I like a good historical exhibition, especially one that focusses on the everyday. Swords, shields and other paraphernalia of war leave me cold; pots, shreds of fabric, cracked tools, broken toys and instruments… by contrast spark my imagination. They not only conjure up a past way of life but also conversations.
As I was inspecting the terracotta pots and brittle glass flasks in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki last summer, I could hear a middle class housewife’s order: “Three urns of wine, no not those one, the quality stuff in the urns with the dancing nymphs”. Or a daughter pleading with her mother “for the special oil, the one in the tiny amber bottles rather than the ceramic pots”. I often wonder whether shoppers down the ages were influenced by the packaging the way we are today. Or did that only start in the Victorian Age with mass production and the birth of branded products…?
Looking around my bathroom, brands are barely in evidence, mainly because most of the products I use are ingredients rather than processed and packaged goods. Admittedly there is a tube of toothpaste and a block of Marseille soap, which is nominally branded but looses it ‘72% olive oil’ stamp within days. Apart from these the bathroom cabinet contains grape seed oil*, distilled witch hazel, pinhead oatmeal**, cider vinegar, borax, bicarbonate of soda… and precious little branding.
The witch hazel comes in a brown bottle from an old-school pharmacist. Virtually all other products are bulk-buy items that I decant into recycled jars and bottles. Some of these are attractive, like an old blue Neal’s Yard bottle, with a handy pump, that I use for the oil. Others are mundane: I store the oatmeal in a squat and wide-necked tapenade jar; an old marmalade jar is home to the clay I use for washing my scalp/hair; a jar that previously contained preserved lemons now contains borax; and I use empty bottles for diluting cider vinegar for a conditioning hair rinse.
I adopt a similarly pragmatic approach in the kitchen. Yes, you will find Oxo cubes, Golden Syrup and other familiar names in the pantry but also a motley collection of recycled bottles and jam jars containing grains and home-made preserves. Large jars with wide necks are particularly prised in our home as marmalade, jam, chutney and mincemeat making define the seasons more than the temperature does. And gin, sherry and whisky bottles make super containers for rice and other grains.
When shopping, whether for cooking or cleaning goods, I like to go back to source, i.e. to basic ingredients, preferably organic and Fairtrade. Furthermore, any product I buy has to get over the nut-free hurdle. I may currently buy a particular brand of flour, tea, honey… but my choice is driven not by brand loyalty. It is the result of the complete opposite that branding agencies strive for: careful scrutiny of the list of ingredients, their origin and any processing information on the label… Yes, it means grocery shopping cannot be done on autopilot but in my mind, it should not be. What we put on or in our bodies is far too important.
And does the shape of the jar, logo on the tin or colourful packaging… add to a product’s effectiveness as a scouring agent or improve the flavour of my grains? Hardly. If anything, my pearl barley and couscous taste all the better for the hint of juniper and peat from the shamelessly recycled bottles…!
* Gentle vegetable oil makes a simple but nourishing moisturiser – it only takes a couple of drops applied to damp skin. Better still, a single drop on a little cotton removes eye make-up and moisturises eye lids at the same time.
** Medium milled pinhead oatmeal is a bit of an unsung bathroom hero. A teaspoon of oatmeal and a drop of water make a gentle face scrub for dry/sensitive/older skin but pop a spoon of it on a quarter of a lemon and you get a highly effective scouring pad that shifts limescale off the sink and taps in next to no time!