I’d had my eyeballs sandblasted by storms while crossing endless barren deserts; my shins nibbled by tetchy piranhas when wading through tropical rivers; and my toes turned to icicles as I wearily climbed snowclad mountains that touched the sky. But I’d finally made it. Ahead of me lay the legendary stepped pyramid of knowledge, atop which sat a radiant being, the wisest living thing on the planet. I fell to my knees at its feet.
‘Oh, wise one,’ I begged. ‘Please answer me one question.’
‘You have travelled far and overcome many dangers to reach me,’ the sage creature replied, its voice as sweet as honey straight from the hive. ‘Your wish is my command.’
‘Why is it only the posh are allowed to have an interest in food?’
The radiant being stared at me for a moment before answering, a quizzical expression on its benevolent face. ‘But that is simply not the case.’
‘It is where I come from.’
‘Aha!’ The being raised one golden eyebrow, realisation spreading across its features like the rising sun lifting a shadowy cloak from a meadow. ‘You are British, are you not?’
‘I am.’ I confirmed.
‘In that case I do not know the answer to this,’ admitted the most knowledgeable being in the known Universe. ‘You guys are just weird.’
Recently, I read a post on social media about the distribution of Waitrose supermarkets across the UK. The post was designed to illustrate a north south as well as a class divide, the subtext being there are more posh folk in the south than there are in the no nonsense north. Apart from the fact the post didn’t depict the true number of Waitrose stores in Britain, it didn’t acknowledge the north of England has its own high-end supermarket (a tabloid tag) in Booths.
What particularly caught my eye were the comments following the post. The vast majority were highly critical of Waitrose, dismissing its products as expensive, crap, useless, and the people who shopped there as snobby. One ‘northern’ person said they were followed any time they entered a Waitrose store in the south. Another claimed they were told they didn’t belong in its aisles because they were working-class. What utter bollocks those two statements are.
What none of the numerous comments did was identify the reason people like me shop at Waitrose. And it has nothing to do with posh v working-class. I shop at Waitrose in Wellington for the same reason I shopped at Pingo Doce in Palmela in Portugal and Al Campo in La Orotava on Tenerife. Because, as someone who loves cooking, it stocks more of the ingredients I want than other supermarkets. Simple as that.
One of the oddest things about returning to Britain was being reminded of the warped relationship with food here, especially in the way it can be weaponised, used as a cleaver to divide so-called classes and regional differences. Having lived in Spain and Portugal and written about the gastronomic cultures of various other European countries, I’ve reached the conclusion there’s nowhere quite like Britain when it comes to this sort of attitude toward food.
The Waitrose post on social media was another example of a social media-fuelled trope – working-class northerners have no truck with fussy foods of the sort found in Waitrose, while affluent middle-class southerners are willing to pay more for the sort of products only posh folk would want to eat.
What do the following have in common? Grizzled fishermen who shared their oysters on the Delta de l’Ebre in Catalunya; a farmer who proudly cut chunks from a round of cave-aged blue cabrales cheese in the Picos de Europa; a Greek waiter who taught Andy and I the proper way to cook calamari; the Slovenian girl who took us foraging in the pastures of Logarska Dolina; or the guide who, while introducing us the culinary treasures of Emilia Romagna, told us about her son devouring their stock of Parmigiano Reggiano as he waited for her to come home to make him lunch.
There are two answers. One is, none were posh. The second is, they were all passionate about food.
Passionate about food. Therein lies the crux of the matter.
I’m willing to bet a great majority of those who denigrate Waitrose might equally turn their nose up at Orkney crab, Isle of Skye oysters, haggis, Cullen skink, venison, Arbroath smokies etc. Britain has its fair share of specialist food producers who are no different from their mainland European counterparts, so the Waitrose post isn’t as reflective of the population as those who left comments on it might want us to believe. It is just another example of the cult of populism.
Having an interest in gastronomy and food products doesn’t define someone’s class in Spain. It doesn’t in Italy. It doesn’t in Portugal. And it shouldn’t in Britain.
Incidentally, three of the Waitrose stores not shown in the social media post are in Glasgow, that famously posh, middle-class Scottish city.
Incidentally part deux – Fairy Liquid 780ml in Waitrose, £2. Fairy Liquid 654ml in Tesco, £2. Fairy Liquid 654ml in ASDA, £2.