Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The supermarket (Το σουπερμάρκετ)

Last Thursday, I didn't want to take my son to school. He had been coughing and sneezing since coming home from school on Wednesday. So I kept him at home the next day. Nothing remarkable about that. But there is something remarkable about a child causing trouble at school when it is absent. On Thursday morning - it wasn't even 9 o'clock - while I was at home nursing my sick child, the headmaster called me on my mobile phone. I recognised his voice instantly. Why did he sound so grave?

Not knowing what to think, apart from wondering if I should have called the school earlier to report my son's absence, I waited expectantly, receiver stuck to my ear. I usually phone the school to inform the teacher that my child is ill, but on that particular morning, I got caught up in other jobs, such as trying to work out how I was going to procure our daily bread requirement, sick child in tow, among other things. No one plans on staying home to look after a sick child; you wake up in the morning and realise that your day's schedule will have to be shelved and the only outing you'll make is to take the kitchen waste to the local collection bin, and maybe pick zucchini flowers from the garden.

"And Aristotle...?" Aristotle what? His sentence sounded unfinished. Surely, the correct question is: How is Aristotle? "He's ill today, that's why he's not at school."

The headmaster's voice continued in its serious tone. "Yes, well, you really must inform us... it's all been a misunderstanding... some children said they saw him..." For the first hour that morning, the whole school had been desperately seeking Aristotle.

I was amazed that another child's word could be taken so seriously. Did they check to find Aristotle's schoolbag? Did they ask the children who 'saw' him what clothes Aristotle was wearing that day? What really disturbed me was that everyone who sees my son coming to school every single morning would know that his mother takes him right into his classroom, not just to the school gate. This is why I didn't ever want to send him back to school - unless his father went to see the headmaster to explain how his wife felt about the whole situation (being bullied in one's absence), which is why my husband ended up driving to school the next day with me on Friday morning.

The headmaster looked positively mortified at my reaction, and promised to make sure that this fiasco will never be repeated at my child's expense (he was very apologetic that this incident should have caused such a commotion in our house) as well as ensuring that the children in question will never again pretend to have seen my son in the football pitch (which is forbidden to first-year pupils anyway) carrying his bag (boy, do they have a wild imagination), and be severely reprimanded for telling lies and causing a disturbance of the peace, we left the school at about 9 o'clock. I felt time was already running out as I started to think of the errands that needed to be run before picking up the children from school; my husband had sensed the emotional upheaval I had just been through and offered to help me by driving me right up to the door of where I wanted to go (like a personal chauffeur) while I dashed in and out of various places. He doesn't provide his chauffeur skills to his family on a regular basis, so I felt this was my lucky day, and wondered how I could manage to pull off another such stunt at a later date.

I wanted to buy some mizithra from my favorite cheese maker at the Agora. Cheese can be bought at the supermarket, but it's a completely different experience buying it freshly made by the shop owner. But it's also a nightmare finding a place to park in the town centre, so this was a good opportunity to dash from one side of town to the other, without wasting time. My husband's a dab hand at double parking the car: had I tried to do this, I would have been tooted and honked at. What is it that men have that allows them to get away with non-road code driving tactics?

"If we're going to the Agora, how about buying some more of that fresh locally-raised chicken from the Akrotiri poultry farm?" he suggested. I have no idea how people can put it into their head that fresh meat bought from one particular place will be raised in exactly the same way, cook in exactly the same way, and taste exactly the same every time it is bought from that same place. Am I missing a point here? In any case, I buy meat from a butcher who recognises me as a regular customer. Isn't that the reason why he always gives me good meat - to make sure I go back to him? Or is it the chicken?

I was greeted in the usual friendly way shop owners treat their regulars. "One Papadakis chicken please." As I waited for it to be cut up and wrapped, a group of English tourists passed by the butcher's, beer bellies flopping over their low-waist bermuda shorts, skinny white legs in full view; I silently thanked God for being born Greek.

