Taste the Difference

If you live in Oxford then you probably shop at Tesco. This is not a social comment, it’s just that with a Tesco Metro serving the whole of East Oxford and a large out-of-town Tesco serving the rest, you’re not left with much choice in the matter. While there are other options — Marks & Spencers for the disgustingly wealthy, a miniscule Co-Op for the smelly hippies and two blink-and-you’ll-miss them (yet horrifically busy) Sainsburys in the middle of the town centre, Tesco is where most Oxford residents will find themselves, time and again.

Despite what the television might say to you, let’s make no mistake; Tesco sells cheap crap. Not cheap crap in the same way that Asda is cheap crap, and it’s certainly no Lidl or Aldi, but fundamentally the food is cheap, and it’s crap. Even the ‘Tesco Finest’ range, bedecked in silver and black, has a quiet air of desperation about it, the food inside the careful packaging having a real ‘Will this do?’ feel to it.

The Tesco Metro in East Oxford is a fairly soul-crushing place. Too small to count as a ‘real’ Tesco, you can memorise the layout and every line of stock within a week or so. The queues are constant and the place is always teeming with a mixture of students and mothers with half a dozen hyperactive children. It’s the sort of awful atmosphere that left-leaning people might describe as ‘vibrant’.

I discovered on Saturday that one of the tiny competitors to Tesco’s hegemony — one of the two crappy Sainsbury’s Local stores — had had a bit of an overhaul. It had expanded.

Should have…sent…a poet…

It was an odd experience, going shopping in a Sainsbury’s after so many Tesco-only months, but I could tell I wasn’t alone. The atmosphere was quiet, reserved, and people were wandering the aisles with wide, tearful eyes. It was like that scene from Clerks when Randel goes to rent videos from a large rental superstore. Having had our tastebuds dulled by drippy ready meals, tasteless vegetables and meat that goes off the second it passes through the security barriers, the luxury goods available here were like manna.

You could see people torn by decisions; should they have the giant bag of Wensleydale and Cranberry flavour hand-baked crisps, or the Camembert and Red Onion? Which Covent Garden soup, out of the three dozen varieties on offer? Should they go with the garlic and olive oil mash or the rock salt and cracked black pepper mash?

Like everyone else in there, I found the red mist descended. Before long my basket was filled with individual creme brulées, rosemary and rock salt bread, smoked almonds, luxury tropical fruit and nut mixes, and lots of things with the word ‘Tuscan’ in the product description.

And, like everyone else in there, I left without buying any actual food. Like everyone else, I was snapped out of it when I reached the end and stared, ashen-faced, at a bill three times bigger than my usual weekly food budget, and like everyone else I would then have to go and buy lunch on top of that because I’d neglected to think about buying any meals.

Like everyone else, I’d be back at Tesco a few hours later to buy normal, cheap, crap. But still, at least I now have a use for that creme brulée blowtorch I’ve never used.