Some years ago there was a farm shop in Worcestershire I loved to visit. It was run by a Mr and Mrs Orchard — yes, really! — and operated out of a tiny wooden hut, next to the barns where they milked their herd of Guernseys.
Beyond were the fields where they grew their carrots, cabbages, potatoes, turnips and so on, whatever was in season — and all of them sold at such stupidly low prices that my jaw used to drop every time I got the bill which, of course, Mr Orchard would tot up in his head from a handwritten list.
The Orchards could afford to do this because, by selling direct to the consumer, they were cutting out the middleman and avoiding those iniquitous deals that supermarket buyers tend to impose on farmers.
It was a win-win situation for buyer and seller.
As a result we’re experiencing a boom in farm shops.
In 2004, there were just 1,200 across the country, most of them run informally as a side-line on a working farm; today there are 3,500 such shops, some of which in size and profit potential eclipse the farms they’re attached to.
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There is, however, no doubting their popularity.
According to the latest figures from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, four in ten of us have visited a farm shop in the past 12 months, with nearly half intending to visit one in the future.
But I do wonder how many of us are being taken for a ride by their proliferation — and of the oh-so-fashionable farmers’ markets that they’ve given rise to — and if what was once a fine a idea has got of hand?
Too often when I venture into a farm shop these days I feel as I used to when I wandered into one of those high-end Notting Hill boutiques looking for a present for my wife. ‘It’s how much?’
Have supermarkets such as Lidl replace the farm shops of yesteryear as the best place to bag cheap vegetables?
They keep a roof over the heads of hard-pressed farmers, labourers in the fields, cattle supplied with feed and boost the rural economy.
So you wander desperately around — every product exquisitely displayed in wicker baskets or with gingham trimmings, labelled with mouth-watering descriptions in illuminated script — in search of something you can afford to buy without losing face.
Some streaky bacon, perhaps, hailing from rarest of bre and smoked according to a traditional medieval recipe in an ancient kiln? Yes, except there seems to be more fat than meat and the cost would keep those rare pigs in clover for the rest of their lives.
Or some misshapen, mud-spattered vegetables? Yes, but again, at that price, you could have had them flown in by private jet from the South of France and they probably wouldn’t be half so unappetising in appearance.
Usually, I end up in the bakery paying through the nose for a loaf of bread, concocted from a prehistoric grain I’ve never heard of, and which tastes no better than the stuff I make in the bread machine at home.
No longer farm shops, they’re basically delicatessens with a rustic bent.
I don’t want to be too hard on high-profile shops like Daylesford Organic, the uber-posh Gloucestershire farm shop which has outposts in the most fashionable areas of London, because their influence has, in some ways, been a good one.
The terrible price we’ve had to pay for this rural gastronomic revolution, however, is twofold: firstly the high cost and secondly the pretention.
Now, I’m not a fan of The Archers and its politically correct ‘every day tales of country folk’ written by Left-wing townies who wouldn’t know one end of the cow from another, but a recent storyline is telling.
I only know what kimchi is because the other day I accidentally found myself in a hipster cafe and asked about the identity of the disgusting looking stuff in a pickle jar next to the handmade organic sourdough on the bar: it was kimchi, a substance you’d only want to eat if you didn’t know what it was made of which is . .
. fermented cabbage.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for experimenting with interesting foreign produce, in the right place, but The Archers illustrates exactly what’s gone wrong with the farm shop movement. It has been overtaken by a megalomaniacal urge to transform the whole world into one giant trendy cafe selling produce you’ve never heard for eye-watering profits.
For years I lived in London where, of course, you fully expect to be able to purchase every conceivable ingredient from any number of ethnic supermarkets.
But when you do that you’re paying rock-bottom prices — far less than it would cost you in, say, Waitrose, let alone a boutique farm shop — because those little supermarkets cater for ordinary people rather than middle-class trendies clutching the latest Jamie Oliver recipe book.
The country, however, is different which is one of the reasons I moved there. I wanted to escape all that metropolitan trendiness and go back to simpler world where the ingredients were fresher, the variety smaller and the prices lower; where no one judged you on the clothes you wore or the car you drove or what you ate because that’s the deal when you move to the sticks — you’re no longer competing like city folk do.
Well, not any more.
When I dare venture into a farm shop now, I come away with the same feeling I get after an unsuccessful day at the races or a bad night at the casino.
The one that says: ‘You mug. They saw you coming.
Obviously, we should celebrate all the farms which have been kept afloat by opening a shop, and all the artisan cheesemakers (that nice chap who used to be in pop group Blur, for example) who’ve been encouraged to experiment and diversify by the new outlets to sell from, and all the country gastropubs specialising in local fare which have blossomed as a result of the farm shop revolution.
But deep down, I suspect most of you know I’m right: that a great many of these places are now the most massive rip-off; they bully us into buying things we don’t want or need.
We’d all be better off at Lidl and Aldi.