Tuesday 24 May 2016

And I thought we were a Nation of Tea Drinkers

As soon as you set foot in Uruguay you are struck by the amount of people clutching a decorative handle-less cup with a long metal straw (bombilla) and a thermos tucked under one arm. This is mate (pronounced mah-tey), and to call it the national drink seems a gross understatement.

The process of making and drinking mate has many similarities to the British tea ritual; a degree of acquired taste, various available blends, the bridging of class divides and forming the backdrop to many social situations. The striking difference is the extent to which Uruguayans take it outdoors, and there is a strong emphasis on sharing an individual brew (often amongst many).

The next time I see Luis Suarez getting off the Barca team bus before a big game I’m going to be looking carefully for evidence of mate paraphernalia stashed inside his tracksuit top.

PS: Incidentally Uruguay is a fantastic country. Shouldered between the significant tourist destinations of Brazil and Argentina it is much overlooked (though ironically the Uruguayan coastal town of Punta del Este is the place for affluent Brazilians and Argentines to holiday). The country has miles of wild beaches, an interior of beautiful rolling hills complete with gauchos on horseback, and a gem of a capital city.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Omnipresent Waitrose

My affection for Waitrose has grown over time. Initially it was a rare sighting as the company tried to gain a foothold in a competitive market, whilst also being a little over my student budget. Fast forward a decade or two and they opened a medium-sized store ten minutes walk from where I was living in Bristol, and significantly, on my way to work. I’d also managed to pay off the student loan.

Like UK politics, the big supermarket chains all seem to have coalesced around the middle ground in recent years. Traditionally more budget retailers such as Morrisons and Tesco have introduced premium ranges (‘Finest’ and ‘Best’), whilst those at the more expensive end have introduced low-priced lines (‘Essentials’ for Waitrose and something like ‘Everyday’ for Sainsbury’s). This meant that shopping at Waitrose was no longer necessarily a rare treat, but somewhere I could just about justify (at least to myself) a regular shop.

Then they introduced a loyalty card which further cemented the relationship. This enabled me to pick up a quality fresh coffee every day, absolutely free. The idea obviously being that if you go in-store to get a coffee, you’d come out with a load of stuff you didn’t know you needed until the sophisticated marketing machine did its job. Whilst I did occasionally get reeled-in this way, I liked to think I held a healthy lead in the matchplay stakes.

There were a couple of low moments, such as when Waitrose discontinued my favourite pizza, but it was a pretty stable relationship. So it was with a hint of sadness that I removed the Waitrose loyalty card from my wallet before heading off on the boat.

Imagine my surprise then, two days after arriving in St Lucia I was provisioning for the boat in a medium sized, very local supermarket, when amongst the aisles were tins of Waitrose ‘Essential’ products. This seemed rather bizarre but I passed it off as some strange anomaly – perhaps a container of Waitrose items fell off a ship in the Atlantic and washed ashore in Rodney Bay? 

But then it happened again in Chile and Uruguay (as well as the Falklands but that was somewhat more anticipated). But not only canned products this time. Whilst Waitrose’s canned seafood chowder is not to be sniffed at, Belgian chocolate cookies got me particularly excited.

We do live in an increasingly globalised world, but Waitrose products in these places? Now I’m half expecting my favourite discontinued pizza to show up in the Azores.