Grocery stores in Europe: If you haven’t had the good fortune to visit one yet, you’re in for a treat. If you already know how great they are, please add more tips in the Comment section.
When I go to Europe, I love to shop at the local grocery. For one thing, you can inexpensively stock up on fruit, snacks, beverages, and easy meals. The other thing: it’s just fun to see what foods are important to the people and what they like to buy. The whole experience is a lesson in local culture.
With this in mind, here are five things you should know about grocery stores in Europe:
1. They’re not big. Expect to find small mom-and-pop markets in the neighborhoods. You’ll be surprised at how they stock everything you need…and how you’ll soon discover how little you require to eat and drink well. Even a “large” store will be small by American standards. No endless aisles of cereal boxes and detergents. Still, there will be generous inventories of what people use: pasta in Italy, white asparagus in Spain, ham in France. Walk the store and make your own observations.
2. BYOB…bags, that is. Because kitchens are small, people shop more often. Maybe even daily. You’ll see plenty of carts to hold the food in the store and all the way back home. Or people may bring their own reusable bags. If you need a bag to carry your purchases, expect to pay. Tell the cashier how many you want. Then keep them for the rest of your trip, even if you go to another store.
3. Eggs and milk are not refrigerated. Surprise! If you go to the dairy case, you probably won’t find what you’re looking for. Instead, find the aisle with boxed or bottled milk of all kinds, in different sizes. Refrigerate after opening. Eggs aren’t washed, so their protective coating is intact, allowing them to sit out. Often, you can buy as many as you need…come back when you’re ready for more.
4. Buying produce can be different. In some stores, you are expected to weigh your own produce and attach a label that will be scanned at check-out. There are codes for each type of produce by the digital scale. Punch them in, out comes the label to put on the produce bag. Other times, produce is behind a counter and you tell the clerk what you’d like. He or she will pick it, bag it, and weigh it. Whatever the method, go with it. When in doubt, watch what others do.
5. Try a new toiletry product. Pack a travel-size toothpaste and deodorant, but buy a brand you’ve never heard of at your destination. That’s what the locals are using, so give a different shampoo or shave cream a try. To this day, my favorite toothpaste comes from France. I only wish I’d bought a case of it to bring back.
It’s pure fun to wander a grocery store and people-watch. Notice how the housewives talk to the butchers and pay attention at checkout to the efficiency of the checkers. Explore what’s in the frozen food compartments and be dazzled by the expansive–and inexpensive–variety of wines and sodas, even in a tiny store.
Grocery stores are a true slice-of-life in any country. Never pass up the chance to step in and see what’s happening.