Are we really that expensive?

noka 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.

noka2Although 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.

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11 thoughts on “Are we really that expensive?

  1. Congratulations on your nomination for
    the Irish Blog Awards, 2009.

    I would not take snide comments at check-outs
    to heart. The person was probably concerned
    that you had to pay, what seemed to them,
    to be a lot for such a small item.

    I registered a parcel a few days ago and the
    price was delicately offered, in a sympathetic
    tone, as if, really, the World was truly
    in “a state of chassis”.

  2. Come on, don’t get upset because of a silly remark. Be happy and proud that you can and want to support a local producer, and you can afford it – don’t mind the silly ones.

    (I am a member at a country (not farmers’!) market and we cannot raise our prices over a certain level, because most of our customers expect us to be cheap – just because the stuff is homemade -, and there is no way explaining to them the love and effort and the good quality ingredients that go into a food item. If we don’t want to take home our wares, we have to keep our prices low…)

  3. There’s a great quote from the chef Giorgio Locatelli – not verbatim, but the gist is, ‘never ask why a food is so expensive. You shoudl ask instead how it can be so cheap.’
    Very few people seem to realise that producing good food has a fair price, because we’ve been brought up to believe that it should be cheap. No-one seems to have made the connection between our ‘need’ for cheap meat, for example, and the recent pork scare. If something isn’t mass produced – and more importantly, a bit of time, love and effort has gone into making it – then obviously it will cost more, but you’d have a job convincing anyone of that argument, especially these days. Anyway, in time like these, who doesn’t need a little cheer-me-up food every once in a while? Don’t let the recessionistas bring you down!

  4. In Sligo, your ice cream – made in Ireland — is EUR 7.95 for a 500-ml container.

    Haagen-Dazs, imported from the US, is usually around EUR 6 for 475-ml (The US Pint)

    Irish-made Murphy’s Ice Cream has much more air in it than Haagen-Dazs.

    I don’t know the weight of each, but given the air in Murphy’s, I’m sure Haagen-Dazs is heavier with cream.

    The best value with great taste in ice cream in Ireland is the SuperValu brand which I believe is made by Musgrave’s.

    EU 7.95 is very expensive for the airy ice cream, guys.

    Or are we also paying for trips to Japan?


  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! Henry, thanks for so perfectly illustrating the points I made in this post. I’ll try to avoid holidays in the future.

  6. This post summed up a lot of my frustration too. There is so much now about how so many people are shopping sensibly by shopping in Aldi and Lidl. I don’t have a problem with shopping in these stores but it is hyped as if people are wasting money if they spend too much on good food – when surely – we are what we eat.

  7. I like a good bargain, but most of the Aldi and Lidl items are made or produced abroad. It’s time for us to value what we do here in Ireland, appreciate that we create excellent food, and realise that the whole economy is interconnected!

  8. I agree completely on super-premium products, but what is disappointing is how expensive general, decent food is, compared with other places: I was in Italy last week and bought the most delicious speck for €14/kilo, and good local cheese for €10/kilo.
    Locally-produced, vey short supply chain (producer sells to retailer, who sells to me), and great value. Here, so little is sold locally that the big supply chain takes all the money, leaving the producer with nothing, and the consumer with bad value.
    Exceptions exist in Ireland (Traas’ apples in Tipperary, for example) but are far too rare.

  9. Good point, Ivan, about the supply chain! Of course having such a small, diffuse population makes things more challenging in terms of selling more locally, also a huge difference in terms of appreciation for local produce as compared to Italy, France, etc.

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