My husband had parked the car in the shade in front of some other cars in a parking meter zone. The minaret from Agios Nikolaos was staring down at us. I suddenly remembered that I had a bag full of old children's clothes in the boot of the car that I wanted to get rid of, so we made a stop at the church's charity office. When I opened the boot, I found Georgia's parcel which had been crashing from one side to the other all the time we had been driving. My mother-in-law's live-in Bulgarian nurse wanted to send her son, who was living in England, a hand-held foam mixer, the kind used to mix frappe coffee. Her son insisted that such an item did not exist in the whole of Bristol where he lived; since he flatted with other Bulgarians, I suppose I had to believe that not one of them had ever some across a hand-held battery operated milkshake mixer before in the land they had migrated to. He was distraught that he could not have his favorite coffee (despite its low-grade qualities), and his mother was distraught that he was not happy. I tried to explain to her to tell her son that he had to ask for an electric shaker, and surely he would be able to buy it from where he was living, but to no avail; she would not rest until she heard that the parcel had been sent, which meant another mad dash across town to the post office, and embarrassed looks as the staff asked me what the packet contained, and where it was going.

"Do you mind stopping off at the supermarket? I only need a few things." I hardly ever shop with husband or children (the dangers are obvious), and never without a shopping list: today's had milk, bananas, apples, yoghurt, bread, rolls, butter, potatoes, tomatoes and incontinence pads (the Queen uses them). Friday is better than Saturday for supermarket shopping, when it's less crowded. Saturday is couples' excursion day, and the largest supermarket in Hania is regarded as an entertainment centre. I hate going shopping on Saturdays for this reason: everyone (except myself) is with their spouse, comparing products and prices (don't buy this one; the other one's 2 for the price of 1), filling their trolley with things they've never bought before (wonder what this is? shall we try it?) and giving each other secret smiles when they see what others are putting into their trolleys. It's not enough that they've jammed the aisles with two people per trolley, they even wear their 'good' clothes.

As we entered the INKA supermarket near Agious Apostolous beach, I didn't realise that today I was going to have a Saturday morning shopping experience like the one my fellow Haniotes have. This is what happens when you shop with your spouse. Our first stop was the aisles at the entrance, stacked with women's hygiene products. List in hand, I searched for you-know-who's preferred brand of incontinence pad (no changing that one - the Queen knows what's best for her); my husband's eyes scanned the shelves.

"Do we need any toilet paper?" he asked me. If something's not on my meticulously planned list, I can safely assume that we probably have enough of it or never use it, in accordance with the various shopping strategies consumer societies proffer to help people budget correctly. However, in today's foray in the world of consumer expenditure, we probably broke quite a few of those golden rules:

- always carry a list
x - bring just enough money to buy what is on your list
x - avoid buying sale items unless you can compare the sale price with the original price
√ -
think about how much time you have to cook what you buy
x -
never shop on an empty stomach
x - stick to a shopping routine in order to keep the trip short and effective
x - make sure you sort through coupons, keeping only those for products you actually need
x - avoid convenience items which you can prepare yourself
√ - make sure you understand the wording on the packaging and labels
x - buy generic brands, especially for staple items
x - keep your receipts to track prices in the future and to check for mistakes
x - try to shop when you are happy (everyone has their off days; it was husband's turn)
- avoid bringing your children (but if you have to, they tell you to turn shopping into an educational experience, trip)

On that last note, the word 'spouse' can be substituted for children:
x - avoid bringing your spouse along if you are the chief budgeter and shopper in the household.

"Wow, look at the range of baharia!" To get to the refrigerated goods, we passed an aisle whose shelves were stacked with baking goods and various spices. He was mesmerised - and who wouldn't be? - with the variety of colours and textures in the contents of the attractive jars.

"Do we need any bay leaves?" he enquired, completely forgetting that we have a laurel tree in the village providing us with years' worth of supplies of bay leaves. His visit to the supermarket was more of a virtual reality tour of the consumer society; his browsing through the shelves reminded me of a young boy whose Christmasses had all come at once. He had no idea what we needed, what we didn't need, what supermarket traps to avoid. Neither did he realise that the shopping trolley was filling up so quickly that we were fast becoming bankrupt.

If I'd simply stuck to the original list - milk, bananas, apples, yoghurt, bread, rolls, butter, potatoes, tomatoes and sanitary napkins - I would have walked out of the supermarket in 20 minutes, with a charge of €50 to my credit card: an economy pack of sanitary towels, potatoes (for two households: they looked really fresh, blemish-free and healthy, so I bought a larger amount than usual), 3 kilos of tomatoes, 2 kilos of bananas, 7 litres of milk (all for two households), 6 pots of yoghurt, a stick of butter, 2 loaves of bread and four fresh burger buns (for the children's school lunches). After an hour-long cruise through the aisles of the supermarket, we came out having spent €141 and 37 euro-cents. We shopped like Americans facing the omnivore's dilemma.

The rising cost of living is an issue constantly under discussion in the Greek media. But the way people choose to shop is never discussed. There are many informed shoppers, but on the whole, people generally have little idea about what they are buying. They rarely compare prices, generic brands are shunned for their alternative more powerfully advertised products, there is an increased desire to 'try' things out at great expense to one's pocket, and people with children prefer to reward them with artificially coloured, high-carbohydrate, high-fat highly processed food treats. One only needs to go to the dairy products section of the average supermarket to see what is on offer: brightly coloured dairy dessert (often labelled 'yoghurt') with chocolate covered cereal balls, chocolate flavoured sugar-added milk, sugar-added juices, processed cheese segments cut into attractive shapes. The breakfast cereal shelves are often in the same aisle as the dairy products, and most (if not all) have added sugar. Plain cornflakes are placed on the top shelf, in favour of the customer having eye-to-eye contact with the latest breakfast cereal craze: processed mixed-cereal coloured rings (you can't distinguish the cereal from the foam), thin squares of cereal with drawings of favorite cartoon characters, a conventional cereal containing a 'free' toy.

It can't be said that people don't watch their pockets these days with sky-rocketing petrol prices, the main link between products and prices. Discount supermarkets abound in Hania, and do a roaring trade. Those who do shop cheaply seem to buy bulk quantities of whatever they shop for. Does it get eaten? Is it stored for a long time? What kind of quality is being bought?

You can't teach an old dog new tricks. This is so patently obvious when you see British tourist residents shopping. Their trolleys invariably always contain processed foods and items with a huge carbon imprint: imported, over-packaged, out-of season. They pass the fresh produce section, ripe seasonal fruit staring at them in the face, and head for the shelves with the tinned peaches. They buy so little in the way of 'raw material' goods that they don't can't possibly be cooking, apart from boiling, frying or heating up. This explains the the predominance in their trolleys of prepared petfood; not even their cats and dogs avoid carbon-imprinted food. It's easy to guess who was buying (eating and preparing) the fresh produce I saw on the shelves of the ASDA supermarket in Clapham Junction and a grocery store in Finchley Road in London: most likely immigrants to the UK - people who had not yet acquired the local habit of eating ready-made heat-and-eat foods, people who still found it expensive to eat out, immigrants who were still conjuring up images of cauldrons of hot, spicy, tasty food made according to age-old traditional recipes of their country.

My husband has always been interested in product labelling: he reads everything thoroughly, taking his time to fully understand the meaning of each E-number. But he tends to believe what he reads, whereas I never do, given my knowledge and experience of food shopping. So when we passed the organic section of the supermarket, he looked for the little labels on the products - and then he looked at the prices. The cost of organic items was indeed much higher, but that is only to be expected, since we have been led to believe by the media that organic products are always more expensive. This is simply not always true.

