Since I’ve come back from Tokyo, I’ve been digesting what I experienced and thinking a lot about the huge range of premium food products on offer there. It was actually quite a shock in that for all of the wealth generated during the Celtic Tiger, we really don’t have super-premium-priced food here, outside of a few restaurants. Perhaps that is because we obsessed about prices non-stop during the good times, talking about “Rip-off Ireland,” and fuming if things weren’t cheap (except houses and salaries). Food seemed to bear the brunt of this, which is ironic, since Ireland simply can’t produce cheap food products – at least not compared to Poland, Germany, Argentina, etc., where the economies of scale are much larger and the costs much lower.
What few people seem to realise is that the prices of the best Irish cheeses, meats, etc., are actually quite low if you look at what super premium products such as those would cost in the US, France, Italy or the UK. In Japan, it’s a whole different level. From sushi to fruit to chocolate, there are so many different levels of price and quality that your head would spin.
Although you can buy chocolate in a convenience store for similar prices to here, you also have Aoki charging €12+ for a bar, or Noka, where a box of four tiny chocolates retailed for more than €20 (in the US it’s less, but still expensive). There are no Irish chocolatiers charging anything remotely similar. With oranges, you can buy normal priced oranges in Tokyo, and they go up from there, to about €15/orange. Of course there are also the €100+ melons (mostly given as gifts), and I paid €7 for a scoop of ice cream.
Now most Irish people would say – “€15 for an orange? What an absolute rip-off!” I, on the other hand, would wonder – “What makes an orange so good that it’s worth €15? I’d better taste it!” Most importantly, there are clearly people out there who would pay it. Yet, we certainly don’t have fruit at those prices.
The reason I’m writing this post is that tonight, at the checkout of my local supermarket, I was given a snide comment about the price I was paying for a piece of Gubbeen cheese, and it made me very angry. Are we all expected to buy the cheapest chedder on the market? I hardly drink, don’t frequent the bookie, and I don’t own a nice car or a holiday home. Even if I did, why shouldn’t I spend money on a good Irish cheese if I want to? I love cheese, I’m supporting an Irish producer making a quality product, and the truth is I’d pay even more.
I know that especially now that the economy is in tailspin, there are many people who cannot afford high priced products. However, to assume that there isn’t a place for an expensive cheese (or ice cream for that matter) that cheers us up and makes us feel good is pure ignorance. It would be great if more of us could appreciate, as the Japanese do, that a piece of sublime food, no matter what the cost, when it is produced, prepared, and served with love, is sometimes the very thing that can make bad times palatable.