Home Cooking Abroad by Harriman: Part 2

Travel Food

Part Two of an article excerpted with permission from "Take Your Kids to Europe" (1994) by Cynthia W. Harriman. The book is available for $16 from: Mason-Grant Publications, P.O. Box 6547, Portsmouth, NH 03802, 603-436-1608.

HOME COOKING ABROAD: Part Two

GROCERY SHOPPING, COUNTRY BY COUNTRY:

Exploring grocery stores can be one of traveling's greatest everyday pleasures. In our travels, we've devoted as much as three to five hours each week to "sightseeing" at the markets. If you're spending less time overseas, however, you might want to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Let's look at four countries -- England, France, Italy and Spain -- to give you an idea of the similarities and differences among European supermarkets.

ENGLISH SUPERMARKETS

English supermarkets often include many extras that make them very pleasant places to shop: in-house coffee shop and pharmacy, miniature shopping carts for Mommy's little helpers, and ample diaper-changing areas in the clean bathrooms. The stores are large, modern and well-stocked. In England, as a matter of fact, we shop at Safeway--the same chain you may shop at every week at home. Some major observations about price and products:

-- Milk is widely available and similar in taste to American milk. That it can be bought in larger containers and in more varieties (low fat, skim) attests that milk-drinking is more common in England than on the continent. A uniform system of bottle-tops tells what kind of milk you're buying: gold is very creamy, almost like half-and-half; silver is regular milk; and red is low fat.

-- Cheeses are abundant, and we enjoyed experimenting with different varieties from the cheese case. Don't ask store personnel to slice it for you. The meat slicers in the deli department are for meat only; we are told health regulations prevent their being used for cheese. In Europe, cheese is most often eaten as a dessert course rather than sliced on sandwiches--a fact we were reminded of by several stores' refusal to slice our cheese. Sliced cheese can sometimes be found in the dairy case.

-- Produce is not up to French standards, but is better than American and extremely varied. Exotics like star fruit are common. The English use different French-derived names for several vegetables. A few you're apt to encounter include aubergine (eggplant), courgette (zucchini) and mangetout (snow-peas).

-- Breakfast cereals are very common, including the entire Kellogg's line. Of course, the whole concept of a cereal-eggs-toast breakfast is normal in England, so the wide choice in cereals is to be expected.

-- Beverage aisles in England include shelf after shelf of ales, including thick Scottish ales that taste as if they're made with oatmeal, and shandy, a drink made of half beer and half lemonade. Squash is a common soft drink, usually a sort of watery orange soda. Ginger beer is a stronger (and sometimes slightly alcoholic) version of ginger ale. Apple juice is often carbonated--look for the word "sparkling" on the bottle or can.

-- Snack foods run largely to biscuits (cookies), crisps (potato chips) and sweets (candy). All of these can be found in exhaustive variety in English supermarkets. Your kids, like ours, will probably try to convince you that it's their cultural duty to explore as many varieties as possible.

-- Bake mixes are very common, including all manner of cakes and puddings. One look at the baking mix aisle serves to remind visitors that pastry shops, so widespread in France and Spain, are not as ubiquitous here.

-- Meats are of lesser quality than in France or Spain, and more expensive (as is everything in England). Ham roasts are very salty, and don't come precooked as they do in the states. Dan and Wendy's request for spare ribs was met with incredulity: "You mean you want us to cut off most of the meat and just give you the bones???" And their order for beef patties sent the butcher into gales of laughter--In England "patties" refers only to cow pats left on the floor of the barn.

FRENCH SUPERMARKETS

French supermarkets are much like ours--a mix of smaller in-town establishments and mall superstores. But the superstores are even larger than ours, often combining an enormous grocery with a discount store that sells everything from underwear to lawn chairs.

Supermarket shopping in France is a high-tech treat that starts in the parking lot when you pick up your grocery cart. Carts are never scattered all over the lot: they're neatly chained to each other in designated areas--a system just now getting started in the U.S. To get a cart, you slide a ten franc coin into the slot of a little box attached to the cart's handle. As the coin drops, the chain hooking your cart to the next one in line disconnects, freeing the cart. When you're done shopping, you simply reattach the chain, and your coin is returned to you.

