Comida en común (Food in common)

Of all the hundreds of letters, comments, and questions we get on our blog, one of the most common is, “How is daily life different?” So, between Jiab’s detailed, financial planning and my ethereal philosophical musings, we thought we would give you a quick insight into a daily activity for us, grocery shopping.

Everything is bigger in Texas, while the opposite is true in Granada

First, we had to redefine the concept of “supermarket.” Coming from Texas, a “supermarket,” for us, invoked Walmart-sized stores, or at least the 20-aisle cavalcades of edible items in a huge grocer.

In Spain, supermercado is more akin to a New York neighborhood grocer. There are some really big grocers around (Euro-wide Carrefour, Mercadona), but they are few and sometimes a ways out.

As most residents do, we enjoy that a local market is usually no more than a couple of blocks away. They’re fast and easy to get into, and one gets to know the people.

The first time we went to our local market (Coviran), we prepared by taking in a large rolling carrier we had bought because we had seen so many ladies coming back from shopping with them. In the spirit of ecology and recycling (that strange life-style non-Americans seem to take more seriously), grocers will ask if you want a bag (“Quieres una bolsa?”), and if you say yes, they will charge you for it.

Unfortunately, Jiab and I discovered afterwards two other protocols of roller bags: they are really made for the over 70’s set (so we drew odd looks), and they are meant to be left OUTSIDE the store until packing (drawing even more questioning glares as we banged about the aisles with it).

Now, we take 2 – 3 bags or a backpack. We don’t need many, as we only buy for one or two days at a time.

Next was choosing the food we knew on sight, fruits and vegetables. Immediately, we noticed that Spanish grocers choose produce for size and freshness over pretty. In the States, you will see perfectly round tomatoes, peaches free of any bruises, and leafy greens glistening in misted wetness (BTW, the mist actually speeds up the decay of the produce).

In Spain, the boxes are delivered daily and are then apparently stacked and cut open. Display done!

One stop, five step, shopping.

Now we get to the second level of shopping, and for that we cannot thank enough the inventor of the translator app. It really helps one to learn key words (leche for milk, polvo for powdered), but as we have gotten to know the words, shopping has gone from a slow crawl of step/type/step/type to “Oh, a sale on atun (tuna), let’s get some.” It has also created a 5 step dance we do sometimes:

  1. Look up word on app.
  2. Ask clerk Tienes…? (“Do you have…?”)
  3. Clerk shrugs and says Qué? (“What?”) due to our terrible pronunciation.
  4. We show clerk app with word on it.
  5. Clerk says vale (“OK”) and points.

Location is everything. 

Speaking of accommodating, one also learns there are different ways to store and display products.

The first time we searched for milk and eggs, we naturally went to the refrigerated section…to find neither.

Most common milk that is sold in Spain (and the rest of Europe) is UHT (Ultra High-Temperature Pasteurized) and if not opened, has a typical unrefrigerated shelf life of six to nine months. In contrast, the most common milk in the US is HTST pasteurized milk has a has a shorter shelf life—around seven to 10 days—and must be refrigerated. 

Thus the milk is on the shelves in cartons; the eggs similarly shelved nearby. Coco powder is not in the baking section but with coffee and tea (because many people have hot chocolate as an alternative hot drink).

Food shopping is a good reminder that there is often another way to do things.

And in Spain, that way always has a lot of choices in olive oil.

When martial art comes in handy.

The toughest challenge, which we edged into slowly, was the meat counter.

I should interject here that Spain has specialty stores.

  • Fruterias for fruits and vegetables.
  • Carnicerías for meat.
  • Pescaderías for fish.
  • And even stores just dedicated to the national food, jamon (ham).

Most times, however, we use our local grocer. The combination of hand gestures (Jiab used her Tae Kwon Do chopping before she learned filete meant fillet or sliced thin) and learning metric (Jim, unsure of metric size, thought he was being economical by asking for only a medio kilo (half a kilo) of ham, until we were eating ham for a week) has been a challenge, but slowly we have improved, or at least drawn fewer strange stares from other customers. 

Aside from the convenience, the daily visit to the local market gives us two wonderful, daily joys.

One is el pan (bread). It doesn’t matter your tastes, where one grew up, or what your politics or socio-economic status, NOTHING is like being at the store when the fresh, warm bread rolls out of the oven and into the bins.

The smell alone is worth applause, and taking home a warm loaf (that is only 60 cents) is heaven (fighting the temptation to just nibble a bit as you walk).

The other advantage of daily, neighborhood shopping is, well, becoming a neighbor. We now greet all the people in the store, they enjoy (or at least seem to) helping us learn Spanish poco a poco (bit by bit).  

Jiab and I challenge ourselves when the check-out clerk tells us the total (in Spanish, of course) by trying to figure out the amount before we look at the actual numbers. The market people are friendly, kind, and most of all, patient. We also appreciate that their food is inexpensive; we never spend more than 12 euros ($15) per visit, and that would be for a two-day stock-up! 

Every day we shop, we re-prove the age-old belief of how people, no matter how different, can some together over food.

Vale (y no bolsa, por favor!)


4 thoughts on “Comida en común (Food in common)”

  1. Very true! Hey, did you know that some bigger markets deliver? I found the cat litter I like, but it is from Mercadona, which is far from me. I order 10 plus bags at a time, especially when leaving town for extended period, so petsitters dont have to deal with buying it. P.s. I love my rolling car. I got more stares hiking back from the shops like a pack mule.

    • You’re right. I know Mercadona and (here) Corte Ingles deliver. We should use them for the big stuff, as we’ve huffed and puffed a couple of times hauling stuff onto the bus and then home. Our only challenge is that, at least in Granada, delivery people do one shot at coming to your home and don’t give you a good idea of when they are coming.

    • Thanks, Jason. When it comes to hamming it up, we don’t want to have a beef with anyone! And yes, the devil and the living is in the daily details! Thanks for sticking with the blog. We love your feedback (we’re working on a frequent-reader punch card).


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