By Alan Hope
The situation is so familiar it’s become a normal facet of daily life. Parents or singles who work long hours. Children in the crèche or after-school club. By the time they get home there’s no time or inclination to shop for groceries or think about what to eat.
So why not let someone else do it for you? The filthy rich have personal shoppers who bring them clothes, shoes and other sundries so they never have to set foot in a shop. Imagine you could take delivery every week of all the ingredients needed to make four servings of three different dishes for two people, recipes included. Imagine if you suddenly only had to think about dinner on three nights a week instead of seven.
There’s nothing imaginary about Smartmat, a service started in Antwerp three years ago by the Swede Anders Asarby. Then, there were only eight clients; now there are more than 8,000 in Flanders and Brussels. And since March the service is also available in Walloon Brabant before extending out to the rest of Wallonia.
The products in the shopping bag are as local as possible, and also organic when costs and supplies allow – in practice about 20-35% is organic.
There are eight different formulas: four meals for one person; four meals for two people; quick and easy formula of four meals for two or four people; vegetarian formula of three meals for four people or four meals for two people; five meals for four people; and finally three meals or four people. Prices range from €49 for the singleton’s bag, averaging €12.25 a meal, to €109 for the 5×4 formula, or around €5 per person per meal.
Each week brings a different menu. To take a sample quick & easy menu from March, the dishes are: vegetarian hamburger with root vegetable chips; fish with crevettes and dill sauce; sausage and pepper stew; and chicken with basil cream and pasta.
Smartmat invited us to take part for a week. Days before delivery I received an email informing me the package would arrive between 17.00 and 17.45 on the Tuesday. In the event the man was at the door at 17.00 on the dot.
The menu – classic, four meals for two people, was as follows: Pita bread with chicken kofta and carrot tsatsiki in double portions for two days; lemon haddock with cream of roasted squash and capers salad; and warm orange and squash salad with goat cheese and quinoa.
The menu is varied and inventive. The portions were on the generous side, especially the fish and goat’s cheese, and the menu was designed in such a way as to minimise waste. Some things you have to provide for yourself, typical larder items like herbs and spices, oil and butter, vinegar and soy sauce. No special equipment is required, nor any great skill. Menus are in Dutch or French, and you can select which when ordering.
On the quality of the ingredients, no complaints at all. The produce may not all be organic, but it’s fresh and in perfect condition. The double portion deal would be a problem if you were only taking part for a week; otherwise you’d simply freeze the extra portion and use it some other week and so have four different meals in a week. The price of my package is €65, which comes to an average per meal per person of just over €8, which for a complete main course is not bad at all. Larger bags are cheaper by that reckoning.
My only objection to the system has nothing at all to do with the system; it’s not them, it’s me. A magazine writer on the whole has the opportunity and the leisure to go shopping in the middle of the day, and I like to get hands-on with my shopping, at markets if possible, buying on impulse according to what’s looking good that particular day.
Obviously, not everyone has that luxury, and for those people I can’t think of a major problem with Smartmat. It works exactly as it promises. The produce is excellent quality. The menus are interesting and easy to prepare. There’s no provision for special diets, gluten or lactose or nut intolerances and whatnot, but that would be prohibitively expensive to organise for a broad and varied clientèle.
For anyone who requires no more than a healthy, varied selection of dinners at a very reasonable price and virtually no work at all, Smartmat seems to have everything. Try a test packet now and receive a €10 discount.