My late father, a proud Leither, worked throughout his life for Rankins Fruit Markets. Some decades ago, Rankins was a major importer of fruit and veg when Leith docks was a fully functioning working docks with hundreds of ships coming and going from all the airts bearing bananas, oranges, mandarins, apples and grapes from exotic and not so exotic lands.
My brother and I were sometimes treated to see the ships as they came in, to dodge the wagons carrying goods as they rattled along the rails on the dockside. His office was in the Corn Exchange in Constitution Street with a wonderful coal fire in the corner. Pre e-mails, transactions were carried out by phone and letter and later by fax so Tony (brother) and I had a great collection of foreign stamps from those orders, some from countries long since renamed. I think he still has them.
The point is, in those days, most fruit was in season. There were no strawberries in winter or all-year-round tomatoes. You could say that time has moved on and it’s much better now. But is it?
Though we were by no means well-off, because of dad’s access to fresh fruit I have to this day a taste for the real McCoy. Which brings me to my plumber and those plums.
Finding no hot water on tap, literally, I had to call out the emergency plumber and as he dealt with the leak, I volunteered a Victoria plum or two, having far too many to get through myself. He told me he didn’t like plums because they were too sour.
So began the education of the plumber, suitably protected by a paper towel as he devoured juicy plums, as to the rights and wrongs of today’s supermarket fruit. I should add that the previous week I introduced my hairdresser to the delights of greengages, a fruit she had not even heard of.
I am now on a roll and tell him about the demise of the Golden Delicious apple. In its heyday it lived up to its name with its yellow skin and delicious sweet taste. Today it would be hard to distinguish it from a Granny Smith. Bananas are sold in a raw state. They should have little brown spots and be soft to the bite. Tomatoes, also a fruit, once the glory of Scotland, are now imported all-year-round and taste has been sacrificed to appearance.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am as bad as the next. In the middle of winter I might fancy a salad, but consider what we have lost. Yes in the modern world with freezer containers and air flights food can be shifted worldwide in hours, not weeks, but apart from the pollution, which is no small consideration, we have lost our sense of taste.
Supermarkets – now in charge not only of what is on the shelf but what is grown for the shelf – have a responsibility to their customers and to the growers to protect the integrity of what we consume. This extends not only to humane treatment of our animals producing our meat, but to the fruit and the veg we eat.
When the hairdresser doesn’t know what a greengage is, when the plumber dismisses all plums as hard and sour and when you will hunt high and low for a “golden” Golden Delicious and winter strawberries look the part but taste of nothing, then we have to ask ourselves – the range of fruit of the supermarket shelves may seem impressive, but what about the taste?
Christine Grahame is SNP MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale