Monday, August 31, 2009

Old Mother Hubbard Went to the Cupboard!

Ok ladies (and maybe a few gentleman) this one is for you! I’ve done it before and I’m sure many of you have as well. Starting fresh in a new home with an empty refrigerator, cupboards and pantry, necessitates a long tour of the many grocery stores in town. It takes a while to sort out which one is closest to you, which one has the best produce, or the most reasonably priced cuts of meat, and which store designer thinks the way you do so finding what you are looking for doesn’t take three laps around the store and assistance from an employee to find what you want.

By dropping a hundred dollars (or more), you can be back in action, surrounded by old favorites that you never seem to be without. Within a few weeks you freezer may be full and within a month all feels familiar.

Well…….it hasn’t been quite like that here in Bulgaria. Indeed when we arrived the cupboards were bare, not only of food, but of all things needed to prepare it! Here in Plovdiv we actually have many options compared to the smaller towns including full size grocery stores. Stocking up however, is limited by what you can carry in a backpack or shoulder bags. If both Mike and I shop together, we double our capacity! The easiest thing to do is stay local, and there are stores the size of a walk in closet (just downstairs from us) to a national chain within a twenty minute walk.

Also within this range are many, many little fruit and vegetable stands including a decent sized farmers market (Pazar). Discovering them and knowing what they carry is an ongoing process. Everyone has bread (the Bulgarians are very big bread eaters), beer, yogurt, soft drinks, cookies and candy. Their size determines what else they may have, but even this can be deceiving. I’ve learned to ask as many things are tucked away somewhere out of sight.

Finding the stores is the easy part. Having a list is a harder way to shop than just buying what is available. Most of the smaller stores keep the majority of their products behind a counter or in a deli type case necessitating asking for a desired item. That means knowing what it is called in BG.

Pointing works sometimes, but it always seems they have a question for you to make it complicated. Shopping in the larger stores (this is a relative term) allows one to browse and compare products. Here pictures are a great help, but they don’t convey all the necessary information. Is this tuna in water or oil? Occasionally I get lucky and there is some English on the label. I’ve given up on looking at nutritional value for the time being. Can you imagine what monosodium glutamate would look like in BG?

Buying meat is the most interesting task when shopping. Chicken is easy. Chicken is chicken and packaged in much the same way as in the states. I actually know the names of the various kinds of meat… lamb, pork, ham, beef, veal and fish.. It is all the descriptive words that go with it that make my purchases a mystery every time. Think for instance of all the kinds of steaks we have in the US: London broil, flank, sirloin, T-bone, rib-eye etc. Now we are not fortunate enough to have much in the way of steak here but there seem to be an equal number of varieties of pork (a favorite of BG). The phrase a rose by any other name is still a rose. Well, sausage by any other name (and they have many) is still sausage! I've learned how to read "universal meat" and stay away that one!

Settling on what to buy is determined in part by the cost. Everything is sold by weight measured in grams or kilograms. Some products will have a fixed cost (dry goods in particular) but then we get back to the meat or deli counter and it is a decoding game one more time. I got a funny look when I tried to order 200 kilograms of ham instead of asking for 200 grams. That is like asking for the whole pig! I had been so focused on pronouncing correctly the item I wanted and the word for 200 that I messed up what little I did know. Even the items with a fixed price can surprise you when you get to the register. The product labels and prices are on tags on the shelf in the vicinity of what you are looking at. We’ve been shocked several times. Out of the 15 items I bought most recently three were very different from what I thought I was paying.

After four weeks and many trips to stores of all sizes I now have a few reserves built up, but simply can't imagine ever having or needing what I used to keep on hand at home. I don't yet know what a good price buying in bulk for future needs is silly. I'm curious if and how my shopping habits as well as those of the Bulgarians will change as the cold weather arrives. I expect to see lots of cabbage in those pazars and just in case you didn't know I'm not a big fan of cabbage!

Despite these adventures, Mike and I are not withering away. We often combine Bulgarian cuisine and American favorites in the same meal. Baking has been a bit of a challenge and nothing has come out quite right yet as I am not used to the conversions to metric measurements. The cookies have all disappeared though. We are filling our freezer with delicious fruits that are the equivalent of pennies a pound right now and will not be available when the season for them passes. The blueberries, raspberries and peaches will be a welcome change in the deep of winter.

Items yet to be found: chocolate chips,confectionery sugar, hot chocolate in bulk, spinach, lettuce, a decent peanut butter, bagels and humus. (iknow some of them exist, just haven't found them yet!)

What we love: fresh harvested honey, fresh fruits, cirene cheese on everything

What we miss: beef…a good old fashioned hamburger, New England ice cream stands, Wisconsin corn on the cob, and Maine lobster!


PS I brought my camera with me to one of the larger stores I shop in to show you the deli case and the mass of price tags clustered together for the foods in the freezer case and on the shelf above it, but I thought this might draw the attention of the managers viewing the security cameras, and I knew I did not have the language to explain my way out of that situation.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing. Very enjoyable and exciting to read.

Take care,

Edna said...

If anyone can make this experience exciting and positive ... it's the two of you. Lynn let us know how we can help with useful school (or other) supplies.

We think of you often and enjoy your updates.
Edna & Dennis

Mike said...

Shopping sounds like a great adventure...Extreme shopping..maybe a new reality show!

I bet you're having some meals as interesting as the ones we had on Staniel Key. Think of the fun you would be having shopping in the rural areas.

Enjoying the posts, keep them coming.

Mike & Livi