A few years ago, while still a wage-slave in the UK, I made a list of all the reasons why I didn’t want to live there any more. Near the top of the list was Big Bad Supermarkets: their crimes included driving small shops and farmers out of business, seducing us into buying microwave ready-meals packed with additives, selling tasteless meat alongside jars of goo that supposedly turn it into something a celebrity chef would be proud to serve, wrapping fruit and veg in umpteen layers of plastic and then charging us for carrier bags “to help protect the environment” ... you know what I’m on about. And as for 24-hour opening, I’m not even going to go there, it’s the road to madness.
To cut a long story short, I now live in Alcalá de los Gazules in the province of Cádiz. Shopping for food here is not like it was in England. Oh no. Not one bit. I love it.
Alcalá has around 5,600 inhabitants and at least 40 food shops, including five butchers, three greengrocers, two fishmongers and six confectioners/bakers. There may be more, lurking in backstreets I haven’t ventured into yet. This works out at one shop per 140 people; in the UK, the ratio is one per 1700 people (www.euromonitor.com). Then we have four bazaars (including the awesome Bazaar Chino), three ironmongers, two saddlers, two chemists, half a dozen shops selling clothes and shoes, a fabric shop, a haberdashery that also sells ladies' underwear, two gunsmiths and an amazing agricultural emporium which sells everything from flea powder to live partridges.
Many of these shops are just a room in a someone’s house, with goods spilling out onto the pavement. Sure, we have supermarkets too, the largest being Día; I go there occasionally to buy butter, as it seems to be the only place in town that sells it; others innocently offer you Tulipan margarine when you ask for mantequilla, which just doesn’t do it for me on a nice crusty baguette. There are rarely more than a dozen people in Día. Conversely, Jacinta's shop at the top of our street measures approximately 8 square metres and is almost always overflowing with customers. It sells pretty well everything Día does (except butter, and the Wines & Spirits selection is somewhat limited). The shelves are stacked up to the ceiling, the chiller cabinet is bursting at the seams, hams and chorizos hang round your ears, a tray of free-range eggs balances precariously on a shelf, fruit spills out of wicker baskets that you trip over blindly as you go in out of the bright sunlight. Fresh bread is delivered twice a day. Pictures of Nuestra Señora and her son are bluetacked to the walls wherever there´s a gap.
These little shops can be daunting at first. At 5’6” I tower over the rest of the clientele, which makes me feel like a large clumsy hippo. Then there is the queuing system; at first sight it looks totally random, but the trick is to ask “¿Quién es la última?” (“who came in last?”) and then dive in as soon they’ve been served. Or you can stand there for 20 minutes clutching a couple of lemons and pretending to be fascinated by the fourteen different types of lentil on the shelves until the shopkeeper takes pity on you, or everyone else has gone home.
Twice a week we have a fruit and veg market in the street, which is amazingly cheap. I can fill a shopping trolley (yes, I have a shopping trolley, lugging it up the hill is cheaper than joining a gym and just as effective) with top-quality seasonal produce for less than €10. Competition for service at the market is fierce and the “¿Quién es la última?” stunt doesn’t always work. The senior alcalainas, despite their lack of stature, have sharp elbows and the strength and agility of Jack Russell terriers. They also know all the stall-holders by name and can spend five or ten minutes asking the price of everything before they start actually buying things. On my first few visits, I still had a residual aversion to wasting time and after being ignored for ten minutes I would slip off to the little supermarket over the road, ending up with a few ageing bananas and wrinkled nectarines. Now I elbow my way in shamelessly with the rest of them. Trolleys at noon!
A lot of people have huertos or produce gardens and bring their fruit and vegetables in to town to sell them on the street. Others gather edible plants such as wild asparagus from the countryside. It is not unusual to be sitting outside the pub on a Friday night and be offered a sack of ripe figs.
The Spanish seem to be obsessed with plastic bags. Left to their own devices they will put bananas, oranges and apples each in separate bags and then put them all into a larger bag. When I ask them to put everything straight into my trolley they look at me as if I had ordered them to strip naked. I try to explain the ecological drawbacks of a world full of plastic, but this concept hasn’t quite reached Alcalá yet, at least not the older generation. And I must admit the bags are useful when cleaning out the cat-litter tray.
The butchers’ shops are a carnivore’s heaven. Pigs’ ears, bulls’ testicles? No problem. Pork dripping for your morning tostada? Three different flavours. In the UK I used to read recipe books that said things like “Ask your butcher to ...” Ever try that in Tesco’s? Here, it’s the norm. The butchers will lovingly fillet a chicken breast into eight slices, so thin they are almost transparent. They don’t sell prepared mince; choose your meat and they will mince it to the consistency you need. This all takes time of course; I soon learned not to go on Saturday mornings, when the amas de casa are shopping to feed for a family of twelve over the weekend. Hours can pass.
These corner shops are more than just for buying things; they are little community centres in their own right. Listening to the locals gossiping gives you good opportunity to improve your Spanish and to tune in to the daunting local accent. Of course they assume you don’t understand a word (they are usually right) so they often talk about you. My husband was collecting his prescriptions in the Farmacia once and heard a couple of old dears ask the pharmacist what pills he was getting. Astonishingly, the pharmacist told them; they then discussed his various ailments, right there in front of him! Being a decent sort of chap he didn’t embarrass them by letting them know he knew.
Walking to the local shops and buying fresh food on a daily basis gives me so much more pleasure than driving to an out-of-town hypermarket once a week. It’s cheaper, it’s good exercise, it helps you get to know your neighbours, the fresh produce is tastier, and I’d rather hand over my meagre pension to local businesses than to some multinational corporation. Notwithstanding I must confess to the occasional trip to Mercadona to stock up on cat litter and beer, friends who shop at Morrisons in Gibraltar bring back decent teabags for us.
Of course things are changing. Rural Spain is edging inexorably towards larger retail outlets and processed food (“comida basura” as they so elegantly put it). But I have my fingers crossed that the tide of change will take a long while to sweep away the little front-room shops in the pueblos. Not so much a retail opportunity, more a way of life ...