Le Supermarket

So how would you expect a French supermarket to differ from your average suburban Safeway?  Some of my expectations were right on the money. Others, not so much. The French cheese selection was pretty phenomenal–got that one right. Ditto, the wine department. The variety there dwarves the pretty meager selection of soft drinks–the reverse of what you’d find in a U.S. supermarket. IMG_0931 IMG_0932

IMG_0937 But the prominence of Red Bull?  That was unexpected, though maybe it shouldn’t have been. I didn’t realize that it was a European (Austrian) company. Slurping up sweet, super-caffeinated soft drinks seems so quintessentially American. IMG_0925

The French don’t have Americans’ mania for low-fat, low calorie versions of everything. Lots of yogurt, for example. But in that whole big dairy case, there were only two low-cal fruit-flavored versions. Plenty of “cane-sweetened” ones and lots of plain–aka.”natural”–yogurts-plus a smattering of Greek style yogurts. But no flavored Greek yogurts with low-cal sweeteners.  I miss my Chobani!

IMG_0922 It was surprisingly difficult to locate the milk in the store. That’s because the packaging in France makes it look like a cleaning product and it isn’t located anywhere near a refrigerated case. IMG_0929

Prepared entrees are more exotic  than in the U.S.   That “Lapin” in the lower corner…it’s rabbit.

IMG_0919 cropped And if you think Americans demand convenience, check this out: The French can buy their bread with the crusts already trimmed off! IMG_0934 cropped

And finally, the French are known for their design esthetic, right? But  neon-colored toilet paper? Really?

Mercado Central

Valencia’s Mercado Central is reportedly the largest market in Europe. I can’t vouch for the veracity of the claim, but the place is huge—some 8,000 square meters of interior space. It’s also beautiful. And kind of creepy. It’s beautiful for two reasons. First, the building itself is lovely. Designed in 1914 and inaugurated in 1928, it’s a modernist wonder of steel, glass and IMG_0532tile work. Light floods into the market from a huge central glass dome. And second, it’s filled with the most gorgeous and colorful  fruits (fresh and dried), vegetables, herbs, spices and nuts you’ve ever seen. Huge pulpy red peppers. Fat bunches of  freshly picked onions—fresh white globes with long green tops, like some kind of mutant scallion. Grapes nearly the size of golf balls. Piles of bright red strawberries that not only look delicious, but actually smell delicious, too. Mountains of sweet oranges. And strange fat pods of what I assume is some kind of bean.

IMG_0408Wandering through row after row of produce stand, the choices are overwhelming. It’s simply way too much for even me, the consummate comparison shopper to assess the quality and prices of produce at each stall. I figure the best practice is to look for the stall with the longest lines of what are clearly locals and just buy there. It’s tougher to figure out a strategy for choosing among the dozens of sellers of Spanish sausages, hams and cheeses. both domestic and imported. The booths run the gamut from small and unpretentious to large and polished. I buy from a small place one day, and a large one at my next visit, before I find the one I’ll patronize from now on for one simple reason: It has a clerk who speaks English and doesn’t seem to think I’m nuts when I say, just give me a different kind of cheese and Iberian ham today from the ones I’ve already bought from you. I want to keep trying new ones!IMG_0422

Along with the produce and deli-type vendors, sellers of olive oils, wines, dried fruits and nuts, bulk quantities of spices—including the saffron essential for an authentic paella Valenciana—fill the central part of the market.  Around the outer edges of the building, it’s a different story. That’s where the creepy parts are—the butchers’ stalls, the poulterers and the fishmongers.

At first, it just seems as if the cases are filled with rows of roasts, chops, steaks, filets and chicken—whole roasters and the usual assortment of breasts, drumsticks and thighs. Then you start noticing items that aren’t usually found at your local Safeway’s meat and poultry section. Or even at that specialty butcher place up the street:

IMG_0412 Piles of chicken feet. OK—maybe that’s not too weird: after all, you see them in Chinatown. But chicken heads? What on earth do you do with a pound or two of chicken heads? Chicken carcasses with the heads and feet still on them, as well as a few scattered feathers. Plus geese, ducks, partridges, quails and a variety of other game birds. Then, there’s the whole rabbits, with their milky eyes staring out of distressingly skinned rat-like faces. Pig’s feet. Pig’s ears. Pig’s everything. And the larger, darker red versions from cattle. Livers, of course. But also kidneys, lungs, hearts, brains, thyroids anIMG_0654_2d what seemed like more organs than exist in your average farm animal. Plus something that looked suspiciously like some animal’s penis, not to mention the whole heads—both pigs’ and calves’.

