Supermarkets are known for being cheap, convenient, safe and reliable. Farmers' markets have a reputation for selling expensive meat, fruit and vegies to a privileged few at inconvenient times. Over the past year we have been shopping at supermarkets and farmers' markets in Sydney and Melbourne and comparing the price, flavour and quality of groceries bought at both. We looked over what was on offer at the farmers' market and then bought items in the median price range. We then shopped at one of the nearest supermarkets and bought what appeared to be similar quality. In neither case did we buy food that was on special or discounted. We took the food back to the office kitchen and checked the weights to make sure we got what we were paying for. We then compared the products visually and in a blind taste test. Next, we placed the food back in the original packaging and returned it to the fridge or separate bowls at room temperature to see which lasted best. Some items, such as vacuum-packed meat were left in the packet until the use-by date. The results were quite remarkable.
Farmers' market tomatoes (left) versus supermarket tomatoes. Photo: Richard Cornish
Round 1: Tomatoes
FM Glenora Heritage Produce Tomatoes, $12 a kilogram
We bought varieties of different coloured heritage tomatoes with names such as Japanese Black, Epi Rouge and Stupice. They were thin skinned, extremely aromatic with meaty flesh and delicious flavour. Some had marked and pitted skin. These old variety tomatoes are not bred for storage and started to spoil rapidly within three days.
SM Woolworths Tomato Medley Mix, $17.50 a kilogram
The plastic package contained four different types of small tomatoes. Bite through the relatively thick skin and some were packed with a juicy and delicious interior of sweet flesh. Others were not so juicy, however they did last well and improved with flavour over three days.
The farmers' market tomatoes won on flavour, not to mention the $5.50 a kilogram price difference. The heritage tomato season is short and within a month it will be over, and only the supermarket tomatoes will be around. So points for convenience go to the supermarket.
Verdict: Price: Farmers' market (FM) Flavour: FM Lasting power: Supermarket (SM)
Round 2: Grapes
FM Happy Fruit Organic Flame Seedless, $6 a kilogram
We bought half a kilo of small, dark ruby-coloured grapes that had a fine skin and burst with a sweet and intense flood of juice and pulp in the mouth. The intensity of flavour reduced within a few days and the fruit were less than perfect after three.
SM Black seedless $5.98 a kilogram
We chose a lovely bunch of well formed, large and attractive blackberry-coloured grapes with a firm, fleshy texture. They tasted sweet and sharp but without complex aroma. The fruit lasted very well for five days.
The farmers' market grapes were outstanding winners for the first few days but after that the supermarket grapes were the pick of the bunch.
Verdict: Price: SM Flavour: FM Lasting Power: SM
Round 3: Apples
FM Hazeldean Forest Farm Apple $7 a kilogram
From a box of unevenly sized apples, some with blemishes and spots, we chose a few each of Akane, Summer Red and Prima, varieties not often seen in supermarkets or greengrocers. They tasted less sweet than their supermarket counterparts, but had more complex flavours. They had excellent crunch and juiciness. They were all unwaxed, which perhaps caused their "straight off the tree" crispness and flavour to dissipate after seven days.
SM Woolworths Gala Apple $4.50 a kilogram
These supermarket apples were evenly sized and coloured red apples with gold russetting and shiny waxed surface. The skin gave slightly to the tooth and the flesh was quite crisp. It was very sweet and pleasantly aromatic. These apples tasted more or less the same after a week in the fruit bowl.
For the first week the farmers' market fruit were on top but when it came to flavour the supermarket apples were doing really well.
Verdict: Price: SM Flavour: FM Lasting Power: SM
Farmers' market prawns (left) versus supermarket prawns. Photo: Richard Cornish
Round 4: Prawns
FM Lake Entrance Fisherman's Co-Op Prawns $36 a kilogram
According to the label, these dense, pale-pink cooked prawns were wild-caught by the crew of the vessel Morrie D off Lakes Entrance. Meaty and full flavoured, they have a strong aroma of the sea. By their use-by date three days later they were less flavoursome but still good.
SM Vannamei Prawns $16 a kilogram
Less than half the price of the local prawns, these bright pink and very juicy-to-mushy little farmed prawns from Thailand are cooked, frozen and defrosted; they have a definite fishy aroma that deteriorated to unpleasant within three days. They have an innocuous flavour and an unusual taste on the finish.
The supermarket prawns were unpleasant and could not compare in quality with the farmers' market prawns.
Verdict: Price: SM Flavour: FM Lasting Power: FM
An Aussie farmers market Valencia orange (left) versus a US navel. Photo: Richard Cornish
Round 5: Oranges
FM Valencia Oranges $2.50 a kilogram
Australian-grown summer variety with orange yellow skin with green tinge. Sweet and juicy but lacking in tang and flavour.
SM Woolworths Navel Oranges $3.90 a kilogram
Imported from the US, this winter variety had a lovely orange hue and smooth skin flattened in areas from tight packing. Juicy and full flavoured, these oranges hit the mark.
Both oranges lasted well over a week without any discernible change in quality. The imported supermarket oranges were superior and worth the price difference.
Verdict: Price: FM Flavour: SM Lasting Power: Draw
Round 6: Lamb
FM Little Creek Cattle Company Lamb Shoulder $11.99 a kilogram
This whole shoulder of lamb was packed in heavy-duty plastic and vacuumed packed. It looked and smelled wholesome when unpacked at its best-before date and slow roasted superbly with a lovely deep flavour.
