I HAVE some friends and relatives who are expert gift buyers. They just have the knack of choosing the right thing for the right person, a talent that cannot be overrated in the run-up to Christmas.
With me you get pot luck. I’ve either chosen something totally appropriate and much appreciated, or something that is met with a dry “how lovely” and which is destined for one of those “unwanted gift” charity fundraising sales in January.
A couple of years ago I pulled off a masterstroke for one of the most difficult people to buy for on my Christmas list. He is a millionaire for a start. He doesn’t drink. He’s not really into sweeties. He and his wife have everything they could wish for and he claims even his own family resort to buying him socks in desperation.
But there is one place I knew he’d never been and one thing I knew he’d never tried – shopping in a well-known budget supermarket.
A nice wicker hamper filled with the deluxe brand of stuff such as 70 per cent Ecuadorian chocolate, finest balsamic vinegar, excellent pasta, cinnamon sticks, Black Forest ham and so on, all tied up with an elaborate bow, seemed to do the trick. He got the joke but, even more, he and his wife ate the lot with gusto. I still wouldn’t like to bet on whether he’s actually shopped there yet. That may be a step too far.
Despite the recession, I’m astonished by the number of people in Edinburgh who have never tried Lidl or Aldi, and who look at me as if I’m mad, or a secret benefit cheat, when I say these stores are actually very good.
Lidl outperformed Chanel on a perfumiers’ blind-smelling and won a Which? award for its champagne. Aldi has just trumped Fortnum and Mason in a Christmas pudding test by Good Housekeeping – £7.99 versus £24.95.
Between them they have won hundreds of awards. This year alone, Aldi has won 11 Grocer Own Label awards and Lidl has won 22, as well as being short-listed for a further 22 awards in the 2012 Quality Food Awards and Quality Drink Awards.
“But I don’t recognise any of the labels,” one still-to-be-convinced friend told me. I struggled with that complaint. “They’re all in English,” I pointed out. “No, no, I can see it’s baked beans or butter or sun-dried tomatoes,” she said. “But they’re not ordinary brands.”
Ah, the importance of branding, the love of the “ordinary”. Take British baked beans. They come in a glutinous, very sweet, almost syrupy tomato sauce which apparently suits the British palate, so they fly off the shelves. Lidl’s beans come in a tomato sauce, made with tomatoes by Italians who know about tomatoes.
Even so, I’m not sure the fear of setting foot in a budget supermarket is anything to do with a widely-held though erroneous perception of the food. It could be the other customers. It could be the fear of someone recognising the car in the car park. It could be the chilling prospect of their neighbours catching sight of them unloading Lidl or Aldi bags from the boot once they get home. I confess, I think I’m the only one round our way. It could be simple snobbery.
It can be enormous fun. I remember one friend asking where the tasty dip had come from. When I told her she said: “I didn’t know Lidl DID hummus!” in a voice that suggested she expected the store’s patrons to be fighting over meagre supplies of gruel, tripe and soup bones.
Like all supermarkets, the budget ones have their rituals. Don’t footer about, bagging up at the till. These checkout operators are fast so get your groceries back in the trolley, pay up and bag neatly at your leisure on the adjacent table. Someone else is waiting to be served. Staff are few and efficient. Bags have to be paid for. You won’t be called “Madam” and you won’t be greeted with “What a beautiful day, isn’t it?” But you’ll have more left in your Gucci wallet for the foie gras.
LANGUAGE is evolving all the time, I know. But there is one current and ghastly habit which is catching on fast, particularly among experts being interviewed on TV and radio. It’s setting my teeth on edge.
The interviewer says something like: “Mr Brown, can you tell us how this works?” Mr Brown begins: “So we take this substance and . . .” The interviewer might continue: “And what will all this cost?” Mr Brown says: “So the raw materials make up the biggest . . .” Interviewer: “And when can we expect to buy it?” Brown: “So it goes on sale . . .”
Is this gratuitous “so” an Americanism, a nervous affliction, or an attempt to make the answer sound more logical than it really is?