Inside the store, the high-tech flavor continues in the produce department. You pick your own produce from the displays, bag your fruits and vegetables, then bring your bags to the automatic scale. Place your peaches on the scale, push the button with a picture of a peach, and the machine spits out an adhesive label for your bag. It takes just a few minutes to put each bag of produce on the scale and get the appropriate label. I suspect we all eat more fruits and vegetables in France because the kids like to push those buttons so much.

High-tech stays with you till the checkout-counter, where your credit card is passed through the slot of an automatic-approval device, and your food is paid for painlessly. Then you're on your own though: as in most of Europe, you're expected to bag your own groceries while the cashier rings them up. Plastic bags are provided; you do not need to bring your own. A few random observations about price and products:

-- Meats are very good. Routine cuts of beef and pork sell for a bit more than at home. But the meats that are most expensive in the States--veal, lamb and special beef cuts--are cheaper in France. French people on a tight budget buy abats--brains, kidneys, heart, tongue, etc.--for one or two dollars a pound. Most supermarket meat is precut and plastic-sealed.

-- Milk throughout Europe is most commonly sterilized and found on unrefrigerated shelves in paper cartons (larger versions of the juice brick-packs common in the States). Fresh creamy whole milk does exist, but only occasionally in low fat form. Our kids find French milk more palatable than Spanish, but still drink far less milk in France than at home. Both Spanish and French milk taste great served up hot for breakfast with Nestle's Quik mixed in (Quik is the most common chocolate powder in many countries.)

-- Cheeses are wonderful in France, as you might expect. We like to buy a half-kilo each of two cheeses we know we like, plus an equal amount of two unknown cheeses whose appearance or name appeals to us (a few of our favorites include Carre Breton, Port Salut and St. Paulin). In many stores, your cheese will be custom-cut, laid on a piece of paper, then heat-sealed into its own special envelope.

-- Produce is of very good quality. It's almost as if the vegetables were bred for taste, instead of for their ability to stand up to automated harvesting equipment (novel idea)! The combination of excellent vegetables and nonexistent freezer compartments will encourage you to cook more fresh vegetables than you might at home.

-- Breakfast cereals include almost the whole Kellogg's line and a few from Quaker. Nestle cereals are nowhere near as prominent as they are in Spain, and Post and General Mills have not heavily penetrated the French market.

-- Beverages sold in supermarkets include aisle after aisle of beer and wine, especially wine. Fruit juices are limited in variety and somewhat expensive. Kids will like the many choices of flavored syrups that can be mixed with tap water or carbonated water to make "Continental Kool-Aid." Soft drinks--in addition to the normal Coke and Sprite--come in different flavors including cassis, a blackberry flavor.

-- Snack foods don't include many crackers, but are otherwise extremely varied. Flavored peanuts, often with a crunchy fried coating, are very common, as are many flavored-fried-extruded junk bits. Our kids love Nutella and Poulina, chocolate spreads that can be eaten on bread or simply on fingers. Cookies are easily found, though in not nearly as many varieties as in America. The best source for sweets is the pastry shop!

-- Bake mixes are more common than in Spain, though there's nothing like the row after row of cake, cookie and biscuit mixes in a stateside supermarket. If you want to bake, you can also choose from several brands of puff-pastry mix in the freezer compartment.

ITALIAN SUPERMARKETS

Italian supermarkets are among the best in the world--just as you might expect in a country where good food is almost revered. As in other European countries, Italian markets often take credit cards. And many of the larger stores use the same grocery-cart system as in France, where you put in a coin to unchain your cart, then get the coin back when you return the cart.

Some generalizations about Italian grocery-store food :

-- Meats are of comparable quality to those in France, with rabbit surprisingly common. Most supermarkets have a working butcher, who will slice or grind any cut of meat to order (if you speak enough Italian to ask!). There's usually some ready-packaged meat available if you prefer to silently grab and run.

-- Deli departments feature sliced meats and an incredible variety of cheeses. Try the cheeses you think you know--like mozzarella, provolone and gorgonzola: the authentic version is probably very different from what you're used to. (This may not always work out well. Dan and Wendy's kids turned their noses up at real Parmesan cheese, accustomed as they were to Kraft's grated parmesan!)

