Wednesday, April 24, 2013

London: Supermarket Sweep

After spending close to a week in London, it’s safe to say I’m suffering from some serious post-vacation blues.  Despite spending quite a bit of time in the hotel room unsuccessfully recovering from the eastbound jet lag  we ended up seeing and experiencing a lot.  Not surprisingly, I fell pretty hard for England.

While this vacation, admittedly, was a bit “safe” for my first visit to Europe, I was hooked on the idea of England for months.  Kevin had been to London once before, but I was hoping to make it a brand new trip with totally different, post-college experiences.  With day-trips to Greenwich and Cambridge, a casual but elegant Saturday afternoon tea, full English breakfasts, tour of the Globe Theatre, a vast sampling of domestic brews and some interesting local grocery items… I’d have to say it was a victory.   

We stayed in the Bloomsbury area, just about a mile north of the Thames River, a few blocks from the British Museum, and close walking distance to Covent Garden and Soho.  The neighborhood was a perfect blend of locals and those trying to find their way.  With Kevin holed away for several hours in the evenings doing work, I found the perfect opportunity to venture on my own to the supermarkets for goodies.

Oodles of British condiments!  Love.

There were several smaller branches of large supermarkets within 5-10 minutes walking distance – Tesco “Express”, the size of a 7-11 and smelling just like one, and Sainsbury’s “Local”, similar to grocery stores here in NYC.  On our last night, my grocery adventures took me to a real Waitrose… vast wine section, deli filled with meats & cheeses, and aisle after aisle of edible oddities.  Whilst walking through the stores, I had a reaaally hard time not snagging up yogurts, dessert pots, [savory] pies and every foreign candy bar in sight.  I kept my restraint, buying only what I could bring back in my luggage or indulge in prior to our return to the US.

Thankfully I had Friday off to recuperate and readjust to being home, but ended up spending the entire day running around to every grocery store within walking distance (which was a 1 ½ mile radius) in the attempt to procure Heinz beans, London Pride beer, curry powder, etc.  It was nice to see familiar brands and dollar signs, but also hard not to miss the uniqueness of another country’s foodstuffs.  

"You're the only person I know that would look at grocery stores online before a trip somewhere."  Yes.  Yes, I am.

Crazy Crisps: 
Prior to this trip, I spent an excessive amount of time pouring over the peculiarities of British groceries – the flavors of their crisps are one such quirk.  While there are a heck of a lot of nasties in our American supermarkets, one thing I’ve found is that our choices of potato chip flavors are pretty tame compared to the rest of the world.  How bold is barbeque, sour cream & onion, or ranch? Up until recently when Lays started this Facebook-fueled contest for creating a new flavor (resulting in sriracha, cheesy garlic bread and chicken & waffles…), the strangest I’ve come across are ketchup, BLT, and crab/Old Bay chips (though to be fair, pizza is pretty bad).  Seeing flavors like roasted chicken, prawn cocktail, paprika, smoky bacon and Worcestershire sauce was both disturbing and alluring.

I would have been highly disappointed with myself if I did not try some of these.  After a couple of late-night snack sessions in the hotel room, the determination was such: most were pretty damned addicting.  Doritos, though named “Tangy Cheese” was even tastier than its American “Nacho Cheese” counterpart.  Don’t get me started on Pringles’ Paprika.  Walkers (a UK offshoot of Lays) hooked us with their Smoky Bacon … the Roast Chicken on the other hand was terrible, managing to taste exactly as promised, but with a hint of disgusting. The one that concerned me most was their Prawn Cocktail.  I had a terrible experience with “Shrimp Crackers” in Hawaii, which smelled like a bait shop and tasted what I imagine the floor of that shop would taste like.  But Walkers’ Prawn Cocktail? Tangy, but not overpowering like salt & vinegar, with no hint of seafood shanty whatsoever.  I sure hope I can find it somewhere hidden in NYC.  Seriously.

