Posts Tagged ‘grocery shopping’

Gazpacho, linguistics, and supply-and-demand

July 9, 2012

What does it mean when an item is sold for less than the price you’re used to paying? It’s a quick little lesson in the laws of supply and demand, is what it is.

I found myself in a Spanish supermarket yesterday, conducting my first real grocery shopping expedition since arriving in Barcelona last week. My list of things to buy was short: tomatoes, a cucumber, a pepper, bread, onions, garlic, and vinegar and olive oil. You may recognize these as the ingredients for gazpacho which, given the July heat here on the Mediterranean coast, was my goal for the day.

Vegetables were the easy part. I bought what I needed, including bright red tomatoes from Almeria, on Spain’s even hotter southeastern coast. I found them at the Mercat Llibertat, the public market near my temporary digs in Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. There were plenty of choices to choose from as far as fruits and vegetables and meat were concerned, but if I was going to buy olive oil and vinegar, I would have to go to the other side of the market, which contained a supermarket rather than the open stalls run by independent vendors.

I made my way to the store’s selection of oils and vinegars and what I found surprised me: everything was cheap. Cheap, in other words, in comparison to what I was used to paying back in San Francisco. Suddenly, my yardstick for determining the potential quality of the product I wanted was gone. Was a three euro bottle of olive oil as good as, or worse than, an otherwise cheap 12-dollar bottle back California?

Brand names didn’t help here as I wasn’t familiar with them. A quick glance at the vinegars didn’t help, either. I wanted a nice bottle of sherry vinegar but, again, they were all cheap in comparison to what I would have paid back in the States. Instead, I left the store with a few other purchases, and decided I needed help.

I found the help in a small xarcuteria and butcher shop just behind the market on the Placa de Llibertat. In broken Spanish, I asked a woman working there if there were a place nearby to buy high quality olive oil and vinegars. There is, she said, and – thankfully – slowly, she directed to another shop two blocks away.

For some reason, I’m surprised by people’s generosity with foreigners. I don’t know why it surprises me: I take great pleasure, myself, in giving directions or offering help to foreign visitors to my own city. For the past several days, people have been enormously kind and patient with my poor Spanish even going so far as to politely correct my grammar – explaining the proper way to get my point across.

Just a day or two ago, I was walking down Carrer d’Asturies, a narrow pedestrian-only street lined with bars and shops and restaurants, and stopped at an ice cream shop for something to drink. The woman behind the counter took my order for an orxata, the rich but thin rice drink which I knew from Mexico but which, to my surprise, originated in Valencia (The Mexican version is typically flavored more generously with cinnamon).

“Puedo tener un orxata gran,” I said, dramatically blowing my cover with everything from my pronunciation to my accent.

She smiled, got my drink, and then handing it to me, explained that in Spanish, I didn’t need to use the indefinite article and that “puedo tener orxata” was, actually, the correct way to ask. She also, I think, noted that I was mixing languages. “Gran” is Catalan for large and, indeed, the sign I was reading from was in Catalan, but I was ordering in Spanish so “grande” would be the correct choice. All the while, she was smiling and this was no rushed correction. She was taking time out for me and I was grateful.

But back to my search for good oil and vinegar. I found the shop to which the woman at the deli had directed me. Inside the small shop, the store’s lone employee greeted me from behind a small counter, surrounded by high shelves filled with bottles and cans of numerous foodstuffs.

So far, I begin nearly all my conversations in Spain with “Hola! Mi español es muy malo.”  The store clerk, of course, would have none of it and cheerily lying through his teeth, complimented me on the  fracturing of his language. From there, I continued to the point of my visit: “Buscando bueno aceite y…” and I stopped because I realized I had forgotten the word for vinegar.

“En inglés,” he encouraged me.

“Buscando bueno aceito y vinegar para gazpacho,” I said.


I felt like an idiot. “Si. Vinagre.”

He just smiled and directed me to a shelf filled with bottles of both. I was surprised by the small difference in prices at his shop and those at the supermarket. His prices were a few euros more, but the selection was better and the products were from smaller producers. He began pointing out a few that were better for gazpacho. He suggested one bottle of oil in particular.

I asked – I forget how – if its flavor was fruity but he said I wanted something a little more astringent, peppery. I bought the oil – 750 liters for about nine euros – and a bottle of sherry vinegar for about four.

Back in California, of course, I’d been buying different olive oils for their different flavors. Less assertively flavored oils are better for cooking but I do like the variety others offer, too. Some are simply better for salads or for flavoring various dishes but, as olive oil isn’t the culinary staple it is here in Spain, the prices reflect the smaller quantities – and variety – available there.

That’ll take some getting used to but it also means being able to sample a larger variety of oils and vinegars here without breaking the bank, or sin hacer saltar la banca.