15 December, 2011

Grocery Shopping in Europe

I've found grocery shopping here in Belgium to be a largely satisfying experience. The stores are well-stocked, many of the innovations of companies like Wegmans are already in place (Weigh and price your own vegetables! Saves so much time at check-out!), and the general quality of non-brand-name foods is much higher. The average price of food is, well, reasonable. Very much comparable with the United States in most staples, although perhaps a little expensive by Maine standards (milk's a lot cheaper than at home though).

Despite the similar prices of staples, however, for someone with rather haute-bourgeois tastes like myself, many things are a steal. Brie for only ten euros a kilo? A large block of Swiss for only two euro? You simply can't find good cheese for that price in the US. Unless it's cheddar. Which I will admit, I miss a little. But one eats cheddar all the time back home, and the chance to feast on baguettes and fine Trappist cheese is not to be missed. And then the wine and beer! Fine French wines for only seven to nine euro? Really, you can find a quite adequate one for four, and good cooking wine for as low as two. Beer is even better. One bottle of the Trappist Rochefort 10, widely acclaimed as the world's best beer, and absolutely phenomenal however it may rank, will usually cost around fourteen dollars for a glass at one of the select American beer houses that actually sells it. Here one can buy it for under two euro. Amazing!

Yes, I know...now I'm just taunting you. It's not really fair.

More seriously, what I've noticed on the whole is how dramatically the costs of importation affect the prices of food on the shelves. All of these gastronomic luxuries are near-untouchable in the States, having been brought in all the way from Europe. By contrast, American items that are imported are much more expensive than at home: cranberries, tortillas, and California wines being notable culprits.

Vaguely related to this phenomenon of expensive importation is the fact that eating locally here is the cheap way to go. Now, this I find rather fascinating, since that's not something that holds constant between America and Europe. In the US, it's usually the food snobs and the farmers who eat locally. "Local" food is très chic right now in America. It's supposed to be healthier, better for the local economy, etc. Which is probably (usually) true. But it sure costs a lot to do so. It means nothing to buy apples shipped in from California, but to buy Maine apples, you'll probably be paying a bit extra.

In Belgium, by contrast, the really dirt-cheap food is that grown or made in Wallonia or Flanders. That has its limitations, of course, because you can't grow nearly as much in a country whose climate is only slightly more temperate than that of my home state. But local milk, cheese, beer, leeks, etc, aren't very expensive comparatively. It's pretty easy to see some of the possible reasons for this. "Local" in a country the size of Maryland, means "grown somewhere in Belgium". That is, non-imported items are--no surprise--cheaper, but to not be imported in such a small country also means that the products in question are local.

In the US, not only can "non-imported" still mean 3300 miles away (distance from Sidney, ME to Los Angeles, if anyone wants a fun-fact); those non-imported items are often coming in from states which receive gigantic federal subsidies. Of course, this is just one more problem with those nasty subsidies that I complain about so often. Besides being bad for a government that can't even balance it's budget, farm subsidies do nothing whatsoever to encourage strong local economies, and they certainly don't help the "locavores", who are often, ironically enough, some of the bigger federal aid supporters out there.

Take an example: say that Idaho actually can produce potatoes more cheaply and in greater quantities than Maine (which one assumes is why in a state whose primary agricultural resource is potatoes, you generally find Idaho potatoes stocking the shelves). To transport the potatoes those nearly 3000 miles across the country, potato production doesn't just need to be a little cheaper; it needs to be a whole heck of a lot cheaper. How does this happen? Well, it can happen naturally of course, in which case I no longer have any complaints that are not rooted in my rather extreme local pride (haha). But when governments start giving money to the biggest farms in the country (i.e. the ones in Idaho, Texas, and California), it's dealing a crushing blow to small farms and really local food all across the country: how are you supposed to compete when farms from bigger states have not only their natural advantages to help them, but also the federal government giving them gigantic ($40 billion dollars worth since 1995) hand-outs? 

That's the end of that rant; I have to say, I find the whole "locavore" phenomenon to be ridiculously pretentious ("Oh yes, let us go out among the Quaint Farmers and eat Quaint food"), but the basic idea (eating local is good for the local economy and in some cases better for you) is one I agree with wholeheartedly.

 Back to the subject of grocery shopping in Europe. Here's a list of things that are hard to find here:
  • turkey
  • canned broth (it's either bouillon cubes or home-made broth, it seems)
  • "international" food (Asian especially)
  • peanuts
  • pumpkin
  • cranberries (not so much at my usual store, but in general, yes)
  • baking ingrediants--or at least the bulk sizes; I don't know why one would buy baking powder in tablespoon-sized packets; and vanilla extract comes in bottles the size of my thumbnail (no exaggeration)
Some interesting things about shopping here:
  •   There are "Carrefours" and "Delhaizes" open until evening, but then there are "express" versions of the same, much smaller and closer together and offering an opportunity to get in and out speedily. You don't usually have to walk as far to get to one of these, but the number of discount items will be much lower.
  • Not only do stores have "store-brand" items; for many things they also have "discount store-brand" items, which differ dramatically in price. A "Carrefour" pastry crust will cost a bit over a euro, but a Carrefour discount pastry crust will cost about 65 cents. Not bad. 
  • The largest size for milk containers is the liter. There are about 3.8 liters in a gallon, so you're buying not much more than a quart at a time. And it goes fast. On the bright side, whole milk here is deliciously creamy. And the cream! It puts whipping cream in the US to shame. US dairies generally skim off lots of the best cream and call the result "whole milk" and mix in the weakest cream with the top and call it "whipping cream". What a shame. 
  • The butter is Amazing.
  • Practically everything comes in cartons instead of plastic or tin. That includes milk (often), cream, pre-prepared soup, tomato sauce. The really odd thing about some of these cartons is that you have to cut them open with a scissors at one corner and then there's no way to re-seal them.
I'm not really sure why I think that this would interest anyone except the avid cooks among the readers (I am sure of only two of these). But there is a general wish that I would post more about Belgium, and this is what I have to say.

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