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Monday, 25 June 2012

Food Memory - The Grocers

When I was almost 13 I started working (illegally) on Saturdays in a greengrocers in the town where I grew up. My elder sister already worked there and the owner was an old friend of my dad's so I was kind of a shoe-in. 

I loved that shop. I loved the smell of the fruit, the chill of the huge industrial fridge out the back, the regulars who came in every week, and the building itself was old and deliciously crooked and creaky. 

Working there taught me a huge amount about ingredients. It was the first time I was acquainted with chicory, fennel, radicchio, dragon fruit, kumquats, and lychees. I used to take older or damaged stock that we couldn't sell home and experiment; there was many a fish dish where I tried to get the balance of fennel right. And I discovered I never could like chicory. 

Even now, years since I left and the shop closed down, I remember the layout of the shop exactly. There was a large chilled shelving unit in a L-shape curled round the back of the shop: vegetables on the left with fruit and salads on the right. The exotic fruits and salads were always on the very right hand side, on the top shelf; the potatoes were always on the very left hand side, on the bottom shelf in deep square trays to keep the dirt from falling onto the floor. In the middle there were great weigh scales, old-fashioned and always a little bit inaccurate, hanging from the ceiling with curved shiny metal trays. There were herbs in sealed plastic trays hanging up above the salads, every herb you could think of, and it was my job every morning when they came out of the fridge to check for herbs that had gone brown or slimy; admittedly we used to take out the brown and slimy bits and put them back on sale, which is now probably illegal and endangering public health. 

Next to the window at the front of the shop were the two tills, one in front of the other. Mine was the front one, next to the door, and above the till was a shelf with 3 large glass jars. In these jars were chocolate covered raisins, peanuts, and yoghurt covered raisins for sale; when the shop was slow and no one was looking I often used to sneak a yoghurt covered raisin. I remember using a plastic scoop to decant them from the jars and trying to weigh them out on my till in little brown paper bags for customers; it used to take me ages to get an exact weight. 

I remember the smell of the English strawberries in the summer most of all; they were the biggest sellers and were set out on trestle tables in front of the shop. The punnets were always big and deep and filled to spilling with the glossy red berries. Whenever a customer bought a punnet we had to wrap them in brown paper bags and inevitably a few berries would always fall out when I was trying to twist the bags round to seal them. 

And it was while working in the shop that I experienced my first teenage crush; it was all-consuming and distracting. One day while cleaning the windows of the shop I saw him working in the hairdressers opposite, sweeping hair out of the front door. He was about 16/17, over 6 feet, and had very regular short brown hair, and despite the fact he didn't even look in my general direction I fancied him in love with me. From then on I always volunteered to clean the windows hoping for a glimpse of him and the opportunity to stretch my body out seductively next to the glass. I remember one day when he actually walked into the shop without warning and when I saw him I couldn't breathe and in my head was OMG HE'S HERE, then OMG HE CAN'T SEE ME. I ran out and hid in the fridge out back to maintain a sense of mystery about me. 

Then one day he was gone from the hairdressers. I pined for weeks, cleaning the windows and hoping that it was a temporary absence and he'd just been on a long holiday or was working in the Peace Corp. I had almost resigned myself to the loss when I decided to go to the new Italian deli round the corner from the shop on my lunch break one day. I decided to have a slice of their lasagne for lunch and was just ordering when He walked into the shop from the back. I stood, numb, staring. He started serving the woman behind me and I continued gawping, open mouthed, and thinking OMG HE'S BACK. The guy behind the counter had to prompt me to pay. As soon as I had I scuttled out of the shop as fast as my stumpy legs could carry me. 

Of course I went back to the deli every single Saturday on my lunch and had lasagne every single time just to spend a brief amount of time in his presence. Their lasagne was amazing; the tomato sauce was packed with garlic, the beef mince was juicy, and the bechamel sauce on top was thick and wobbly when cold. They served it cold from a vast pan under the glass counter and cut a slice to the size you wanted and put it in a polystyrene tray covered in cling film. I used to take it back to the shop and sometimes heat it up in the little staff room microwave, but more often than not eat it cold, straight from the tray. I remember the taste of it even now; actually I remember more about the lasagne than I do about my crush. 

It all had to come to an end eventually. A few months later the owner of the grocers retired and sold up, we were all made redundant. 

And the bubble finally burst for my crush when I saw him in the dairy aisle of the local Somerfield one day, him holding hands with another boy. 

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