Grocery stores and markets
One of my favorite things to do when travelling to new places is to explore grocery stores. I know that might seem a little weird to some, but I feel that you can tell so much about a culture by browsing in the everyday places where normal people shop. And since I love food and eating, it is fun to see how people shop for food. I find it fascinating to see what types of food different stores sell, how things are packaged, and just what American foods are imported for sale. I also really enjoyed exploring the open air markets. There seem to be a lot more community markets in Europe than in the U.S. During my travels, I browsed grocery stores and markets from Paris to Amsterdam and everywhere in between. Here are some of my observations and thoughts.
FRANCE: In Paris, there are not a lot of what we would call grocery stores. Most stores are really small, with just the necessities. One of the things I loved about Paris is that people don't seem to shop at big one-stop-shopping centers. Instead there are small bakeries, butcher shops, cheese shops, and produce stands in each neighborhood. People just buy what they need for a day or two at a time, because the shops are all so convenient. I loved walking along Rue Cler and several other small streets filled with shops and vendors spilling out onto the sidewalks.
Nice had one of the best markets of any of the towns I visited. Set up on the main square of the old town and just a block from the beach, the market was filled with produce, olives, flowers and sweets. During my 3 days in Nice, I found myself at the market each day buying little snacks for the day ahead. So many different kinds of olives!
SPAIN: In Madrid, my hostel was only a block from El Corte Ingles, the huge (and I mean HUGE) department store that is the staple for most Spaniards. It is mainly a department store, but two floors are a grocery store as well. This store had a lot more prepared foods and quick snacks to take on the go. In Barcelona, I absolutely loved the Mercato on Las Ramblas. This was one of the biggest markets that I saw during my trip. With a protective roof overhead, the market spread out in all directions and sold all different kinds of goods. Produce, fresh squeezed juice, meats, seafood, sushi -- anything you could ever want. It was fun to explore all the different kinds of fruits (including some I had never seen before -- still not sure what a pitahaya is) and sample all kinds of goodies.
ITALY: Italy is somewhat similar to France in that there are a lot of little neighborhood stores selling just produce, meat, or baked goods. Because I was staying with friends, I was out in the suburbs and away from the tourist areas of Naples. There were several small (by US standards) grocery stores in their area. Of course the pasta section was huge! I was also surprised at the size of the freezer section. I couldn't believe the size of the fava beans -- I have never seen beans that big.
AUSTRIA: In both Vienna and Salzburg I enjoyed the markets. In Vienna, the Nachtsmarkt was huge and full of a wide variety of food. Vienna is considered the gateway to the East because of its proximity to the Balkans and the Middle East. The food available in the market definitely reflected this. So many different types of foods, especially middle eastern, turkish, and greek. There were great dried fruit and nut vendors in the market, and I had some of the best turkish delight there. There were also lots of bakeries and olive vendors. In Salzburg, the market was a lot smaller and not as international. Huge pretzels, fresh produce and flowers made up most of the market.
CZECH REPUBLIC: In Prague, I couldn't believe how high the food prices were in the restaurants, especially considering that the grocery stores were dirt cheap. I think they have found a way to make some serious money off the tourists. The grocery stores were actually quite big and very modern. The store in Prague was a Tesco, a British supermarket chain. This store probably had the biggest frozen food section of any I visited. And because it was a British store, there were plenty of British and American brands being sold.
SWITZERLAND: Switzerland easily had the biggest and most modern of any grocery stores I visited. I couldn't believe the enormous selection of foods there. You can buy boxed Thai foods, taco shells, and sushi trimmings. I also couldn't believe the size of the chocolate and the cheese aisles. You can definitely tell what is important to a culture by the amount of space dedicated to a product in a grocery store. The grocery stores in Switzerland also had a really high amount of packaged and processed goods. In the other countries I visited, it seemed that the majority of space was dedicated to fresh produce and baked goods. That was a relatively small part of the Swiss stores. Another observation: eggs are stored on the shelves and not in the refrigerated section. This was true in most of the stores I visited in Europe and made me wonder why we are so adamant about refrigerating our eggs. In Swiss stores, some eggs are dyed bright primary colors. I had to ask Erica and Ryan about that one. Apparently it means they are already hard boiled. They weren't sure why so many different colors were used.
GERMANY: In Germany, the grocery stores had a huge selection of different types of breads and pastries. And of course gummies! A whole aisle full of gummy candy. In Munich we explored the Viktualienmarket, a huge semi-permanent market complex selling everything from fresh bread and beer to black forest hams. There were also lots of handicrafts and flowers.
GREECE: In Greece, the grocery stores tended to be quite small with mainly produce, dairy products, wine and a few packaged goods. Almost all of the stores on the Greek Isles had fresh baklava too! The Greek potato chips were great. And the selection of yogurt, honey, olive oil and spices was amazing.
UK AND IRELAND: I had so much fun exploring (and shopping at) the grocery stores in the UK. They are really big and somewhat similar to US stores. One big difference was the amount of prepared foods. I couldn't believe how many prepared, pre-packaged, ready to eat foods were on sale. Most stores had at least four long aisles of prepared foods. It was great for travelling because it was really easy to pop into a grocery store and get a sandwich or a salad for lunch and not have to pay too much for it. And the foods were really delicious! I loved Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury's. While on my own, I ate most of my meals from the grocery stores. I wish we had similar stores in the US. I guess Whole Foods would be the closest equivalent. I was also amazed at the way produce was packaged in the UK. It seemed like all the fruits and vegetables were already parceled out and in sealed plastic bags. Very weird.
BELGIUM: The grocery stores in Belgium were mid-size, with large cheese and chocolate sections. They tended to have quite a few French and German foods as well, probably due to the close proximity to these countries. The produce and bakery sections were quite small and without a lot of variety.
NETHERLANDS: The grocery stores in the Netherlands were similar to those in Belgium. Huge aisles of chocolate and cheese (No wonder I loved eating in Europe so much)! There were also a lot of pre-packaged Indonesian foods and sauces. The market in Haarlem was really great, with produce, cheese, bakery, stroopwaffel and fry stands. I had a great lunch just browsing and sampling different things.
OTHER OBSERVATIONS: I was surprised at the amount and variety of American foods imported to European grocery stores. One thing that I seemed to see everywhere was Special K cereal. I was a little surprised at that, but I guess that women everywhere are watching their figures. Of course there were Coca-cola products everywhere and occasionally some Pepsi products as well. Another thing that surprised me were potato chips. Cheetos and Pringles were all over Europe, but they weren't the familiar chips we are used to. Cheetos were not the neon orange twists (I didn't see any of those in Europe), but came in all different flavors. Pringles also came in unfamiliar flavors, including steak and prawn cocktail.
I was surprised to see grocery store checkers sitting down on the job. In all of the grocery stores I visited, checkers sit rather than stand. I can imagine that this must be much better for the people working. It was also interesting that most stores do not provide grocery bags. You bring your own or you pay extra for plastic bags. And you stuff as much as possible in each bag. This is a great idea and would really discourage shoppers from overusing plastic bags, especially in Texas where they seem to think only two items can fit in a bag, no matter what size they are.
I really enjoyed the markets and wish that we had more markets in the US. I know in many places farmer's markets are starting to be more popular. There is just something great about walking to a market, picking up fresh produce from the people who grow it and only taking what you need for a few days at a time. There is also something great about still shopping in stores that are specialties -- a butcher for meat products, a bakery for bread products, etc. It seems like in American we are going farther away from that and towards more superstores with everything you need in one place. While the convenience is nice, I think the quality suffers. And it is getting harder and harder to find local stores.