Wine Security:  
The legal drinking age in the UK is 18.  I’m nearly a decade beyond that, but I was carded (in my case, passport-ed) when I bought a bottle of wine.  Well done, Brits.  However the bizarre thing was that in certain stores, the wine bottles had security devices on them.  As in, don’t steal this DVD or Michael Kors purse, needs to be removed at the register kind of tag.  Not in all stores and not on beer.  Do people off of Tottenham Court Road have a tendency to heist red blends as opposed to a 600ml bottle of ale?  Evidently so.  I was a bit bewildered and can’t remember seeing something like it anywhere else (though I read this is typical with Walmarts that sell wine, as well as expensive vintages).

Regardless, the wine I purchased was a £4.90 ($7.50) was Sainsbury’s South African Soft Red.  I’ve never seen a grocery store brand of wine aside from Trader Joe’s, but apparently it’s not uncommon even for liquor.  Strangely the label didn’t indicate anything about except the varietals were “a blend of red grape varieties” and its ABV was 13%.  No vintage, no winery, no nothing!  Either way… it was a tasty experience.

The Eggs: 
We refrigerate eggs here.  Does anyone ever wonder why? At farmers’ markets, all the little chicken, duck and goose eggs are hanging out at room temperature, so why not at regular grocery stores?  Sure enough, strolling through the aisles in the supermarkets of the UK, there are the cartons of eggs – just plopped on a shelf next to baking supplies like flour.  From what I’ve read, nowhere in the European Union is it required to keep them at any less than room temperature.

No, I don't know those two English ladies.
According to FDA’s website, it’s for protection against salmonella that a chicken may contract and pass along to their eggs, stating the bacteria can grow inside the egg if not refrigerated.  The USDA passed a law in 1970 called the Egg Products Inspection Act, requiring that all egg products be pasteurized (rapid heating and cooling to destroy salmonella); additionally they require that all eggs be transported and kept at 45°F.  I’ve read elsewhere that all eggs are required to be washed and sanitized, stripping the outer layers of shells which lead to possibly contamination and therefore require refrigeration.  I wasn’t able to find anything specific from either the FDA or USDA, but it doesn’t seem unlikely.  (You can read more here). 

While there appear to be a few discrepancies about the facts in the article, it does get you thinking about the differences in food safety practices in other countries.  Ever think we might be a little too cautious?  Maybe next time I head to Union Square for some local veggies, I can buy half a dozen happy, local, dirty eggs for a mere $15 and leave them on the counter.

Preservatives & Labeling, or Lack Thereof:  
Here’s another thing that got me irked at the “quality” of most food here in the US – dry goods last forever.  It’s great if you’re single and living alone or if there is the threat of nuclear fallout/zombie apocalypse, but after seeing the labels on everything from mayonnaise, cans of soup and cookies (pardon, biscuits)… it was hard not to get even more miffed at the crap that allows such lengthy shelf life.  For instance, every condiment in the UK not only had a “sell/use by” date, but also tells you how long it will last after opening.  I’m sure a vast majority of people wouldn’t take notice, care or even abide by the suggestion, but I was definitely surprised by the labeling. 

I try to pay as much attention to labels as I can when shopping, especially the expiration date (so often in NYC you will bring home products that are past their date), but couldn’t quite remember if our labels indicated anything other than its “last call”.  Sure enough, I’ve been inspecting everything I buy since I’ve been home and nothing, nothing domestic so far has indicated to use it within a certain time after opening.  I’m sure that they’re flexible like expiration dates, but it’s refreshing to see.  Don’t get me started on the lack of unpronounceable words on the back of the UK’s products, either.

(AND all packaged items are identified plainly if they have suitable for vegetarians or vegans... nice huh?) 

Some of our sampling.  See, bananas are healthy!

So suffice it to say, I grew pretty smitten with Sainbury’s, Waitrose, and even the stinky little Tesco Express.  Think they’ll deliver here?

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Ahhh, this makes me want to go back and wash down some smokey bacon crisps with some Earl Gray.