If you’ve decided to spend some time in one of our rental apartments, you’ll be cooking in instead of eating out, and concerning yourselves with several issues involved in shopping and cooking in any foreign country. Here’s a great article from Real Deal BBQ that offers an interesting perspective on food from the point of view of Americans.
WHAT IS FOOD?
Europeans tend to have different attitudes toward food than most Americans do. As Americans, we aren’t often reminded that our food once grew in the mud or ran around a farmyard on four legs. We demand unblemished produce, as if dry spells and bugs didn’t exist. We eat only meat that’s shaped like a serving, and turn up our noses at anything that resembles a recognizable animal.
Europeans are more apt to believe in live food, fresh food. Even in supermarkets, you’re apt to see whole skinned rabbits, fish with glassy eyes, calves’ brains and pigs’ ears, all unmistakably tied to their sources by appearance. European cooks find a close-to-the-source product their best guarantee of freshness, a testimony to a long and continuing lack of refrigeration. Partway through our trip I read an interview with a famous Italian cook who said she got discouraged and lost her appetite in American supermarkets because “all the food is dead and in coffins of plastic.” To people in areas where cooling isn’t prevalent, dead means unsafe, spoiled, low quality.
To Americans, dead has come to mean guaranteed, sanitized. To us, food comes from supermarkets; it doesn’t come from fields and barnyards. The Spanish housewife doesn’t see it as a disadvantage that she has to look her fish in the eye at the market — she finds it reassuring. Most of us won’t have the same reaction. The realities of facing real food may take a bit of mental adjustment.
WHERE TO SHOP
Most European towns and cities offer three options for food shopping: the traditional open-air or covered market, the small Mom-and-Pop store, and the modern supermarket.
Traditional markets are what most of us imagine when we conjure up a vision of shopping for food in Europe. There we are, wandering into a narrow village street of covered stalls on market day, and picking over the brilliant red tomatoes. Or ducking under the iron-and-glass dome of an immense Art Deco covered market place where scores of pleasant peasants offer quaint baskets of fruit and cheese. After all, one of the reasons we take trips like this is to immerse ourselves in local tradition, to escape the plastic anonymity of American supermarkets.
The reality of the traditional market is very different. And it can be a bit disconcerting at first, especially to your kids. The smells and sights of such a market–strong cheeses, pickled vegetables, hanging meat carcasses–can turn the stomachs of the uninitiated. Even if you’re not a hopeless Hamburger Helper cook, you more likely associate “fresh and unprocessed” with “in raw, moist slices” or “sold in a wooden bin,” not with “feathers and eyes still intact” or “still moving vigorously.”
You may prefer to enjoy the traditional market for its rich sights, smells and sounds, then scuttle to the neighborhood supermarket to do your shopping.
Shopping at the supermarket in Europe has several advantages:
— Your neighbors are there too, so it’s not a complete cop-out. Europe is not really a continent where grandmotherly types in kerchiefs spend their whole day loading fresh vegetables into a handy string bag. Women here are just as busy as anywhere, and love the convenience of supermarkets.
— You’ll be able to pay your bill with VISA. Supermarkets in many countries readily accept VISA at the check-out counter, cutting down on the amount of local cash you’ll have to carry around.
— You won’t need as much knowledge of the language to get by. For many, this may be the biggest advantage. In the open market, you’ll need to know all the words for all the foods you want. You’ll need to know how to think in kilos and grams, and how to express your thoughts in the right numbers. At a supermarket, much of your shopping will consist of pulling things from shelves and sticking them in your cart, then thrusting a handful of bills or a credit card at the cashier. (Consider this from both sides: many of you may enjoy the extra learning that comes from the challenge of face-to-face marketing.)
— You’ll be able to find some American foods there to ease the transition for any finicky eaters in the family. Breakfast cereals, milk, tortellini, dry soup mixes–all these more familiar foods helped our kids eat well at one meal, while we tried new things at the next.
