If you are interested in knowing about some of the different foods we’ve encountered on our trip you might enjoy this post. If you don’t care to hear our musings on food, ingredients and grocery stores abroad, you may prefer to pass on this one.
The foreign grocery store can be an exploration of a region’s eating preferences and marketing techniques and we approach it as others might a museum. Here’s what happens when David and Austin go into a grocery store in a new country: The first thing we do upon entering is to walk the perimeter, generally where the freshest foods are kept, and see what catches our eyes as foreign or novel. Then we stand in the dairy section (for probably far too long) and assess the quality of the milk products and if there are any full fat options. Our main goal is to find fresh (not shelf-stable) and high quality products. We scrutinize the ingredients to identify any additives like stabilizers, emulsifiers, fillers and congealing agents that seem to be universally used to extend shelf life, create the impression of freshness or uniformity of texture that some people must desire from their foodstuffs. After dairy we usually check out the produce and then it’s straight to the most exciting section: chocolate! All the while we are calculating and converting in our heads to compare the prices to what we were used to in Portland. After chocolate it’s on to the meat section and the nuts and seeds aisle. Sometimes we peruse the frozen aisle in search of additive-free ice cream (so far we’ve been disappointed by the lack of “real” ice cream made of milk, sugar and eggs). Finally we cruise through the aisles for the unlikely chance we might find coconut oil (hasn’t happened yet), interesting coffee options or other health/specialty items (like apple cider vinegar, epsom salts or tea tree oil, for example) that we struggle to locate in the countries we’ve been traveling.
Our groceries must meet the following criteria whenever possible:
1. Be appealing to both parties (Austin does not always share David’s offal taste and David doesn’t always feel like oatmeal for breakfast)
2. Be reasonably priced. This of course varies upon location, particularly Norway.
3. Fit our conceptions of “healthy”
4. Be unique to the country we are in
5. Contain enough protein though be void of preservatives, hormones and unhappy animals
6. Be edible with minimal processing, in instances when we do not have access to a kitchen
7. And, in cases where too few of the above criteria are met, be at the very least utterly delicious and enjoyable
With all of these concerns in mind we wander through grocery stores picking things up, putting them back, trying to read ingredients in foreign languages, being overly hungry and then slightly anxious about interacting with the cashier.
Our diet and impressions of food by country:
In southern Spain at the artist retreat we mainly ate whatever was prepared for us. This included paella (occasionally with rabbit), stews featuring Moroccan flavors and lots of pork and potatoes. Donna’s meals were always delicious.
We dialed in our grocery shopping and meal planning while on the Camino. We knew what was available at the grocery stores (pretty much the same stuff regardless of region) and our dinners became a medley of tomatoes, cheese, cured meats, bread, butter and olive oil, with dessert (Heck yes, we ate dessert every night on the Camino.) consisting of bananas, chocolate and sometimes nuts or fruit.
Much of the food we found in Spanish grocery stores seemed of low quality. This judgement is based on the abundance of stabilizers, thickeners, colorants, sweeteners, emulsifiers, preservatives or milk powders present in many foods. The limited spices and options in Spain became monotonous and possibly nutrient poor for our long days of walking.
After leaving Spain we arrived in Norway, the nation of fish. Fresh, canned or pickled, we ate it all. Austin swears she recovered from the distress of months of bread and potatoes in Spain within a week of arriving in Norway, thanks to all the fish we were fed. (Gunnar and Lise, you are our heroes.) Our new favorite camping foods are canned mackerel in tomato sauce and anchovies. Don’t knock it till you try it. And for the first time in months, we had fresh heavy cream for our coffee, butter was plentiful and the eggs were good. We indulged in brown caramelized goat cheese and sweet potatoes and bacon were back on the menu. Austin was happy to find a protein-rich and portable snack in liverwurst and we loved the wild game Erik hunted.
In Turkey we lost the gift of fresh cream but we gained fresh yogurt and our new favorite drink, ayran (a blend of yogurt, water and salt, served cool and frothy). In August we ate figs and grapes until we got bellyaches, fishing season opened in September bringing in cheap and delicious options and October delivered us pomegranates. We loved visiting Turkish butchers with their fantastic options like bones, tongue, neck, marrow, heart, head, and other strange but delicious parts.
Our favorite part of edible Turkey was the carts serving freshly squeezed juice, often served in glass tumblers. Pomegranate was the most exciting option and when in season is amazingly cheap at only 50 cents a glass. We enjoyed some adventurous eating in Turkey, including goat’s foot soup, sheep intestines, the brain and face meat of a lamb, chicken liver, bison butter and candied green walnuts. We were also excited to have some healthful ferments like milk kefir, water kefir and salgam, the fermented and spiced juice of black carrots..
We were told to expect fresh dairy in Bulgaria as it is a highlight of the nation’s cuisine, but we didn’t manage to find it. UHT (ultra high temperature) pasteurized dairy with thickeners was available in shelf-stable tetra packs and with the exception of some delicious full fat yogurt we were left wondering where all the special dairy goods were. Perhaps we needed to explore smaller villages for those treats. Cheese was cheap, vegetables were cheap, eggs were cheap, but none of it appeared to be farm fresh. Supermarkets were easily accessible but nothing like a health food or specialty grocery store presented itself to us near the city center.