Monday, August 27, 2007

Hacer de Compras

Grocery Shopping

Phrasebooks are great for holidays.

You walk into a cervecería, give the camarero a big sonrisa (:D) open your libro de frasos at Page 2, and point to the fraso, Dos cervezas, por favor.
El camarero rewards you with an authentic flamenco stare down his handsome Spanish nariz ( :<\ ), and ¡Olé! Roberto es su tio. (Except that, in Spain, Pepe es su tio - and María es su tia, while we're doing cultural notes.) Three hours and several pages más tarde, full of bocadillos, paella, tapas, pinchos and vino tinto, you write a cheque in the air, and are rewarded with a small circular dish bearing the latest news on the exchange rate. You sort through various denominations of billetes in pretty colours, and a pocketful of unfamiliar silver, brass and copper, and then beam a happy ¡Hasta luego! at el mundo at large, and continue on your way in search of new pages. ¡Qué bueno! Well, three weeks into our sojourn aquí, we've done Page 2 lots of times. ¡Qué bueno! Of course, we've also gone off text. First there was shopping for food, because you can't eat out alllllll the time. The Mercado is across the road from us for fresh fruit and veg, meat, fish, eggs, cheese and bread; and all around us there is every kind of shop, like a street in a children´s book: grocer, bakery, charcutería ('deli' doesn't cover it), shoe shop, hardware store, chemist, book shop, stationer, fabric shop, wool shop, clothes shop, health food shop, farm shop, toy shop, plus gym, salon de juegos (games arcade), and lots of cafeterias and cervecerías, also sidrerías, pizzerias and purveyors of Döner Kebap. And that's just around the corner. (I was going to say 'walking distance', but everything's within walking distance: one of the pleasures of being here is being able to walk everywhere, and we do.) In Dubai we have shopping malls. In Britain we have Tesco superstores. Here, where everyone lives stacked three or four deep above a shop, in buildings over a century old, finding space or getting planning permission for a mega-mall or whopper-market which would increase efficiency and profitability (for the owner of said WHaM) and denude a neighborhood of everything but estate agents, charity shops and antique dealers by day, and graffiti artists and piss artists by night – oh, and involve rehousing four households (and 4-12 registered voters) for every 50m2 of retail space... well... I think we're safe for a while yet. Whoo! First rant in Spain! Gonna be an anarcho-conservative, libero-fascist greenie! Anyway, I've always enjoyed food markets – the fragrant heaps and pyramids of colour, the orderly variety of fish and seafood, cheese and bread; the different types and cuts of meat; the range of preserved goodies: salt- and smoke-cured meat, all ages and stages of cheese, salted fish, and pickled olives; and eggs of all colours, sizes, and parentage. On my first visit to the Mercado I was in my element, even though it was a Monday, so most of the stalls were shut after the busy weekend trade. In my new orange espadrilles, and with my natty new shopping basket with the blue and green striped lining (spot the newcomer doing New Life in Spain!) I trotted round reading labels and notices, watching and listening to other shoppers, and thumbing back and forth and back again through my diccionario. It took lots of smiles, mime and pointing, but I did manage to hacer de compras en español and €s. The first surprise was that they wrap everything in waxed paper; the second that they assume you want a plastic carrier bag for everything, even though most shoppers have shopping bags or wheelie-bags. And there was I with aforementioned natty basket. Oh well, I was buying fish and meat anyway. Where our market at home features Lincolnshire potatoes, here we have gallego (Gallician) poultry and eggs (fresh turkey any time, not just Christmas and Thanksgiving), granadiño and Iberian hams, and embutidos (sausages) ibéricos. I think that in this context, ibérico/Iberian simply means Spanish, rather than imported, though there are special pork cuts and products which you would not find outside Spain. (And if you've ever seen a vacuum-packed lardon, basically a 10x8x5cm lump of white fat trimmed with bacon for contrast, you'll understand why!). After a dozen years in a Muslim country, it's a little overwhelming to find myself in Pork Central. While Dubai’s supermarket chains – apart from the French ones – carried pork lines, we were paying for food miles and the privilege of access to haram products, which put the British (best!) beyond our budget, leaving bland and additive-packed American brands - or South African bacon which tasted good, but more or less vapourised on contact with grill or frying pan..... Hmm.... a little disconcerting. And what is the point of turkey, beef or soya bacon? So I skipped it. Apart from the black pudding. That worked! Here, there's pork everywhere. Suckling pigs smile adorably from window displays, in a dead sort of way, like cheerfully philosophical Babe wannabes; and ‘jamon’ legs hang in rows in cervecerías, cafés and restaurants, the current one propped on a special stand, ready for slicing for your lunchtime tostada or bocadillo (and, once, a discarded one in a skip, trotter pointing skyward – a little unsettling until brain processed glimpse and established that this was neither part of a plastic mannequin, nor the beginnings of a police enquiry). When not sliced and packed, pork looks so human…..

But – it is the Spanish meat, dating back to the centuries when the majority of Spaniards lived in poverty and – like the rural poor in most countries – kept a pig for meat. And – I suppose - ate every last scrap, however inventive they had to be to make it palatable. Also, in periods of religious intolerance, a leg of ‘jamon’ hanging in your window was insurance of a sort.

Last year I was introduced to a very Spanish cheese. It has no name, as far as I can tell – just your común o jardín queso - but it's made from the milk of cabra, oveja y vaca (goat, ewe and cow) and comes in three ages: tierno (young), semi-curado, and curado. Habibi's not impressed, but I enjoy all three. As with all cheeses, refrigeration makes it bland, but with August temperatures of 26-36º, I don't really want it lurking in a corner, plotting my overthrow, so it lives in the fridge, but gets three or four hours freedom before meals.

Anyway, when I got home from the Mercado (and the horno/pastelería/confitería bakery/pastry-shop/sweetshop), I put everything away, made myself a coffee, spread the printed waxed wrappers on the table and pulled out the diccionario again. Which is why I can spout merrily about embutidos and the like.

One thing. When I was little, my Grandmère had a quince bush, and used to make quince jam, which I adored. When I saw quince last year (in the French hypermarket Géant, in Ibn Battuta Mall, in Dubai!) of sugar, I pounced. I had to look up quince on the Internet to find out how to cook it, and I duly followed the instructions, which involved an improbable quantity of sugar. Result. Inedibly sweet muck. Vile.
So, when I saw tarte de membrillo in the local horno/pastelería/confitería-bakery/pastry-shop/sweetshop, I bought one.
Any Beano readers reading this? No? Dandy?……… Do you remember Dennis the Menace/Minnie the Minx/Desperate Dan’s reaction to revolting food? It went as follows: Grrrroooooogh!
If and when I find fresh membrillos – I mean quinces - I'm using half the standard sugar quantity. Ha!


Keefieboy said...


Daddyo said...

With all those delicacies have signed for a GYM?, have a look round for a Spanish type Gite I might even come for a visit to help you get slimmer

MamaDuck said...

Did I say I'd signed up for the gym? Walking is so much cheaper - and you don't have to suffer the humiliation of being on display behind a plate glass window above the bus stop!

Daddyo said...

youlittle sister is watching your blog

Mme Cyn said...

This all sounds quite splendid!! In many ways, your neighborhood reminds me of adventures in Japan...

So what are you doing? Keefie said you started (ugh) a job...?