Take bananas from Ecuador. They were being sold at the supermarket in three different sections of the fresh produce department. One of those sections was labelled organic produce. The bananas looked no different from the non-organic bananas, and they were from the same country. I discovered a while back that the Ecuadorian bananas sold in the supermarket were the same as those being sold in GAIA (same labelling, same boxes), Hania's most trusted source of organic products. In the supermarket, they were never labelled 'organic'. GAIA stocked them after having done a quality check on them. In other words, the bananas in the supermarket were as organic as the ones in GAIA, but weren't advertised as such. Suddenly, today we were confronted with probably the same bananas, but with an organic label, which, coincidentally, did NOT have the symbol of a state-approved body which does quality control checks on organic produce. So what's in a label then? Very little, as far as I'm concerned, if the shopper is not correctly informed. Buying organic at the supermarket (or any place for that matter) is like buying a well-advertised brand of washing-up liquid without comparing it to other washing-up liquids; the word 'organic' sells in any way it is proffered.

My husband had no idea what state-recognised bodies do such quality checks; thankfully, I did, which proved very helpful when he started to browse through the shelves with products marked 'organic'; a considerable number did NOT have stacked the symbols which show which body performed the quality control of the product, in order for it to be labelled 'organic'. He felt as if he had been under an illusion that had just been shattered in the cruelest way, cheated by money-spinner businesses.

Price comparisons are often reported on Greek television, usually without any explanation given about where prices were collected, or what brands were chosen to represent each product. And they always seem to talk about rising prices when the national inflation index remains stable. This is why I personally find them misleading. The reported Athenian prices are much higher than what I (a discerning shopper, I believe) pay for them here in Crete. I can understand this happening with the prices for fresh produce; that's something I can't check, since I mainly cook fresh produce we grow ourselves or have been given. But I find it unbelievable that prices are forever rising for generic brand paper goods, household cleansers and beans, rice and pasta. It is not possible to claim that the cost of living is too high if you insist on buying only the ost expensive brand or shopping from the more expensive stores. My own spending power has decreased because I am working less (and therefore earning less money than I used to), and also because I use the car more often to ferry children to school and extra-curricular activities (the more petrol I use, the less money I have to spend). The only way to check prices is by tracking them over a period of time, and using the same brands, same products and same supermarket chain (or whichever store you shop from regularly). Here's what we paid when we shopped at the INKA supermarket chain of Western Crete, and the reasons why these items wormed their way into our trolley.

