Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gathering the Daily Food

5 June

The end of the week is in sight, a signal that I must restock the refrigerator and pantry. Adherence to this weekly routine helps me to avoid waking on Sunday morning and realizing the main ingredient for the evening’s dinner is not in the refrigerator. If that happens here, you’re out of luck—almost every shop in town is shuttered until Monday morning. If I am missing an essential ingredient, I must either substitute it, find a different recipe or eat out.

Food shopping strategies that I learned in the US are not always effective here. In Washington, during the winter, I make a sweep of Whole Foods and Safeway and come home with just about everything I’ll need for the week. In the summer, I switch to the farmers’ markets, mostly the Sunday market on Dupont Circle or the New Morning Farms Saturday market, as the source for most of my fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meats. And I still make the occasional foray to Safeway and Whole Foods for the non-perishables.

If you want good quality food, shopping in Garmisch, and Germany in general, tends to be much more decentralized. The grocery stores suffice for any staples you might keep on your shelves, but I wouldn’t want to depend on these chains for fresh fruits and vegetables. Judging from the contents of carts that I notice as people stand in line to check out, I don’t think too many Germans rely only on the supermarkets for fresh produce either.

My impressions of supermarkets here are generalizations; some of my friends seem to have much greater success finding fresh fruit and vegetables in the supermarkets. Several supermarkets offer a decent array of produce, make efforts to source food locally and create appealing displays.

But overall, while chain stores sell produce more cheaply than greengrocers, the supermarket fruit and vegetables can look pretty industrial, often tired, sometimes limp and uninspiring. Peppers and tomatoes come pre-wrapped; lettuce, sometimes sold by the head and other times in see-through bags, can look wilted; onions are stuffed into net bags that discourage close inspection and hide any major defects. Most supermarkets sell organic fruits and vegetables, but they may be only marginally better than the non-organic produce.

And then there are the store hours. Supermarkets generally open from 7 or 8 am to 8 pm—six days of the week. And if you must do your grocery shopping late in the day, expect to find scarce pickings.

The quality and prices of produce sold in the chains illustrate a negative influence of globalization, an influence also evident in many US mega-stores such as Wal-Mart. According to an Oxfam study, transnational supermarkets with their huge marketing arms, buy mass quantities of food from developing countries at prices that do not provide the local workers, often women, a decent return for their labor.

Comparing what these supermarkets sell with other available sources for fresh, local products, I opt for the smaller shops. For me, gathering and eating my daily food must be an aesthetic experience, something that appeals to my senses of taste, smell, touch and sight. Eating is a political act, and supporting exploitive aspects of globalization ruins my appetite.

So, I buy most of the fruit and vegetables I eat at small, independent green grocers or at the weekly market in Garmisch or Partenkirchen. Two shops are nearby, within a five minute walk. The owners take pride in displaying their produce attractively. After you have gone to the shop three or four times, you’ll be recognized and often addressed by name. Most of the fruits and vegetables available now have been shipped from Greece, Italy, or Spain, but German strawberries and asparagus are also abundant at the moment. Most produce is not truly local because with the exception of strawberries, apples and Damson plums, crops produced nearby aren’t prolific enough to be sold in markets.

The hours for these green grocers are even more challenging than the chains—my favorite shop opens about 8 am, closes around 6 pm (depending on business) Tuesday through Friday. On Saturday it closes at 1 pm and remains closed until Tuesday morning. Of course it is also closed on holidays—and Bavaria has a lot of holidays!

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, two separate, rival
towns until the 1930s, has two weekly markets. Every Thursday in the Rathaus (City Hall) parking lot, the Partenkirchen Wochenmarkt takes shape, beginning about 8 am. Walking among the various stands, I can buy local jams (dandelion and elderberry blossom jams at the moment); trout not long out of mountain streams and smoked in the market; flowers, herbs, and plants for the garden and balcony; fruits and vegetables from farms near Lake Constance; Alpine cheeses flavored with herbs; organic sheep and goat cheeses made just a few miles south of Partenkirchen; organic lamb chops, an array of antipasti, and other local foods.

A similar but larger market takes place in Garmisch on Friday. Vendors in both markets pack up by early afternoon, so if you work, taking advantage of either of these markets is a challenge. And to be truthful, if you work, it is difficult to patronize the smaller markets. The only real opportunity is Friday afternoon, (the work day ends around 1 pm on Fridays for many people here) and Saturday morning.

As I write this, it’s now Saturday afternoon. A small Turkish festival is underway several houses down the street from me. Strains of Turkish music float up through my open windows, mingling with the laughter of children bouncing on one of those huge, garish inflatable toys. Shops have closed, but the refrigerator is stocked well enough to get me safely through to Tuesday morning. And, just as an extra piece of security, I checked out the edible offerings at the fest earlier today: long skewers of beef sizzled over hot coals, a huge hunk of meat for succulent doner kebab stood ready for carving nearby, tables of dolmas, kibbe, stuffed peppers and eggplant, bourekas and baklava beckoned. No chance that I’ll go hungry this weekend!


Randy said...


I am a supermarket produce/meat shopper, the son of supermarket produce/meat shoppers, and persist in acquiring the bulk of my groceries from three sources. I don't think this is a better way, I'm just ignorant of the art of market-shopping. Granted, I do wander through the Friday market from time to time, and generally pick up some Feinkost, but there is no method to my madness.

I think you should give lessons in proper shopping in a small market economy. Shopping lessons are probably almost as essential as cooking lessons.


About Margie said...

I never thought about having different strategies for buying from smaller shops and farmers markets, but I guess there are some differences. Maybe I'll put together a course, Food Marketing 101.

One of the major differences here in Germany is to remember to keep your mitts off the food. Most market owners are not thrilled to see a customer squeezing a peach to test for ripeness, although there are always a few exceptions that allow a tactile experience! And so far, no one has been upset with me for getting up close and personal to a strawberry and sniffing to get an idea of how sweet it may be. But at any rate, I have rarely been given bad produce when I allow the salesperson to make the choice!

The other difference I notice in small stores and at the market is that there is more interaction both with the seller and the other customers. You see the same people, get to know a little about them, and that provides a basis for conversation. I see this happening at the farmers' markets in Washington too.

Randy said...

Ahh, I see . . . slow shopping!