spears & barrows


The young woman at the supermarket till thrust three bunches toward me, the look in her eyes a mixture of misery and fear.

What?” I hissed, glancing left and right to make sure no one was observing this furtive transaction.

Umm, what’s this?” she asked.

As if it wasn’t bad enough to risk being caught buying vegetable in a supermarket, now I had to publicly name and shame it.

It’s asparagus,” I replied through clenched teeth.

Oh, what do you do with it?” the ingenue -in-training asked.

Generally I like to stick spears in my ears and scream, I thought.

You poach it or steam it,” I replied.

It’s also very nice wrapped in prosciutto and pan-fried,” came a voice from behind me.

Oh, hello Dennis.”

Dennis is from the greengrocers, where I make a point of buying all my fruit and vegetables, except today … today when I succumbed to the asparagus special.

You see Dennis knows my secret. How I too used to be a greengrocer, a fact gleaned one day when he caught me rearranging the tomato display.

Since then we’ve had several long earnest conversations about greengrocers; what they mean to community, their importance in the food chain from the farm gate to the plate, and the nutritional health and welfare of people.

And how the supermarkets giants put the squeeze on their suppliers and a stranglehold on small business generally.

Floor, swallow me now.

Dennis says nothing more.

He takes his fire-lighters and returns to his shop where really loyal customers will gently pull the asparagus spears from his back.

I feel as rank as a liquefied Sebago in the middle of a hessian sack.

It seems forever ago now, but for four years two lifetime journalists abandoned their careers to run a seven day-a-week fruit shop.

Today, our hard-earned costermonger skills are little more than party tricks.

But when the girl at our local fruit shop marvels at how we have guess-timated an exact kilo of beans we share a secret smile.

Don the Fruiterer, as my husband became known, would go to market three times a week, filling our truck with four to five tonnes at a time in peak periods and doing much of the loading and unloading himself.

Our life became measured not by hours or days, but seasons and what was in and what was out.

We learned about community from the ground up. Who grew what, who knew what, and through food we became intimately involved in the daily lives of hundreds of people from their first juice in the morning to their after-dinner snack at night.

We knew who liked oranges and who had the disposition of lemons.

It was in this capacity as local fruit shop owner I attended the first funeral of someone I actually knew as a friend, rather than having been dispatched to gate-crash as a reporter.

We also learned just how hard people in small business work and why it is important to support the shops in the local high street.

Which is why I downed spears and headed back across to the fruit shop – though it may be a while before I can look Dennis in the eye.


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