BRAND PRODUCT QUANTITY COST in € ON SALE? No. items on list? Reason for buying


LATZIMA olive oil
1 litre 5.55
1 bottle
husband wanted to try
MALEME loaf of granary bread 350g 1.07
1 loaf staple
MALEME granary bread bun 80g 0.37
2 bus grandma's choice
MALEME mini burger buns 4-pack 0.74
1 packet school meals
GAIA barley rusks 1kg 3.82
1 packet
staple - stock up
local product potatoes
0.89/kg 12.51
14kg staple
NOUNOU fortified fresh light milk 1.5 litres 3.05
1 carton staple
KALIMANIS frozen calamari 1kg pack 5.95 20% off 1 packet
needed for main meal
BARILLA cheese tortellini 2x250g 2.23 1 + 1 free 1 2-pack
needed for main meal
XIOTAKIS frozen kalitsounia 500g pack 3.93
1 box
husband wanted to try
MIO cheese clazone n/a 3.71 1 + 1 free 2 boxes
husband wanted to try
MIO pepperoni calzone n/a 3.71 1 + 1 free 2 boxes
husband wanted to try
6x500g 6.24 1 + 1 free 2 6-packs staple stock up
local product crushed green olives 2.99/kg 2.95
husband wanted to try
local product whole green olives 5.99/kg 5.95
needed for main meal
FLOKOS tinned calamari 400g 2.25
3 tins
needed for main meal
KYKNOS tinned crushed tomatoes 3x400g 1.46 2 + 1 free 2 3-packs staple - stock up
DELTA fresh whole milk 1.5 litres 1.93 200ml free 2 bottles staple
COMPLET 10% fat yoghurt 4x200g 1.93 2 + 2 free 1 4-pack staple
TOTAL 2% fat yoghurt 3x200g 2.22 2 + 1 free 1 3-pack staple
BAZELLA bananas
1.29/kg 0.9
grandma's choice
DOLE bananas
1.39/kg 1.6
1.2kg staple
STARKIN apples
1.29/kg 2.58
2kg staple
RIO MARE canned tuna 3x160g 6.2 2 + 1 free 1 3-pack
staple - stock up
BARBASTATHIS frozen barbouna beans 450g 2.54
1 packet
needed for main meal
BARBASTATHIS frozen string beans 450g 2.27
1 packet
needed for main meal
BARBASTATHIS frozen okra 1kg 4.92
1 packet
needed for main meal
FAGE frozen dessert profiterol 2x90g 2.52
1 2-pack
husband wanted to try
FAGE frozen dessert chocolate cream 2x150g 1.96
1 2-pack
husband wanted to try
DANONITO kiddies' chocolate dessert 4x90g 1.82
1 4-pack
chldren's treat
LAYS low salt olive oil potato chips 3x120g 2.84 2 + 1 free 1 3-pack
husband wanted to try
local product greenhouse tomatoes 1.39/kg 3.84
3kg staple
SAVOY butter
250g 3.05
1 stick staple
PAPAGALOS Greek coffee 100g 0.97
3 sachets staple - stock up
PAPADAKIS fresh meat patties 6 patties 5.2
1 6-pack
husband wanted to try
TENA incontinence pads 30-pack 13.3 € 2 off 1 30-pack grandma's choice


€ 141.37

€ 51.61

The supermarket provided my husband with an antidote to his melancholic mood - retail therapy at its best, cheaper than a shrink. I should have guessed that this would happen; the other day, he asked me to buy orange juice, another taboo grocery in our household. We own 500 orange trees - admittedly our oranges are not juicy enough to pick even for juicing at the moment, but still, his request was unusual. Today, he completely forgot that we had a fridge full of kalitsounia, a bag full of home-made biftekia and a fresh pavlova waiting to be eaten in the fridge.

His ego shattered, he drove the trolley towards the checkout. Our trolley was flowing over the brim. The olive oil shelves caught his eye. Being a lover of local products, he was intrigued by the labelling of a certain PDO brand of organic olive oil; whereas, I must admit, I liked the shape of the bottle, and would happily have bought it just to store the olive oil we buy straight from the producer in Fournes, Hania, Crete.

"We never buy olive oil from the supermarket. What makes you so interested in buying it now?"My worry was that he was getting carried away like a shopaholic. He explained that today was a chance for him to see what variety of products was available in a mega-store, something which he rarely gets a chance to do. The olive oil caught his attention because, recently, a friend of ours had given us a bottle of fresh olive oil (produced from lianes - koroneiki - olives) which was very light and runny in texture, and had a more delicate taste in salads. Apparently, this quality of oil is never used for cooking, because it 'disappears': it evaporates to the point that the food tastes watery, rather than stewed. Olive oil such as this can be used for salads, but not for cooking until 2-3 months pass. People who cooked with fresh olive oil were once regarded as 'poor': they did not produce enough olive oil of their own to last them over to the next season, and had to use their freshly produced oil, so their food was always too soupy for the average Cretan's liking. However, the same 'low' quality oil offers a more refined taste to horta or raw tomatoes, making it 'high' quality salad oil.

