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Because of my work with food it's important for me to get out and see what others are doing in the world of cooking. Given that Spain offers one of our best examples of Mediterranean cuisine, it seemed the perfect choice. While there I kept track of some of my observations about the cuisine here from the one end of the spectrum to the other. These comments were originally posted to my blog at LiveStrong.com.
Whenever I travel, one of the first things that I do is go to the grocery store. Some folks want to see the Statue of Liberty or the Arc de Triomphe, but I believe that the best way to get to know the culture you are visiting is to check out how they shop and eat. This is true not just from one country to another, but the way folks shop in New York City is far different from Cincinnati and both are very different from Solvang, California.
There is also an even greater difference in what you'll find between the grocery stores in Europe and those in America.
A good rule in America is to not shop in the center of the store. That's where all the junk foods are, like Hamburger Helper, frozen pizza, soda, crackers and chips. The first thing that I noticed here in Spain is the lack of calorie dense foods, like these, that don't offer much decent flavor or nutrition. There are center aisles, but they just don't have many boxed or pre-prepared meals. The cereal aisle is tiny. There is little in the way of junk food by comparison to the U.S. - you could fit all of the soda, crackers, chips and cookies in the European store in the single aisle that Americans dedicate to soda alone.
What you will find in the center aisles, at least in Spain, are vegetables, beans and fruits (mostly in glass jars) and tins of meats and fish. In essence, the ingredients that you need to create a meal instead of boxed meals.
In one grocery that I visited the frozen pizza section was about 6 feet long. This was not the upright type of freezer with a glass door but the reach-down-into type. So there were maybe a dozen or so different types of frozen pizza. In America that frozen pizza section would stretch for about 20 feet or more and be 5 shelves high.
I was visiting the Spanish region of Navarra, and one of their local specialties is white asparagus. In one grocery store the aisle with white asparagus was 5 shelves high and ran for almost 24 horizontal feet. Wow! That's a lot of asparagus!
If you've ever wondered why there's an obesity problem in America, this is the answer. There's a much higher risk of heart disease because we have far more shelf space allotted to frozen pizza than we do to vegetables - let alone asparagus.
It gets even better though. In Spain they also have more shelf space for olive oils and vinegars than for soda! Fantastic!
Next Week: Spain's Fresh Markets.