Jason Goodwin: Supermarkets sell 10,000 different things, but it turned out we hardly need any of them

Jason Goodwin's local farm shop has it all — including prices which ring up in historic dates.

A lot of us are missing lockdown already. It’s been so relaxing, without dinners to attend or parties to arrange, no teas, no commutes. Enterprises that called for decision and diplomacy were stayed, together with the school run. There are villages, normally martyred to persistent traffic, where children have been riding bicycles along the street in Just William-style gangs as their parents sit outside, listening to birdsong. We all had homemade haircuts. The ecologists call it de-growth.

In the mid 1980s, I found myself in a supermarket with a visiting Polish academic. I breezed the aisles, picking up butter, eggs, dishwasher powder and frozen peas, as she stood frowning. When I paid at the checkout with a plastic card, she was almost in tears. ‘Why do you people have so many different butters? How do you choose? What is it for?’

‘Freedom of choice’ I might have said then, with a certain superiority. Now, I’m not so sure. We have dismantled the power of tradition in favour of perpetual choice, a chimera. Supermarkets may sell 10,000 different lines, but few turned out to be imperative. We did just fine, between the health-food shop and the farm shop, eating a lot of salad and tiding ourselves over the Hungry Gap on local asparagus, roots, leeks and early cabbage.

At the Bride Valley Farm Shop, Patricia sells sweet longhorn beef from the herd her husband keeps on the surrounding hills, grass fed, locally slaughtered and seasoned with wholesome and rewarding chat. The shop has a small-paned bow window, a bell on the door and red lino on the floor; the walls are painted cream.

“We’ve had Domesday Book for £10.86, the Sack of Constantinople at £12.04 and, for £16.88, a pound of sausages, a rolled skirt, two sausage rolls and the Glorious Revolution”

Patricia, who owns the shop, and Anne or Elisabeth, who assist, stand behind display counters, the one to the left for beef and lamb, the one on the right for cheese (blue vinney, Coastal Cheddar), black pudding and sausage rolls. Every so often, an inspector takes away a sausage roll for analysis at Porton Down, outside Salisbury. This is the kind of useful fact you learn by visiting. The rolls, which Patricia makes at home, have never yet failed the inspection.

Before the shop, Patricia taught history at a girls’ boarding school; the pedagogic instinct is with her still. ‘That’ll be £16.49,’ she says, when she’s totted up the bill for ribs, skirt and a pound of mince. ‘Not a good year for Charles I.’

It goes to show how important it is to know your dates and the unexpected uses of history. ‘Better for Cromwell, though,’ I retort, to show I’m keeping up. Or perhaps I’ve bought fore rib: ‘That’ll be £19.53,’ she says. I’m on it in a flash: ‘Coronation and the conquest of Everest?’

The key to this game is moderation, not to spend too much — £27.63 doesn’t cut it — or too little. I’m hazy on the Dark Ages and it isn’t worth driving out for the Fall of Rome, which is only a few sausages, but anything above a tenner is workable. We’ve had Domesday Book for £10.86, the Sack of Constantinople at £12.04 and, for £16.88, a pound of sausages, a rolled skirt, two sausage rolls and the Glorious Revolution.

We specialise in English history, but £17.89 for a free-range chicken and 2lb of short rib has to mean the French Revolution. ‘A very good year for butchers, too,’ I add, in my best Sydney Carton manner.

The last time Patricia fetched me smoked bacon, which you have to ask for by name, we got the Festival of Britain, which turned out to be the abdication of Edward VIII once we’d checked our sums.