One of my favorite parts of exploring a new country—and this is something you miss when you vacation in a hotel—is the grocery stores.
I don’t mean this in a “oh, aren’t they all so quaint” sort of way (although they can be). No, I’m talking about walking into the neighborhood dive, and floundering your way through aisles of almost familiar items, hoping you’ve correctly identified shaving cream from spray-on deodorant, and wondering where the hell they stock balsamic vinegar.
Because while many other aspects of a city accommodate transient visitors, grocery stores are for locals only. They don’t cater to tourist tastes. Here you find only what the residents demand, and this can be a surprise. What you really find in a grocery store is the common vs. the uncommon, what people consume every day, and what’s considered a luxury.
My previous trips to grab groceries have been fairly perfunctory. Today was meant to be another such trip, but then I stumbled across some must-haves, and the impulse buying began. I know: you expected something more exciting for my first post about Madrid, didn’t you? But I promise, this gets good.
So, let’s start with what I came for…
Bananas, grapes, and a six-pack of eggs.
Nothing surprising here! I mean, all I really needed were the bananas for tomorrow’s breakfast, but the grapes looked tasty and eggs never go amiss. Off to a good start!
Alcohol, because obviously.
One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Spain was how cheap the wine is. Seriously, that bottle you see there cost only about €6, and that was about the mid-range. As for the beer… well, I hadn’t seen any of these ones before, and I wanted to have them around to try. Are they good? Maybe. Being a Michigander, a land abundant in microbeweries, my standard are high. But part of me kind of doesn’t care: I just want to see what’s on offer.
OH MY GOD, THE LETTUCE.
I mean: THE. LETTUCE.
Do I sound like a crazy person? I first encountered this lettuce in Germany, and it’s just about the only green leafy vegetable in the whole world that I have strong feelings about. In the Baden-Württemburg region where I lived, it was known as rapunzel—you know, as in that salad green that Rapunzel’s mother craves so much during her pregnancy that her husband steals some from a witch’s garden only then they get caught and so the witch takes their first born child from them which she then names after the lettuce? Yeah. Well, if you ever read that story and thought “what kind of woman gets pregnancy cravings for lettuce?!,” let me step in and say: I TOTALLY EMPATHIZE WITH THAT WOMAN.
And, for some totally inexplicable reason, they don’t sell it in America. At least, not anywhere I’ve looked, and that includes Whole Food’s. Mom and I even tried growing some last summer, but it just didn’t taste the same. In Edinburgh, I usually found it in the store as lamb’s lettuce. It’s soft, and has a distinctive flavor, unlike a lot of other lettuces, which usually just taste like water. My favorite way to eat it is with a little bit of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and goat’s cheese.
So, obviously, when I saw it in the grocery store to day, I had to get some. And that meant I had to get the other ingredients, too.
Olive oil was pretty easy. In fact, the most difficult part about the olive oil was picking out the right bottle. Do I get the organic olive oil in a tin? Or the cheap plastic bottle which probably every common-sense Spanish mother out there will tell you tastes just as good and costs half the price? Or should I give in to my desire for that very fancy looking bottle with the interesting shape? (As you can see, I went for the latter.)
Surprisingly, I had a harder time with the balsamic vinegar. I found it eventually near the soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and other condiments, but unlike the olive oil (which had a very prominent section all to its ownsome), the balsamic vinegar did not have many options. I guess it’s not used as much in Spain as other places.
I usually prefer fresh goat’s cheese, but it was not to be found. I discovered the roll pictured shortly after checking Google for a translation. Turned out it was the cheese with a goat picture on it. Go figure.
Oh, and also pictured: artichoke hearts. I’m a sucker for artichoke. I passed them in the same aisle as the balsamic, so I grabbed a couple jars. They are waaaaay cheaper here (as is just about everything else).
WHELP, I GUESS I’M GOING TO LEARN TO COOK OCTOPUS.
My first night here, a friend of mine took me out for wine and tapas, and one of the tapas he ordered for us was a nice fat octopus tentacle.
Honestly, it was super tasty! I’d had calamari before, but it’s not something I’ve ever prepared myself. I’m excited to try! I sometimes forget I can cook. This, in spite of how I spent a year in culinary school, and some of my friends know me best for my ability to pull together dinner in under two hours for 30–40 people. But when I’m on my own, I rarely take time to prepare anything. I slice up some chorizo and brie, pour a glass of wine, and that’s dinner. Breakfast is bananas and yogurt. I’ll probably make that rapunzel and goat’s cheese salad for lunch one of these days, and eat artichoke hearts for a snack.
But then I see an ingredient that I just need to know how to use, and all of a sudden my cooking brain kicks into gear. I have no idea how one is meant to prepare octopus, but you can bet I’m going to find out and serve it to someone.
All told, this was a super affordable grocery splurge.
The above rang in at just over €45, with the octopus being the most expensive item at €10.90. The exchange rate right now is almost 1 to 1, so I think I did pretty well.
And don’t worry. I’ll let you know how the octopus turns out.