-- Fresh milk is much more plentiful on the West coast of Italy than on the East. In the West you're also more apt to find corn flakes to go with your milk.

-- Vegetables are of very high quality, often presented very artistically. Picture mounds of red, orange and yellow peppers, next to four colors of broccoli, in purple, blue, green and white.

-- Beverages for kids include lots of brick-pack juices, and at least two dozen flavors of "Continental Kool-Aid." Make sure to try tamarindo (from the tropical tamarind fruit) and orgeat, an almond flavor similar to Spain's almond horchata drink.

-- Watch out if you try to bake. Both sugar and flour are processed differently, and react differently in your favorite recipes. Baking powder usually comes with vanilla already added.

-- Vacuum-packed pasta products, like tortellini and gnocci, are of very high quality.

-- Of course there is in every supermarket at least one aisle of dry packaged pasta, in every size and shape from big floppy elephant-ear rounds to tiny spiraled noodles. Stay long enough to try them all!

SPANISH SUPERMARKETS

Since most Spaniards live clustered in urban areas, Spanish supermarkets are small, and tucked into the urban fabric. At most supermarkets, everything is self-serve except produce and meat, where you must place your order and be served by store personnel. Some major observations about price and products:

-- Meats are of good variety and excellent quality. Spanish pork loin (lomo) is especially good--tender and lean. Our kids love it. The butcher will cut what you want to order. You're not likely to see hamburger, but you can ask the butcher to grind any of his meats for you at no extra charge. Meats are priced about the same as in the U.S. (Remember to convert currency and weight: European meats are sold by the kilo, which is 2.2 pounds, making everything look twice as expensive at first glance!)

-- Most milk is sterilized here, and will not please most American palates. Fresh milk is sold in small liter containers in the dairy case. It's very creamy (no low-fat option) and many stores run out early in the day.

-- Cheeses are found both in the meat case and packaged in the dairy case. There's wonderful variety, which is good, since you're likely to prefer chewing calcium to drinking it in Spain. Our kids especially like manchega, a cheddar-like cheese.

-- Breakfast cereals are becoming more popular in Spain, with Nestle's and Kellogg's the two big brands. You'll find old favorites like Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies, along with super-sweetened local variants like Miel Pops (corn pops made with honey) and Estrellitas (heavily-honeyed stars). Our kids experimented with several of these, then switched to a typical Spanish bread-and-jam breakfast when they decided they didn't care for the cereal or the milk.

-- Produce is of mixed quality. Fruits--especially citrus fruits--are excellent. Vegetables are less impressive, partly because you can't pick the ones you want in most markets: order a half kilo of peppers, for instance, and you take the peppers the produce lady decides you will have (unless you're willing to discuss the matter in rapid Spanish).

-- Snack foods are big in Spain. Marias are small round cookies (called "digestive biscuits" in England) that taste something like an animal cracker. They're sold in boxes as big as those that hold paper diapers in an American supermarket, and Spanish kids eat a lot of them. Next in popularity (judged by supermarket shelf-space) are potato chips and other crispy snacks. Potato chips come in bizarre flavors like ham and shrimp; they compete for snacker's attention with every manner of extruded fried flavored cheese puff imaginable. You'll also find chocolate bars and olives in more varieties than you've ever seen at home. On the other hand, you won't find many crackers (just a few varieties, in very small boxes) and aside from Marias, almost no cookies. The Spanish are more apt to stop at a pastry shop when they want a sweet.

-- Beverages sold include a wide variety of fruit juices (in large brick packs at reasonable prices), a good variety of wines and beer, and plenty of soft drinks. Try gaseosa, a sweetened fizzy-water. Our kids like it plain, and we enjoy it mixed with red wine to make a wine-cooler-like drink the Spaniards call tinto con gaz.

-- Bake mixes are virtually non-existent. The Spanish housewife who thinks nothing of hacking up a whole fish and deep-frying it from scratch will almost always duck into her neighborhood pastry shop and buy a prepared dessert. Join her, and your family will appreciate it!

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