Every Friday morning at 9.00am there is a race through the aisles of our Breton supermarket. Some hundred or so customers – young and old, alone or as couples – do the sixty metres dash from the shop entrance to the fish counter at the back of the store. There are a myriad routes, some contestants wriggle through the clothing aisles, others through the vegetables, my favourite is to go straight down to the cooked-meat shelves and then turn left. For the winner, the prize is to pull out the number ‘1’ ticket from a dispenser, and with that in hand they are assured of immediate service, the greatest choice of fish or crustacea – many still alive – and the opportunity to buy one of the day’s special offers. For those who arrive even a few minutes later it could be ticket in the 60s, and a wait of forty-five minutes.
Brittany is famous for its fishing industry, which for centuries has been providing the locals with ‘fruits of the sea’ and the tradition continues today. Well over half the fish at the fish counter will have been landed locally and auctioned on the harbour edge in the early morning on the day of sale. The fish on display could hardly be fresher, and living in a fish-savvy community brings other advantages. Shoppers and diners alike know and love the taste of good fish. Just as bees gather around a tasty blossom, Bretons in their droves descend on a good fishmonger. These discerning shoppers reckon they can tell the quality of the fish by scrutinising the fish’s eyes, its scales, and the way it lies on the marble. The habit in British supermarkets of selling ‘fresh’ fish pre-prepared, filleted and in chunks, would seem distinctly odd.
My shopping list one Friday morning was very limited, just four small sole. We had some friends coming for dinner that evening and this was to be a treat. To avoid disappointment, I arrived at the supermarket early, slipping in through a side door used only by the regulars. By 8.30am, I was in the shop atrium by the entrance gate. I was soon joined by a small, neat woman dressed mainly in green. We said little except to exchange the customary “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame”. Behind her was a man in shorts and jogging shoes, evidently well-equipped for the race. He told us he was Swiss-German. All three of us were much the same age.
Gradually the queue swelled to around one hundred. On the dot of 9.00am the doors opened and I scampered down my usual route getting to the fish counter out-of-breath and only just ahead of the man in jogging shoes. I plucked ticket number ‘1’ from the dispenser, showed it to the fishmonger, pointed to the four fish labelled ‘sole’ on display and was soon presented with my fish appropriately prepared. I walked away content, even smug. The plan had worked – I had never been first before.
I then wandered slowly to the checkout tills. After I had paid, behind me I noticed the lady in green and we nodded our acknowledgements. I announced that I had got my quarry – four sole – whereupon she said that no such fish were on sale at the supermarket today. Somehow she had already checked out what was on offer. I contradicted her, showing her my purchase. She replied that she too had wanted sole, Dover sole that is, but that the only sole they had on offer was actually the inferior, cheaper and essentially tasteless, lemon sole. Consequently she had abandoned the fish option and bought some meat instead. I looked in my basket and my pride was punctured. In my hurry and out of ignorance, I had indeed bought four inferior lemon sole, but it was too late.
As I left she waved and said with some purpose, “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”
I was still trying to puzzle out what message she wished to impart when I served the four fish for dinner. Sadly she was right, they were indeed very bland, and, after all my planning, that felt unjust.
“So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.”
Matthew 20:16 (KJV)