Driving back from the country recently I decided to stop at a garden centre to get some plants to enliven the small fish tank in which we keep a couple of fat but rather bored-looking goldfish. I was glad to discover there was a dedicated aquatic centre, containing an impressive selection of live plants, fish, tanks and other paraphernalia. Feeling somewhat lost amidst such variety, I asked the young man behind the counter for some help. Having asked how big my tank was, what sort of fish lived there, and whether we already had plants (only fake plastic ones), he pointed me to suitable options and fished out the plants I liked.
So far so good yet unremarkable. He then mentioned, in response to my question regarding maintenance, that having live rather than plastic plants in a fish tank actually made it easier to keep clean, as the former absorb micro-organisms that give rise to the green algae that turn the water murky and stick to the sides of the tank. Given how much time we spend changing the water and scrubbing off the algae, this was extremely welcome news. This simple, natural solution had not appeared in any of my internet searches on how to keep my tank clean. My feeling of gratefulness towards the employee who had given me such a useful tip made me feel like hanging around and finding out more about keeping fish. After a ten minute guided tour with this young man, I had learned all sorts of interesting facts about plain and tropical fish, as well as how different types of coral grow and how fish fit into their eco-system. The end result is that I now intend to go back there to buy a small tropical fish tank with live coral which looks absolutely gorgeous especially when illuminated, worth several hundred pounds. This is purely due to the knowledge the employee imparted to me - at no point did he try to sell me anything. I trust him to give me the best advice for my new purchase.
Soon after this experience I went on holiday at a friend's house by the sea in France. There were two other couples staying there, neither of whom I had met before. Over our first dinner together the question naturally came up as to what I do for a living. I said I worked with supermarkets and that I had devised a program to teach all customer-facing staff about the basics of food, so they could become stimulated, engaged and empowered service providers instead of being treated and hence acting like robots selling commodities. I suggested that a few tips on how to choose, use and store food could go a long way, and gave my usual example, which is that most people don't realise that extra virgin olive oil, while great for putting on salads, should not generally be used for cooking as it burns easily, destroying its nutrient value and creating potentially carcinogenic by-products.
As usual, this gave rise to gasps of surprise and shock-horror, since like most of the people to whom I've told this (including senior supermarket executives), my new friends relied on olive oil, notably the extra virgin kind (i.e., that which is extracted naturally, without being treated with heat or chemicals) to fry their onions etc., thinking this was the healthiest way to cook. The next question of course was what should they use instead, to which I gave my standard answer: clarified butter, aka ghee, which is what many chefs use. Not only does it resist high heat, it also tastes great and can be stored almost indefinitely at room temperature. (It is also likely healthier than most vegetable oils, which oxidise easily and often contain too much inflammatory Omega 6, whereas recent meta-studies have shown there is actually no link between saturated fat intake and heart disease - RIP Ancel Keys and his mis-guided cohorts.)
This prompted great interest, amongst the adults as well as their teenage children, and led to a brief demonstration of how to make clarified butter - i.e., pop a wad of butter in a pan, simmer on low heat for 10-15 minutes, scoop/drain off the white solids (lactose) that rise to the surface et voilà, you're left with nice clear, nutty-smelling butter oil.
So far so good, yet not so remarkable. The kicker to this tale came a few days later, when I heard that the daughters of one of the couples I had met had then gone to stay with their grandmother and started criticising her when they saw she was cooking with extra virgin olive oil. "Didn't she know that's bad as it burns easily?" they tutted, no doubt somewhat smugly. She answered she had indeed heard that but didn't know what else to use. So they told her about clarified butter and showed her how to make it.
If a couple of simple tips such as these inspire young girls to tell their grandmother how to if not suck then at least fry eggs, and move me to drive an hour back to where I got the advice on how to keep my fish tank clean naturally in order to buy a coral tank worth hundreds of pounds, just think how far a little knowledge could go if shared amongst the ranks of those working in supermarkets today.