Once, when I worked on Capitol Hill for a Senator from Nebraska, I toured a beef slaughterhouse and packing plant along with a group of other legislative aides. When it was over we all happily chowed down on thick grilled steaks. After walking through the butchers’ stalls in the Mercado Central, I was giving some thought to vegetarianism. It’s not that I’m bothered by the idea of eating what was once a live animal. Man is, by nature, a carnivore and has been hunting and eating prey for centuries. I have no illusions about where those sanitized deboned, skinned chicken breasts really come from. And, in principle, I applaud the idea of not wasting huge parts of a slaughtered animal.Still, the idea of eating lungs, eyes, tongues, etc. makes my stomach do flip-flops and renders the notion of swallowing even a mouthful of tender, flavorful filet mignon unappealing.

As for the  seafood area, it’s  an exercise in attraction/aversion. There’s the usual salty, fishy smell, of course, andIMG_0426 a general feeling of dampness.  Counters are covered in the most amazing display of sea life outside an aquarium. Tiny fish, intended to be deep-fried whole and eaten. Whole and filleted slabs of larger fish, only some of which are recognizable.  IMG_0428Spiny black sea urchins. Octopus and squid of various sizes and varieties. Teeny, tiny little soft-shelled clams and palm-sized oysters.   Piles of at least a half dozen different creatures which I know must be some  limb on the shrimp family tree  but are unidentifiable. Buckets of wriggling eels. Even as I nearly gag thinking of swallowing some of this stuff, I can’t look away, amazed at the sheer variety and novelty of what’s before me.

Settling In


This weekend I stopped being a tourist. Well, not entirely—I still can’t speak Spanish and continue to gawk at 14th century buildings. But I did spend most of the weekend more or less as I would have in Baltimore or Arlington.

First, I did the laundry. But instead of shuttling the wet clothing from one modern appliance to another, I dried them the Spanish way: hanging them on an expandable rack attached to one of my apartment windows. I clipped my clean clothing  to the rack, which extends out over a sort of interior courtyard, silently praying that nothing fell. Four stories down, the interior space seemed to contain just some mechanical equipment, a few buckets and the like. Besides, I had no earthly idea how to get there, and I presumed it was accessed only  by the first floor apartment. Or perhaps even the neighboring building. Either way, I didn’t relish  trying to recover any escaped undies from strangers I couldn’t communicate with.IMG_0535

Electricity is expensive in Spain, so almost no one has a clothes dryer. Most households have washing machines, though—often located in the kitchen. Enjoying an average of more than 300 sunny days a year, Spaniards let Mother Nature do the job for free.

Domestic adventure, number two:  Grocery shopping. Flavorful cured Spanish ham and cheese with fresh bread makes a great supper, but I was getting a bit tired of it. Time to see what it’s like to have to find the specific ingredients I need to make a real meal. Fortunately, the Mercado Central is less than two blocks away from the apartment.

Reportedly the largest market in Europe, it’s a treasure trove of fruits, vegetables, nuts, dried beans and lentils, meat, poultry and seafood. Not to mention olive oils, breads and pastries, wine and cheese. (More on this marvelous market coming later.) But I’m a from-the-recipe cook and don’t often wing it with whatever I find in the market. Plus the cooking equipment in the apartment is minimal—one small and one largish pot, what appears to be a pressure cooker minus the top, and a small skillet or two. So I decided on soup.

I knew the market had bacalao, the Spanish name for the salted codfish that I recalled being sold in a small wooden box at Rhode Island grocery stores when I was a child. I’d only once found it in the D.C. area, using it to make a Portuguese fish and vegetable soup. I figured I could find a similar recipe online.

The cod wasn’t too  pricey at about  6€ for a bit more than half a kilo. But the vegetables were an unbelievable bargain.  Five carrots, two stalks of celery, two kilos of tomatoes, a clove of garlic, a couple of fresh onions. All for less than 4€ (about $4.50 at today’s exchange rate). Wow, at a farmers’ market in Baltimore or DC, that would have run me well over $10, and I couldn’t have bought just 2 stalks of celery. (The lady at the booth just breaks them off and breaks them in half to fit nicely in a bag.) Two more euros at another “exotic” produce booth where I bought a fresh fennel bulb, and another euro for a loaf of crusty bread and I was set. But the fruit looked too good to pass up. Ditto the piles of artichokes. So, I bought two kilos of sweet oranges (1,5€), a big box of strawberries ( another 1.5€) and five small artichokes (1€!) . The grand total for my haul: 15€.

Now, with the soup simmering on the stove, I’m ready for the last order of business this weekend: Catching up on Downton Abbey. I’d left the U.S. after the first four episodes of this season and hadn’t had the time (or inclination, really) to find out how to watch the show online from Europe. I knew that Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and other services weren’t available in Europe. But a little googling, $55 for a year-long subscription to  a VPN (virtual private network), which makes it look as if my computer is in the U.S.  and I was streaming Lady Mary’s latest escapades.  Four episodes later, and I was on to The Good Wife.  No more English language TV withdrawal pangs for me, and the retired life continues to look sweeter and sweeter!