionery in our tiny village belonged to a couple who had been running it for years. They stocked low-fat, high e-number Â everything, pasti from James Caterers and fifteen kinds of whisky. The woman was fine although seemingly always worried. The man was surly and bitter and decided he wanted to retire ten years ago but held on, making the lives of his customers â€“ and his own - an almighty misery in the process. Finally, they packed their bags and leased the confectionery to an out-of-towner.
Doris brought in an unprecedented level customer service to the 20 square metre shop. She started to cross sell, up sell and generally sell like mad. On weekday mornings at 7am, she has lines of people squirreling out of the outlet.
The Grocer, where you would be barked out of the shop at 11am because â€˜Itâ€™s late! Iâ€™ve been here since 5am goddamit!â€™ and the Greengrocer, who had been expanding his repertoire to include UHT milk and frozen chickens for months, were up in arms. The Confectioner had gone from selling sweets to selling everything, including Ariel and the kitchen sink before you could say â€˜spiccat il-quddiesâ€™. People were turning up with their trolleys, stocking up on whatever they decided they needed. The other shop owners spent a month reporting Doris to the police, the milk police (apparently, you need a special license to stock fresh milk) and probably the last bastion of protectionism for shops and retailers: the GRTU. They would stand in the square, toting their mobiles like weapons, and message like crazy. Eventually they gave up.
Effectively, Doris is now running a convenience store, more American than European. She has the Pakistani 24-hour shop present all over Europe, but with regular Maltese shop hours. She opens on Wednesday afternoons when everybody else is closed. At 6am she has a line of people waiting for fresh milk and bread. She even worked all through her own village festa, which is nothing short of blasphemy around these parts.
Convenience shops bring out extreme reactions in people. Some love them for their sheer availability. When, five minutes before 1pm, I realised we had no soft drinks in the house and our guests were expecting them, I ran out and re-stocked. She was still open. On a Sunday. I wanted to hug her. Yet when people started to tell me that this was really awful, and how did a confectioner end up stocking soap, it made me think.
Our villages were never akin to those in France or Italy. I love being in Paris for the simple reason that there, it feels like Iâ€™m in a village, rather than in a massive cosmopolitan city. The tobacconist sells tobacco. The boucherie has meat. The boulangerie sells what it is meant to sell: every permutation of bread, dough and yeast products. Sometimes they vary slightly by becoming suppliers of fine chocolate and its by products. The patissier sells sugar products, in most cases, an art form. Yet you would not walk in and find an array of Cadburyâ€™s chocolate: if you want that, you go to the supermarche. Or the Corner Shop.
In our Maltese villages, I never remember having the kind of French specialisation, except when it came to the furnar (baker) who has a complete setup: he produces, he bakes, he sells. Over the past fifteen years, our butchers have lost all specialisation. Most of them have no idea how to butcher, how to turn a dead cow into pieces ready for lunch, and buy everything ready from the huge importers and suppliers, leading to a situation where you never know where your meat is coming from (although Romania and Bulgaria would feature strongly in your â€˜fresh local chickenâ€™ should tracing become obligatory). And with the advent of supermarkets and pre-packed meats, they turned to frozen pizzas, chicken â€˜naggiesâ€™, and, at least in our particular village one, â€˜fruitâ€™ â€˜juicesâ€™ in powder format.
The grocer, who is overweight and spends all her life in sportswear, is obsessed with low-fat. She has a plethora of strange teas (â€˜Dak straight it-toilet tmur bih!), â€˜sophisticatedâ€™ deodorants andÂ every permutation of â€˜dietâ€™ foods known to the village woman, all in a space of ten square metres. When I asked for unsalted butter, she thought I had problems with my blood pressure and offered me Remia. Yet when I ask for fresh cream, which she can buy from the Benna distributor each morning, she never has any, and blames him. Doris has fresh cream daily these days.
Each age wants to blame itself for â€˜changesâ€™ happening to its society as if it is important enough for it to have invented the world, yet when you think about it, the convenience store has been around since time immemorial. In the green grocerâ€™s at Kuncizzjoni (total population: 10) you buy Maltaâ€™s finest vegetables, but you can also stock up on hosiery, pot plants and yes, if you need, pads.
I remember Smart Supermarket opening in Balzan. Yes, thatâ€™s how old I am. This was a time when supermarkets were very new, simply because if they had opened before, they would have been stocked with rows of kunserva, one brand of tonn taz-zejt (canned tuna), one type of cheddar cheese and stacks of Pepsodent. The sweets section would have consisted of Dezerta, Mini Mint, Catch and those hard boiled mints.
Within a couple of years, the grocer opposite what is now the Dolphin Centre (Smart has since moved to, well, smarter premises) and its ilk was on the verge of extinction. All around Malta people went crazy in the aisles, buying all they could not buy before (legally, and from Malta) and almost as quickly stopped buying from their local, small shops. The supers became the place to shop: the bigger, the better. When I lived in Sliema, people used to come from out of town to Tower in High Street on Saturday afternoons: it was their outing. They sniffed the perfumed candles and toyed around with Vileda brooms, and bought eff all. Then they went to the Ferries and had themselves a cappuccino, as one does at 6.30pm.
