In just a few short years Richard Hammond has gone from strangely alluring Top Gear pint pot to heart wrenching daredevil crash survivor to Morrisons' latest gimp. Similarly, Jamie Oliver is now less national hero battling kids cholesterol than national irritant on a crusade to get us shopping at Sainsbury's, seemingly by popping up with a TV crew in random strangers' kitchens and showing them how to make a salmon fishcake. Wogan is just about getting away with it over at Tesco, but then I'd forgive those silky Irish tones anything. Even Children in Need.
What's the point in getting an organic jam from Peru when you've got amazing organic Yorkshire jams?
It's all a bit desperate though. Not least on the part of the supermarkets trying to imbue their illuminated shrines to conformity with a bit of celebrated personality. When did the places we buy our food become like this? Dehumanised chains colonising every corner of the land with branded pods touted to us by embarrassed TV presenters. Hammond doesn't look convinced and neither am I.
Thankfully, in Leeds city centre at least, there are alternatives. Urban bastions of independent food retail. There's Salt's Deli that I gushed about last week, then hop over the River Aire and there's Simpsons, your city centre grocer and wine merchant.
Opened in 2005 and situated down Dock Street, a cobbled alley parallel to the river, Simpsons is an independent mini supermarket with style. No expanses of white with uniform signage here, Simpsons is all bare bricks, wire rack shelving, pebble flooring and exposed pipes with low hanging lamps lighting up the space. Against this backdrop Simpsons sells the usual grocery suspects while maintaining a strong line on local, ethical and organic.
“Our emphasis is on sourcing locally and supporting our local farmers and food producers. What's the point in getting an organic jam from Peru when you've got amazing organic Yorkshire jams?” says assistant manager, Liam Spencer. “It's important to know where a product has come from and quality is paramount.”
This attitude is definitely reflected in the stock. Big crates full of locally sourced, loose fresh fruit and veg are flanked by chillers selling local deli stuffs and meat products supplied by the Yorkshire Dales Meat Company. There's a range of Cook! frozen ready meals which tell you who it's been made by, including for example confit of duck in orange liquer sauce cooked by Gennaro Ruocco. Elsewhere there are homemade soups made by someone called Clare, an entire shelf of gourmet popping corn and a range of eco-friendly cleaning products.
Wine is clearly a passion. Their huge specialist selection features many organics and most are dressed with coloured luggage tags with handwritten descriptions and recommended pairings. I'm a sucker for anything handwritten. It's got that inimitable human touch and does well communicating their vast knowledge of the subject.
There's also a café area doing a lunch menu of homemade soups, sarnies and salads. From 6pm daily they do stonebaked pizzas that have been described as the best in the city. Combine with a copy of Empire Records from their DVD rental machine and a bottle of expertly selected organic chianti and that's a pretty special night in right there.
On top of all this, what really gives Simpsons their razor sharp edge in the business of being a supermarket is their interaction with the customer. “We're always asking our customers what they want from us, and if there's a specific product they'd like in store we'll do our very best to stock it,” says Liam. He goes on to list examples and it's clear from the enthusiasm that having a personal and interactive relationship with their shoppers is a priority.
The Big Four (you don't need me to list them surely?) can't compete with this. The whole place has got a casual charisma about it that feels very bohemian New York and with their quirky product range, admirable ethics, delicious in-house food and customer commitment, they've got a really good thing going. They don't need a husky B-list voiceover to give them personality, it oozes from every carefully selected product pore.
“You get so bored of what's in the major supermarkets, why not choose something a bit different and support someone local?” I couldn't agree with you more, Liam. Someone ought to put it to Hammond.
28 Dock Street
0113 243 1123
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