When travelling, I choose the often overlooked path. I head to the every day destinations of the people who live in the countries I am visiting.
I want to see the local grocery store, and I go out of my way to do just that.
In Italy for example, I perused many shops that sold food - groceries of every kind, regional produce overflowing outdoor tables, fresh and dried pasta of every shape and colour, bottled and canned products with beautiful labels.
European stores tend to be more specialised than those in North America, with distinct boutiques and shops for every product type.
It is common to find specialty stores unlike at home: stores selling only cosmetics, business supply stores whose inventory is restricted to paper and writing instruments, or clothing stores catering to particular audiences.
These shops are everywhere, tucked into every piazza and alley, meeting the needs of local consumers – and making it very interesting for tourists.
No big box stores to be found- I gladly forgot Winn Dixie and Zehrs, while immersed in the local culture.
In Siena, Italy, I happened upon a tiny grocery shop filled with local goodies, much like an Italian version of The 100 Mile Market in Meaford.
Wooden shelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling, filled with neatly organised jars and bottles, and very little plastic to be found. Honey, various antipasto, preserves and condiments - but no pasta sauce in cans. It was possible to find delicious ingredients to create any complete dish.
I purchased a bag of the most beautiful dried pasta: bowties, Farfalle Tigrate, colourfully striped with vegetable juices and black ink from squid.
The door to the shop was wide open, welcoming the cool morning air, and allowing the fragrance of fresh baked goods to tempt passersby. There was also a deli-style counter, a glass refrigerator case loaded with fresh Bocconcino di Bufala Campana and Pecorino di Garfagnina cheeses, and Salami and Tuscan garlic Mortadella waiting to be sliced.
Local brands of Chianti adorned one section, with their traditional wrapped bottles providing an ambiance unlike anywhere I had seen before.
While travelling, the grocery shopping experience I have had that most resembles that of home was in Florence, Italy. In the huge Esselunga supermarket on the Oltrarno side of the river Arno, I was amazed to find row upon row of aisles filled in great quantity with the European labels I occasionally special order here.
The most memorable part for me was the fresh fish and meat counter, an entire buffet of fresh squid and shellfish was impressive in its enormity. In contrast to the hot fish tables in the Carribean and the frozen fish stick section of Canadian stores, this store is an example of how local food can be provided on a large scale, without imports from across any body of water.
Pasta and grains from within the region, chocolates and wine, eco-friendly home products, and no Kraft Dinner to be found. I wandered up and down each aisle taking in the grand scale – European style.
In St. John's, Antigua, I visited their outdoor markets, the most common source for groceries on the island.
Besides the obvious tropical produce such as mangoes and pineapple, papaya and passion fruit, there were rice and legumes in bins, and meat and fish laid out on tables under tents. The open-air style of tuna and red snapper display, plus the beef and goat cuts lying there in the heat did not appeal to me at the market, but I did enjoy sampling them with rice (and rum) atop Shirley Heights overlooking the beautiful island.
While in Moron, Cuba, I toured a small grocery store with the accompaniment of a neighbourhood resident eager to help me find the local coffee that I wanted to purchase for home. The store was inside a small plaza-style series of shops, with an armed guard hovering near the entrance.
This shop was essentially a cross between the large Italian supermarket, and the tiny beach or European village store.
Dimly lit but clean, the shop was of medium-size compared to other small establishments I had seen in Cuba, with white tiled floors and walls, and fluorescent bulbs lighting the stainless steel racks arranged with staple food products. Coffee, rum, and soft drinks comprised the largest selections of goods, but I also saw rice and other basics, as well as interesting flavours of North American-style snack foods such as potato chips.
There were few items such as soaps and personal care products, true to the stories of shortages of such products in Cuba.
Minimal produce was to be found in the market, or sold street side to any cycling local able to stop for dinner ingredients. I observed that many homes were surrounded by makeshift fences containing live chickens or goats living under mango, or palm trees providing coconut or bananas.
Next time I am in Cuba I will spend more time learning about how family rations work, or if they still have food allowances to supplement their resourceful home-grown efforts, and just how they manage to make such amazing fried bananas. I make Cuban rice and beans at home, as instructed by a friend, but it is just not the same.
I look forward to exploring more of the local groceries of far away countries, perhaps the Floating Market in Bangkok, Thailand or the dry goods at an Australian Outback general store. In the meantime, I will close my eyes at The 100 Mile Market, Meaford, every now and then as I tend to do, and visualize the scene in Italian.
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