Oddly, Sliema is one of those towns where specialised shops are still available and grocers still do a roaring trade. The supers are mostly for tourists and I have seen old women Sliemizi buying three slices of luncheon-meat at the deli section. While living there, I decided to eschew supermarkets for a few months and see if I could live without the â€˜convenienceâ€™ of having all under one roof. My monthly shopping budget was automatically cut by half as I stopped impulse shopping, saved on petrol and missed out on the general stress of driving to a larger store, thereby saving on psychiatric fees. I no longer had huge slabs of anything rotting in the fridge and I bought, from the guy a few metres down the road, whatever I needed. What he did not stock, I probably did not need.
Yet if you tell a harried mum of two to do that, she will tell you that she has â€˜no timeâ€™ to shop locally. Men, brought up without any idea of food shopping, find themselves buying ten times the amount of their wives when unleashed with a shopping trolley. They spend more, the trip is hazardous and strenuous, and then they throw away a good percentage of what they buy because in a super, buying what you need, and just what you need, is practically impossible. Post-separated men are worse and eventually give up and eat at their motherâ€™s. Daily.
Retail studies in Malta are practically unheard of, but off the bat, I can tell you that most suppliers are still convinced that that â€˜in the Southâ€™ people will not buy quality food.Â Yet we are all gagging for a Zammeats because we are tired of our local â€˜butcherâ€™ who does not know what fresh beef even means. Bizarrely, these days many people living in the south are immigrants from the north of the island, while a bunch of southerners have moved to more central locations such as Swatar, where Zammeats now has a shop. A superficial analysis of prices from the biggest supermarket in the south will immediately show you that it costs around 15% more than its counterparts a few miles further north.
Moreover, the people who complain that we have no specialised food stores and gripe about the convenience stores are the first ones to either not patronise them when they finally open, or else complain that what they are selling is too expensive, and, wait for it, itâ€™s cheaper at the supermarket. It is not an urban legend that there was a man who drove for six miles, through bumper-to-bumper traffic, to save one euro at another store.
If you have the guts â€“ and in some cases, it really is guts you need â€“ try living local for a month. Try not buying anything from out of town. Try to do without the weekly supermarket shop where you come back with too many rolls of toilet paper and a ridiculous quantity of Tetra-packed, low-fat â€˜pannaâ€™. Try to buy your vegetables from the tiny shop in the pjazza (yes, the one which flings cabbage leaves on the pavement and sometimes has browning bananas in the box: nature is not polished) and leave your money with people who are not wearing a uniform and a net around their hair. See if it makes any difference to your quality of life.
Then tell me about it. Just right now, I am making a chocolate and whisky cake and I have realised that I donâ€™t have the main ingredient. No worries: Iâ€™m sure that Doris will have them. After all, the women in the village know how good prunes are for their intestines. Period.
September 21, 2010
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Oh Mona, I've tried, I've really tried. But the little shop up the road only has one type of everything (I don't blame him because I don't think he could any more into such a small space). He only has one brand of passata - Lombardi with added salt and buckets of sugar. He only had snot-textured diet Benna yoghurt. He doesn't have noodles. He sells honey in teeny tiny jars. I've tried, but I want a little bit of choice - just a little bit will do.
Having said that, tal-haxix is way, way better and cheaper than the supermarket - sometimes up to fifty per cent cheaper. Also, the local stationary shop sells wipes and nappies (!) cheaper than anywhere I've seen in Malta, and I've been checking. Also, lovely bread van stops outside our house every day - how's that for convenience?
I stopped going to the local butcher when I asked for a rabbit cut into pieces. I thought he was going to cut its legs off, its arms, its head, then the torso in half, like i thought you're supposed to. Instead, he turned on the huge wheel cutter and put it through a few times like it was a plank of wood! I was left in shock, and I'm not really that fussy!
I try to shop local, but have to go to the supermarket for; yoghurt, "foreign food" and nice deli stuff.
Have reread this and realised I sound like a miserly obsessive maniac.
September 20, 2010
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Really enjoyed reading this article. My parents own a grocer and so I have never really had the need to shop at a supermarket here in Malta. When I moved to the UK I started shopping at supermarkets because I wanted to know what it felt like to have a great selection of food. It's great because when you're looking for ingredients for a strange recipe you're bound to find them, but the whole experience just feels kind of soulless if you know what I mean. I'm sticking with local, but having said that, the gossip at local stores does get a bit annoying sometimes :)
What I find in the UK supermarkets like Tesco's is that they have a LOT of the same thing (soaps, pasta) but these days, so little of the specialised, 'strange' stuff. You are lucky because you have farmer's markets and a good selection of out-of-country produce from the immigrant area shops: spices, not-commonly-found meats, and so on