SM Coles Lamb Shoulder $11 a kilogram
Bone dust is a residue from a band saw that can give unpleasant texture and flavour. Some had to be removed from the trimmed bone areas when we unpacked it. The cut had lasted well by the best-before date and roasted to a pleasing gold colour and tender texture. The flavour was less than remarkable.
The small farmer produced a far better product at just under 10 per cent more cost.
Verdict: Price: SM Flavour: FM Lasting Power: FM
Farmers' market rocket (left) versus supermarket rocket. Photo: Richard Cornish
Round 7: Rocket
FM Save Our Soil Biodynamic Rocket $17 a kilogram
Dry large leaves with a deep-green colour and a very strong sharp and peppery flavour from a farm in central Victoria. Wrapped in biodegradable transparent film, the rocket was still in good condition after four days.
SM Woolworths' Select Baby Rocket $33 a kilogram
Small delicate leaves, some bruised, with a pale green colour and very mild flavour grown on a farm near Hobart. Within a few days the initial bruising had parts of the leaves brown and soften.
Wow! If you like really mild, slightly mushy rocket go to the supermarket. If you want flavour and value buy from the farmers' market.
Verdict: Price: FM Flavour: FM Lasting Power: FM
Round 8: Milk
FM Milk Schulz Organic Dairy $3 a litre
Organic unhomogenised milk from a single herd at Timboon near Victoria's Great Ocean Road. Sweet, smooth with a fresh but lasting finish.
SM Parmalat Organic Milk $3.31 a litre
Organic unhomogenised milk from mixed farms from Victoria. Fresh tasting with a rich mouthfeel, some sticky blobs of fat and a short finish.
While both milks lasted a week and still tasted good, the cheaper milk from the farmers' market tasted better and had better texture.
Verdict: Price: FM Flavour: FM Lasting Power: Draw
Round 9: Yoghurt
FM Schulz Organic Dairy Yoghurt $8 a kilogram
Sharp tasting pot-set yoghurt made with unhomogenised milk that left a fine layer of butterfat on the surface. Pleasant tasting with slightly thin texture, it has sharp finish with a lingering aroma of fresh milk.
SM Jalna Pot Set BioDynamic Yoghurt $8.98 a kilogram
Evenly smooth textured yoghurt with a fresh but not overwhelming acidic tang. A really lovely smooth yoghurt.
The supermarket yoghurt won by a whisker with its smoother texture and slightly more palatable taste.
Verdict: Price: SM Flavour: SM Lasting Power: Draw
Round 10: Bacon
FM Farmer's Larder Bacon $35 a kilogram
Thick rashers of belly bacon with rind on from a herd of free-range pigs from central Victoria. Looking for telltale signs of water injection, the packet was dry. So no injection. The bacon cooked to a full-flavoured porky tasting piece with little shrinkage, but with a mouth-filling non-greasy butteryness.
SM Don Pan Size Bacon $24.68 a kilogram
Giving up a little water when cooked, this rindless bacon tasted pleasantly of grilled ham. According to manufacturer KR Castlemaine, the pork is either from the Netherlands or Canada as they cannot source commercial quantities of Australian pork at present.
On price alone the supermarket bacon would be a winner. When flavour is compared, the rich quality of the farmers' market bacon wins. You get what you pay for.
Verdict: Price: SM Flavour: FM Lasting Power: Draw
While you can find really cheap loss leaders in the supermarket, when quality seasonal produce is put head to head there is not much difference in price between the two, with the supermarkets coming in slightly cheaper. This test knocked out the myth that farmers' markets are a lot more expensive.
Who has the better quality?
If the quality of flavour means a lot, the farmers' market is for you. You have more chance of buying older varieties based on aroma, taste and flavour. The trouble is, these fruit and vegies were not bred to have thick skins so they don't transport or last as well, unlike supermarket fruit and vegies. If flavour and aroma are less important than lasting power – shop at a supermarket.
Who is more convenient?
There are more than 170 farmers' markets around Australia. Some are open for half a day once a month, while others run weekly. Woolworths has 961 supermarkets, Coles 776, Aldi more than 400 supermarkets and IGA has about 1400 stores of various sizes. Almost all are open seven days a week.
Who is more compliant with the law?
Consumer law states that retailers need to be able to provide a receipt, within seven days of a purchase if a sale is under $75. Ninety per cent of stall holders at farmers' markets were unable to do so. At one Sydney market we bought beef for $36 via credit card but discovered we were charged $96 when we reviewed the credit card account statement online. We did not dispute the issue because we had no proof of purchase. We also saw the widespread use of household scales to weigh food for sale. Under the National Measurement Act, goods sold by weight need to be weighed using approved scales. In another situation, we saw scales bypassed altogether and mushrooms, that were advertised at $10 a one-kilogram bag, being gathered from a box and placed in a paper bag without being weighed. We weighed the mushrooms at home and found we had 800 grams of mushrooms. At another Victorian farmers' market, one that advertises itself as straight from the farmer to the customer, we found tropical ginger. Several years earlier this same market had stallholders selling coconuts from Thailand. Apart from some confusing country-of-origin labelling, we did not find similar compliance issues at supermarkets.
Who gets the profits?
Profits from supermarkets go to their shareholders. Profits from farmers' markets go to the farmers.