Fruits de Merde
Tesco plumbs the depths
Whenever I visit my friend Hugh in Cambridge, I follow the A1’s only soft-porn motorway sign, which points east to Baldock and west to Letchworth. The former is an ancient coaching, malting and brewing town, but the latter is England’s first garden city, dating from only a century ago.
Who says that late Victorian city planners didn’t have a sense of humor?
In spite of an interest born of living in a garden suburb begun at around the same time, I have yet to visit Letchworth. My route takes me instead through historic Baldock, past the front of an ex-factory so imposing that some of the younger locals are convinced that it was once a movie studio. Its mission, however, was not to pull wool over eyes but nylon over legs. Until Britain’s failing textile trade closed it down in the ’70s, it was the Kayser Bondor factory.
The monumental façade was grade II listed, and so when Tesco turned the site into a superstore it had to be preserved. I usually pass it with only a sideways glance, but this time I stopped to top up my tank with Tesco’s cut-price petrol. Crossing the vast Saharan parking lot, almost empty this early evening, I found the temptation to peek inside irresistible.
A route march around the back and side of the enormous structure brought me to an entrance leading into the clothing section. I could have been in Wal-Mart. It was a prison warehouse of cheap rags so anonymous and uniform as to suitably clothe an army of criminal mothers and children. Then came shelves of cut-price electronic gear, enough to blast the ghettos of an empire.
Finally, the food. In the deli section there was a help-yourself salad bar offering the same alternatives you get in cut-price all-you-can-eat buffets. Next to it was a cheese counter where you could buy in bulk the same blocks of pale soap offered prepacked in late night minimarkets. Scrawny chicken wings in huge packages were going at flyaway prices.
And then the PRICED TO CLEAR cabinet caught my eye. Along with a few birds on their last legs, there was a colorful plastic tray enticingly labeled,
FINEST FRUITS DE MER
A sumptuous feast of crab claws, langoustines, cockles, mussels and prawns.
This ready to eat selection of the ocean’s finest is hand-prepared and
cooked to perfection for you to enjoy its many delicious flavours.
Poised on the edge of its sell-by date, it was marked down by half to only £3.49. For a seafood guzzler like me, it was irresistible.
Two hours later, having whipped up a bowl of aïoli, I was ready to empty the shells. I like to do all the work in advance and then enjoy the contrasting flavors at leisure. The first shrimp’s head separated much too easily. When I pulled away the tiny legs from underneath, part of the inner meat came with them. Its texture was loose and insubstantial, as though it had been removed, chopped and then reinserted. It was difficult to remove the shell and leave anything behind.
I tried a langoustine. Their meat is always firm and chewy, but this one was as sloppy as the shrimp; a small child could easily have cut it up with a dull spoon. On to a crab claw – same story. The points came easily and flexibly out of the end, as a fresh crab’s properly should, but the meat clung in small bits to the thin central blade, refusing to come away cleanly even with a sharp knife.
Time for a tasting – first the shrimp, then the langoustine, then the crab. Nothing. Zilch. No flavor whatsoever. Unoptimistically I tried a cockle and a muscle. Adead, Adead O! Not stale, not ammoniac, simply neutral. They all tasted as food had tasted to me several years ago when a bad case of the flue left me for months without any oral sensations except salt, sweet and hot.
Refusing to accept defeat, I emptied the rest of the shells and put all the meat into a small bowl with a generous dollop of aïoli and another of crème fraîche. At last, real flavor – everything tasted of the rich dressing. But it might as well have been a bowl of minced supermarket chicken breast.
How do they do it? I’ve tasted seafood that was off or unpleasantly strange, but never with such a bland anonymity. It was as though the poor little creatures had swum in the same sea of verbiage that had spewed forth the gobbledygook on the packet. The next time I read a glowing report of a Tesco product, I’ll wonder what sort of fairy dust had been sprinkled over it just before it left the storeroom.
©2004 John Whiting
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