Here’s a dinner for two with 1970s sophistication but modern-day products and prices: to start, a couple of prawn cocktails at £2.09 each; to follow, a brace of 8oz fillet steaks weighing in at £12.47. A rustle of salad and a clutch of new potatoes will probably only cost four quid, but instead of a homely salad cream you’ll need to drizzle some Aceto Balsamico di Modena on this and that’ll set you back a cool £14.99.
In lieu of gateaux (a clause I feel I’ve been waiting to type my entire life), a chocolate truffle cake priced at £1.25 a slice, accompanied by a £4.19 tub of Green & Black’s ice cream. Now, none of this would seem anything but £42.33 of reasonableness, were it not that you then went and spunked off £99.99 on a bottle of Dom Perignon Brut, which the shelf tag – sorry, I mean wine list – assured you would be “perfect with everything”.
And what is the name of this establishment, at once oddly timeless and bang up-to-date? Why, Sainsbury’s of course. What could be realer than a meal purveyed by the food retailer that has a whopping 16.5 per cent of the domestic market? However, lugging all this stuff home and cooking it doesn’t qualify – I happen to be almost absurdly proficient in the kitchen, but I know most Britons still, pathetically, think of sous vide as boil-in-a-bag despite the revolutions of modernist cuisine.
Perhaps a better way of judging Sainsbury’s would have been to graze the aisles, crunching a carrot in aisle three, swigging a handful of pic’n’mix over in aisle 13, strolling nonchalantly past the Tupperware while pulling the filaments from a Cheestring and reciting “Cheese me, cheese me not, cheese me . . .”
But while this is certainly a kind of eating many of us are familiar with, there comes a time and a girth when one retreats, gracefully, to the supermarket café to read the Daily Mail (“Happiness is being slimmer than him”) and sip a cappuccino served in a cup the size of a bird bath. I hadn’t visited the café in my local Sainsbury’s for yonks (a very supermarket café kind of term) and remembered it as a frumpy sort of place with modular plastic highchairs bedizened with peas, vinyl pouffes thrown about willy-nilly and a terrific view of the car park. Yes, I went there to scoff – but stayed to . . . scoff.
One of the best things Sainsbury’s has done to its café is eliminate the view – no one in their right mind wants to look at a car park, far better to enjoy an enormous stylised glyph of a cappuccino and a huge slice of cake and a charming prospect of aisles 6 through to 10. The other thing it has done is revamp the menu. Instead of the traditional chips-and-beans fare, the specials were a warm chicken and bacon Caesar salad or an equally toasty serving of chargrilled vegetables with pesto and couscous salad. Neither of these was actually available – this is still Britain after all – but it’s the thought that counts, especially if you’re contemplating a gastric band before teatime. The counter of the new-style café comes complete with mini-muffins and untoasted panini looking sinisterly like insoles. I went for the salmon pie, with some salad and a bowl of Mediterranean tomato soup, while the whelp had a mozzarella and pesto panini.
We sat in blood-coloured easy chairs at a small table and tucked in. Nearby, in an area of equally sanguine seating, a group of youngish men in chain-store suits and Sainsbury’s lapel badges, armed with clipboards, sat discussing the finer points of shelf-stacking. Bit of a busman’s holiday, I mused as I inserted steaming chunks of salmon, puff pastry and, mmm, haddock into my Middle England mouth. Imagine working in Sainsbury’s all day, then during your lunch break chowing down in the windowless café – after a week or two you’d begin to feel pretty, er, claustrophobic.
Still, besides employees I can’t imagine who’d want to eat in the café – surely eating in a supermarket rather defeats the whole point. Then I examined my till receipt a little more closely. With drinks, the aforementioned mini-muffins and a bag of Kettle Chips, our bill came to £14.21, but then my opening Nectar card balance had been 5296 and I’d earned a further 28 points! This gave me a whopping £26.62 to spend in Sainsbury’s, which meant that in real terms I’d made £12.41. Ah, supermarket loyalty – in today’s fickle world it’s the only kind that matters.