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Brand World

J’en connais un rayon

10/09/2015 - par Mark Tungate

Une simple visite au supermarché local en dira long sur ce que chaque pays a à offrir. Voila ce qu'en dit notre chroniqueur anglais Mark Tungate pour sa rentrée.

“You have to come to the supermarket with me,” said my new South African friend, Simone, when I was in Johannesburg this summer. “I want to show you the spice racks!”


You might imagine supermarkets to be homogenised spaces, pretty much the same the world over. But when you’re travelling, a trip to the local supermarket can tell you many interesting things about the history and culture of the country you’re visiting.


Simone Puterman, a journalist for the South African advertising webzine Mark Lives, opened my eyes to this fact. One of the key elements of South African popular culture is the braai, or barbecue. According to Simone, the most skilled braai cooks infuse their meats with complex blends of spices, giving them a distinctive taste and aroma. Simone collects spices and regularly trades them with her friends.


Once we were in the supermarket, I understood that this was a shared national obsession. Never have I seen such a vast range of lovingly displayed and packaged spices, from the family favourite Robertsons (with its distinctive logo of a clipper ship) to the trendy Eat Art label. There’s a local celebrity chef range from Yudhika, “the curry queen of bling” (see Yudhika.com); and spices that evoke the grandeur and romance of Africa, such as Bushman’s Chilli and (my personal favourite) Oryx Desert Salt from the Kalahari.


As Simone pointed out, all of this reflects the Cape’s history as a way station for the eastern spice trade, which dates back to the days of the Dutch East India Company. Indeed, as Robertsons’ website reminds us, Cape Town was founded by the Company’s envoy, Jan van Riebeek, in 1652. Even today, as oil prices plummet, worldwide demand for African spices (pepper, ginger and chillies from Ethiopia, cloves and vanilla from Madagascar, garlic from Egypt) remains healthy.


In the UK, you can also read some of the history of our country on its supermarket shelves. Take H.P. Sauce for example – the iconic brown sauce that Brits love to put on their chips. The H.P. stands for Houses of Parliament. But the sauce’s recipe – malt vinegar, tomato, dates, tamarind and other spices – reminds us of the exotic tastes our ancestors picked up in colonial India. See also: Branston Pickle and Bombay Sapphire gin. We drink gin and tonic, by the way, because the tonic once contained quinine – a protection against malaria.


Visit a supermarket in Spain, and you will see an impressive selection of hams dangling from the ceiling. In Italy, you will be stunned by the diversity and variety of pasta. And do any supermarkets in the world offer such a vast range of cheese and wine as you’ll find here in France?


Conversely, when I first arrived in Paris, I was irritated that I was unable to find fresh chilli peppers for my chilli con carne. I later realised that the French simply don’t enjoy spicy food. On the other hand, the power and influence of Danone was apparent from the large number of yoghurts and other dairy products on display.


Supermarket stock buyers take regional demands into account, too: for example, my local Casino in Clichy stocks a wide range of North African products and ingredients. When I lived in Brixton, South London – which has a large West Indian community – I could buy such delights as yams and okra.


At a supermarket in New York, my wife was mesmerized by an entire aisle devoted to pretzels, Doritos and their accompanying dips. Of course, the sheer size of supermarkets in the US symbolises the over-consumption and fast food culture we associate with that country. The world’s most demanding customers, Americans expect everything to be available, so each category is broken down to a minute degree.


I’m beginning to wonder if exploring supermarkets might become a new form of social anthropology. Coincidentally, when I returned from South Africa, my wife sent me a link to an article by the philosopher Alain de Botton in the Financial Times. De Botton, the author of a book called The New Art of Travel, warns us not to fall victim to “guide book guilt”. Each guide book lists huge amounts of galleries and monuments that we feel obliged to see – but what if museums aren’t our thing? He writes: “We might, for example, deep inside be far more curious about how local supermarkets operate...”


Show me your supermarket, and I will tell you who you are.

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