Apart from age, what mainly plays a role int he different qualities of olive oil produced in Crete is the variety of olive it is produced from. Lianes olives, more widely known as 'koroneiki' with spelling variants, while having a stronger stem and not likely to be influenced by adverse weather conditions and the dackos fly which creates havoc in olive groves right throughout the country, produce oil that does not keep its qualities after two years. They are too small to make good table olives (although I have used them as such; despite their size, they are incredibly tasty). Tsounates olives are larger (and hence meatier) , but are prone to windfall and premature dropping; nevertheless, they produce high quality olive oil, as well as being very good table olives after being treated in various traditional ways. Olive oil made form tsounates never loses its qualities, from colour to flavour. Due to its disadvantags, however, it is being replaced by the sturdier lianes variety. These types of olive varieties are specific to Crete; other areas of Greece have completely different varieties; without wishing to sound partial, it is without doubt that Crete - one of the largest olive oil producing regions in Greece - produces some of the highest quality olive oil in the country.

Cold-pressed olive oil is almost a thing of the past. Once the olive fruit is separated from the pip, it almost always undergoes some kind of heat treatment, despite the fact that olive oil is the only oil that can be pressed without any heat treatment applied to the fruit. The reason why olive fruit is pressed nowadays is basically due to economics: more oil is procured through heat application, hence the decrease in the traditional practice of cold-pressing olives for oil. But here, in the supermarket shelves, a place for shoppers of all classes, were bottle of olive oil labelled cold-pressed.

What attracted me most in the olive oil section were the myriads of bottles, tins and plastic containers containing our most well-known local product in all manner of shapes and sizes - and prices. What's more, apart from the big-enterprise olive oil brands, such as MINERVA and ELAIS (which collect olives from all over the country and whose headquarters are based on the mainland), the INKA supermarket - a Western Crete chain store - stocked olive oil produced mainly in Crete, a fact that illustrates the pride taken in displaying and selling local products. This is a highly significant fact, as the supermarket is located in a primarily tourist region of the town (Aious Apostolous). My husband decided that today was the day that he would search for a good salad oil. The origin of one particular variety caused a bit of a stir: Milopotamos. This area of Crete includes the notorious village of Zoniana, now well-known all over Greece for its high incidence of illegal marijuana plantations and drug lords (just think what σαλάτα Ζωνιανών - Zoniana salad - could be interpreted to mean). After scrutinizing the labels of all the different bottles of the PDO (protected designation of origin) LATZIMAS cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, we compared the prices of three different bottles, and were surprised and confused by our findings. The only difference between the labels was the organic wording, the English or Greek labels and the shape of the bottles. The more elegant-looking round bottles (purely my subjective opinion) were used to bottle the organic olive oil, while the 1000ml bottles did not have English labelling:
  • round bottle - extra virgin - organic - 750ml: €5.94
  • square bottle - extra virgin - not organic - 750ml: €6.49
  • square bottle - extra virgin - not organic - 1000ml: €5.55
The cheapest bottle gave us the most olive oil, but it was not organic. I did make a point of checking the price of all the bottles at the cashier, as we were surprised to find that it was cheaper to buy a litre of olive oil than 750ml of the same product: the prices as shown on the shelves were correct. We chose the 1-litre bottle.

After checking out our trolley - Dimitris had to hold down the bags so that nothing tipped out as we went to the car - we arrived home at midday, in very hot sultry weather. This morning's breakfast remains were still on the table; the cornflakes jar was empty. How I missed noting it on my list on a big shop day beats me; already, I was making a new shopping list for my next visit to the supermarket.

Lunch consisted of boiled potatoes and salad. I got out the Latzimas olive oil.

"Hold on!" cried Dimitris. "We'll open that when our own tomatoes are ready." He is a true gourmet; the pure taste of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil would have been lost on greenhouse (or were they simply chemically grown) tomatoes. While we had our lunch, an advertisement for a bathroom cleanser came on, promising clean pipes and an aromatic bathroom after its use.

"Write that one down on your list for when you're next at the supermarket," Dimitris reminded me. "The bathroom in the master bedroom's starting to get smelly again."

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