Commonplace Vol. 3 Issue 7
Comparative Regional Supplies in the North Atlantic Archipelago. In this essay, I will...
Hello! I’ve recently been on two trips to the UK for Big SCA Stuff, I was in a few different Tesco supermarkets there, and I have some muttering to do about supplies in different jurisdictions. And also the UK running low on stuff.
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(Interestingly, it took me quite a few attempts in Midjourney to get an image of English food stores that did not have most empty shelves)
Tesco Ireland is a subsidiary of Tesco PLC in the UK. It has Irish suppliers, but not as many as Irish producers would like, and imports a lot of its goods from the UK. Beyond the branch level, it’s mostly managed from the UK. Long-time readers will know that the lack of fresh vegetables in the Maynooth Tesco after the coldest bits of the winter in 2010-2011 and again in 2018 were major factors in my interest in food supply lines. Without having any particular insight into the management practice or organisation of Tesco, it’s pretty clear that branches don’t interact much or resupply from one to another, so that one branch can be completely out of a given product while the one in the next town over has plenty. Restocking appears to happen solely “from above”.
Given this, and the level of goods imported from the UK, you’d expect the supplies on the shelves to be pretty much equivalent. They are, I can tell you, absolutely not. I wasn’t really hunting for points of comparison, and I found about eight or ten products that I would buy (and in most cases, did buy on these trips) which aren’t present in Ireland.
Scotch Eggs are still on the shelves there, and haven’t been here for nearly two years. For those not familiar, Scotch Eggs were invented in 1738 (to the best of my knowledge) by Fortnum & Mason in London as an item for travellers passing through Piccadilly. You’ll see attribution to Algerian cookery, something from Whitby in Yorkshire, and an Indian dish called nargis kofta. They’re hardboiled eggs, wrapped in sausagemeat, and covered in breadcrumbs. They’re not a complicated thing to make, but they’re fiddly. I’d rather buy them than make them. And UK branches of Tesco have them, when Ireland does not.
I am a great fan of raspberry flavoured anything, and yogurt in particular. Tesco in the UK has three kinds of rapsberry yogurt in 500g pots; Tesco Ireland has none, and I have to rely on Dunnes for the Onken Raspeberry.
Swiss Chard is pretty completely unavailable in Ireland (not just in Tesco, to be fair), and is part of the Tesco Finest range in the UK. Similarly, cavolo nero kale can be got there and not here. Varied mushrooms, some of which I’ve never seen on sale before, check. Hickory Smoked Nuts, there in Tesco Finest livery, not to be had here at all (although possibly they appear around Christmas, which honestly annoys me more than otherwise). The UK has a massive array of frozen dim sum, which is just not a thing in Ireland. And so on.
The range of craft beer in the Tesco in the UK matched and exceeded some off-licences here. The range of cider entirely flattened most off-licences here. Tesco Ireland has about six kinds of cider, most of them sweet.
And it’s not as though I was visiting some hypermarket in a major city. The one I looked at longest was the Tesco on the outskirts of Holyhead, universally known as one of the greyest, dullest and least fun towns in the entire United Kingdom.
Conversely, however, there were some things that were downright odd about the food supplies in the UK. First, eggs were in short supply. I have a picture of the Tesco shelves in a branch in Willesden in London which should reasonably be full of eggs, and they were about 10% there, with only the expensive special-brand organic eggs left.
Second, pretty nearly every restaurant, pub, or food establishment we went to in a week of pretty much non-stop travel on the second trip had some items off the menu. They varied widely, but everywhere had something they couldn’t get in. And we’re not talking about slightly obscure desserts or a particular kind of cheese. One place had no spaghetti. Another had no cheese of any kind. There was no chicken available in one, except the goujons (which I guess were frozen, and possibly from a different supplier). Greggs were out of something (I didn’t hear what exactly; it wasn’t sausage rolls). The staff presenting this information did so very neutrally, as though which-bits-of-our-menu-aren’t-there-today was completely routine. Sometimes you didn’t find out until you tried to order something.
It’s worth noting, too, that we were generally eating fairly early in the evenings, owing to being whacked and wanting to go to bed early. So the places weren’t running out of a particular dish; they just plain didn’t have it that day. It would have been unremarkable in a few or even half of the eateries, but to have every one of them short on something felt deeply weird.
Food also seemed more expensive, which is a definite change. I am used to sterling being stronger than the Euro, and that translating to lower numbers on the menus, but in most places we visited, I was seeing figures the same or higher than I would expect in Ireland. It’s hard to determine that in, say, a Premier Inn’s buffet breakfast, but the prices in pubs and restaurants were definitely about 15% higher than I would have expected.
Finally, we visited Dover briefly, and the queue of trucks we saw trying to get to and through the port was honestly weird - I started paying attention after I realised that the left lane inbound to the port was full of lorries, and after that I counted 4.5km of nose-to-tail commercial and haulage vehicles. I’d guess there was 1-2km before I started counting. So yeah, the UK is in a weird state at the moment. You couldn’t say there’s a food shortage yet, but there are definitely gaps in supply, and they’re showing up in food businesses as well as supermarket shelves. And yet there are some goods that you can’t get here.
My hypothesis is that that all the stuff you can get in the UK and not in Ireland is produced within the UK (and not exported for various regulatory reasons), and that all the stuff in which there are gaps are things coming from outside, which isn’t as steady or reliable as it used to be. The eggs, which were in low supply due to avian flu issues, couldn’t be easily supplemented by Irish or French suppliers, because the Brexit-related import faff is too difficult and slow to get through. All of this is pretty much as predicted - and honestly not yet as bad as it could be - but what I found genuinely strange was the matter-of-fact way in which people in the country are accepting gaps on shelves and items not on menus, as though this is how it has always been. The 40-year era of relative prosperity since the 1980s seems to be rapidly disappearing into history, even as it continues in neighbouring countries.