— You’ll be able to find foreign junk food. Why on earth is this an advantage? Because junk foods are a wonderful way to encourage the unadventurous to try new foods. Amazingly, many countries far surpass us in their ability to concoct utterly useless packaged snack foods. Let your kids pick one each time you go shopping. Once they’ve successfully ventured beyond the known in junk food, they’re more apt to experiment with more useful foods, too.
In addition to these two options, European countries all feature a large number of small neighborhood markets. Some of these are like our convenience stores, and offer the same no-language-needed impersonality of supermarkets, as described above.
Others, though, reflect a long tradition of specialty stores: butchers, bakers, green-grocers, and so on. Almost always these stores offer very high quality and excellent service, for a little more money than the open markets or the supermarkets. And shopping in these stores almost invariably requires some mastery of the local language.
If you do have the necessary language skills, getting to know these local purveyors is a rewarding part of living in a town or neighborhood. In Spain, you might shop at your local fruteria (fruit shop) or the neighborhood despacio de pan (store where bread is sold but not baked). In France, you’ll probably get addicted to the nearest charcuterie, a deli-like place that offers a wide variety of ready-to-warm-up main dishes.
WHEN TO SHOP
Europe is in a transition now from open-air markets to American-style supermarkets. In most places, both options still exist, so you can shop at either or both, whenever you want. Either way, you’re likely to shop more often in Europe than you do at home.
European refrigerators are small–commonly four to six cubic feet, like the small “dorm” or office refrigerators sold in the States. American fridges, by contrast, are commonly seventeen to twenty cubic feet–with a freezer compartment only slightly smaller than a typical European family refrigerator.
This difference is partially due to smaller houses and apartments, and to higher energy costs. But that can’t be the whole answer –larger fridges aren’t even displayed in most appliance stores, for those with larger houses and paychecks. The truth lies in the European preference for fresh food, and in most people’s different eating habits. If you’re going to buy fresh meat, vegetables and dairy products every day or two, and if you don’t buy fresh milk by the gallon, you just don’t need that much storage space for your perishables.
The days and hours when stores are open become important when you must shop frequently. Don’t count on the twenty-four-hour supermarket you’ve gotten used to at home! Find out about the local hours when you first arrive, so you won’t be caught by surprise. In England, for instance, stores are rarely open in the evenings. In Spain, they’re usually closed from two to five in the afternoon. And in France, stores are often closed on Mondays–though each town usually makes sure one bakery and one small grocery remain open. In all countries, Sunday hours are the exception rather than the rule.
WHAT’S FOR DINNER?
Once you get your food home and packed into your tiny refrigerator, it’s time to start cooking. Your rental home will come with pans and dishes, but the rest is up to you.
You have two obvious choices: You can cook your family’s favorite dishes from back home or cook local specialties. Either way, you’ll face a few small hurdles. If you opt for old favorites, you may find certain ingredients are unobtainable locally (I couldn’t locate cornstarch for Chinese sweet-and-sour-pork in Spain–though a helpful reader in Spain has since told me what to look for!). You may also find that you don’t know as many recipes by heart as you thought you did. It’s a good idea to bring a basic American paperback cookbook for reference.
Even better, bring one that features the specialties of the region you’re visiting. Unless you’re utterly fluent in the language, you’ll be lost with a local cookbook–a traveler’s normal vocabulary doesn’t extend to phrases like “fold in egg whites” or “whip until frothy with stiff peaks.” Remember, though, that if you use an American cookbook you’ll need to bring a small measuring cup and a set of measuring spoons. The only measuring devices that come with your rental will be metric ones.
If you’ve decided to wing it without a cookbook, even cooking supermarket packaged foods can be an experience. In Spain, for instance, there are no instructions on a box of rice; using the same amount of water and cooking time as Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice requires at home will produce nothing but a gluey mess. And yet, a box of Rice Krispies comes with full instructions: “Pour into bowl. Pour on just enough milk to cover cereal. Eat with a teaspoon or soup spoon.” Every housewife in Spain knows how to cook rice, but breakfast cereals are new and innovative.