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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Making the Rounds: Shopping

Buying groceries is not one-stop shopping here in Valencia. I’m sure that there may be a few lazy Spaniards who rely on the large chain grocery stores for all of their needs but most people go to several different specialty shops to round out their dietary needs. The longer I live here, the less I buy at the chain stores. Every day I am finding other sources for the few things I still buy at the chain store. Small, private businesses still flourish in Europe but they are under siege from the big guys. We all need to do our part to help out.

When I shop in the small markets I know exactly where my money goes. I may be on a budget but I don’t need to save a few pennies if it means turning my back on the local merchants. What I gain by going local is much better and personalized service; something that is invaluable for a recent immigrant learning the language. My vocabulary of foods is pretty extensive since I shop almost every day. When you go to the supermarket you don’t talk to anyone. You just shove your stuff in a basket, pay, and leave. It’s a little more complicated than that in the little places.

Supermarkets have terrible produce here in Spain. Everything is prepackaged to expedite checkouts. I will only buy fruit or vegetables here if I am thoroughly desperate, and I’m almost never desperate. For produce I go to one of the verdurías that are on almost every block, and most of the time I go to the same one just out of loyalty or whatever. I don’t get much practice with Spanish here because the guy is Indian and my Spanish is better than his. A lot of the signs in the store are spelled wrong.

The produce is decent but Spain is different from the U.S. as they rely a lot less on hothouse vegetables. If something isn’t in season is just doesn’t look too good. On the flip side, when you get a good tomato it’s really good. A good tomato is not a small thing in my book. The local tomato variety are called raf and they are wonderful. They are weird shaped with folds in them. We haven’t seen the best of these yet but I’ve had a few really great ones. I can’t wait for summer. There is another unique variety of tomato called rambo that are pretty tasty.

My butcher is quickly becoming my best resource here in Valencia. I stop into his shop a two or three times a week. Yesterday I got a bit of pork loin and a bone to use for a pot of beans I was making. He also has farm fresh eggs that are better than the ones at the supermarket which are also pretty good. I try to buy as many non-meat items as I can from Fernando because I like giving him my business and I can only eat so much pork. He has great chickens and once in a while I’ll buy a hen to use in a soup. There is barely room for two people to stand inside his shop but I like waiting in line behind another customer just to eavesdrop on how they order.

While I wait I usually pick out a bottle of wine or a can of olives that I have tried before. He has a lot of other delicacies on sale at slightly higher prices than the supermarket, but I buy stuff here because out of convenience. It’s not like anything could be more convenient than the supermarket twenty steps from my front door, it’s just that if I need something and I can pick it up at the butcher shop this saves me a trip into the hectic chain store.

I only go to one place for my olives and that is a little stall in the Mercado de Algirós which is about five or six blocks from where I live. This is the place to get seafood and just about anything else. The butcher shops here are too hectic for me to deal with and the same with the produce stalls. Both have great quality stuff but it’s a little too intimidating for an outsider. This place reminds me of the floor of the stock exchange during a rally.

The bread here in Valencia is quite good. I mention this because in other parts, notably Andalucia, the bread isn’t so good. However, I’m not a big fan of the crusty French-style baguettes so I treat the bread like a fancy desert that I only pick up once in a while. I actually prefer a pre-sliced variety of whole grain bread I get at the supermarket. It also keeps longer than the French bread which turns to stone in a little over 24 hours. I am also not tempted by all of the pastries in the bakery windows. Sweets have never been my thing.

What is my thing? How about this to close out:


In a ceramic pitcher pour one bottle of red wine, one cup of Spanish brandy, the juice and fruit from one squeezed orange and one lemon. Allow this to chill and before serving add a bit of club soda or 7Up. My friends who lived in Andalucia call a variation of this Vino tinto de verano, or summer red wine.

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