Shopping in a Spanish supermarket (or supermercado) is a feast for the senses! Smelling fresh seafood, picking up a warm baguette, admiring the beautiful colors of fruits and vegetables…it is an experience you cannot miss if you’re in Spain. Whether you are living in Spain or simply visiting, stopping by a local supermarket can tell you a lot about Spanish culture.
Spanish supermarket chains are mostly of Spanish and French origin. Some of the most popular chains I’ve seen and shopped in are Carrefour, Simply City, Mercadona, Dia, Hipercor and Lidl (which is actually German). Like many Europeans, Spaniards may visit a supermarket various times throughout the week instead of once like we often do in the U.S.A. Kitchens are small, especially in the big cities, so there is less storage space. Javi and I have four different supermercados near our apartment, so it’s easy for either of us to pick something up after work before going home.
Like any modern-day supermarket, you can find basically everything you need from milk and eggs to paper towels and napkins. So grab your carrito de compra because I’m taking you on a visual tour of the Spanish supermercado!
Before you go shopping in Spain, be aware that you will have to pay extra for a plastic bag. Many customers bring their own bags, a carrito de compra, or simply carry their items in hand. The carritos de compra are immensely popular and you’ll see almost every abuelita with one. This is one of Spain’s great eco-friendly practices.
Whenever I go shopping in Spain, I’ll first head straight to the produce section. Spain has a beautiful array of fruits and vegetables which are mostly grown and shipped within the Iberian Peninsula or neighboring countries like Morocco. It’s necessary to weigh your own produce and place the sticker with the weight and barcode on your bag. If you don’t, employees will ask you to go back and weigh your items at the checkout. Even though I’ve been back in the States for a few weeks now, I was wandering around a good three minutes in a local supermarket looking for a scale before I realized where I was…oops!
In addition to fresh produce, Spaniards ADORE their ham or jamón. It is completely normal to see entire legs of ham on display to pluck off the rack and take home. My host mom brought a leg of jamón home a few years ago (in its own special zippered bag…#priorities) and it took the two of us MONTHS to finish. If you don’t think you can commit to a full leg, you can buy pre-sliced ham along with chorizo and other tasty meats.
Perhaps the best area of the supermarket is where the wine is held! Dozens of brands try to catch your eye with elegant labels and ridiculously cheap prices, but in my experience, you really can’t go wrong with any of them. Spain is world famous for their wines such as Rioja, and you can enjoy a bottle for less than $5.
For about a month, my favorite supermarket was having a sale of 1€ bottles of red wine. Each time I entered the store (3+ times a week), I would grab another bottle for our stash at home. I had to calm down after a while due to lack of space and a growing waistline. HA.
Speaking of drinks, this next product is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen abroad. These little boxes are mixtures of juice and MILK. What the…I finally had to try one after seeing my students slurp them down every day as if they were nectar. I didn’t turn out to be an avid fan like them. So if you ever see “Fruta + Leche” or “Bi Frutas,” it is milky juice! You’ve been warned.
Milk in Spain has probably confused and worried Americans more than anything else in the store due to their placement on unrefrigerated shelves. UHT milk or “ultra-high temperature” milk is popular in Europe. Due to the extremely high heat it’s prepared in, UHT or shelf-stable milk can stay fresh as long as six months without a fridge. Another eco-friendly practice, woooo! I’ve never had bad milk in Spain and it’s so handy to buy a pack of cartons to leave on the shelf at home instead of buying individual bottles each week.
You know what else is unrefrigerated? Eggs. In America, eggs undergo a thorough washing and sanitizing process which can damage the cuticle, or outer layer of the egg shell. Bacteria can enter the egg much easier which is why people in the U.S. store eggs in the fridge. In most of Europe, eggs are not washed before they enter the store. Many food agencies focus on the health of the chicken and preventing diseases such as salmonella before the egg is laid.
They even offer quail eggs!
Juice is another common unrefrigerated item:
An essential part of the Spanish kitchen is olive oil! Spain is one of the world’s leaders in olive oil production and the quality is superb. I used to cook with pan spray before living in Spain and now I don’t want to work with anything but aceite de oliva. Olive oil is used in practically everything in the Mediterranean diet.
Spain is on a peninsula which means…fresh seafood! You can get anything from crabs and shrimp to fish and mussels. Seafood is important in many Spanish recipes.
One food I cannot bring myself to enjoy is stringy white asparagus. For some reason, Spaniards love this limp, pathetic vegetable on top of salads or by themselves. They provide a significant amount of space for these little suckers in the store too. My host mom used to serve white asparagus when I was studying in Sevilla and it took some strong will power for me to get it all down.
If you’re in the mood for something easy for lunch, Spain offers their own versions of pre-prepared meals. Try paella to-go for instance!
Fresh bread is baked daily and is also a great to-go item if you’d like to pair it with cheese, make a sandwich, or eat it straight out of the bag. My third graders got to try making their own bread during a field trip in the bakery at a Carrefour. It was great fun to play with the dough and take home our braided creations.
Don’t forget dessert before you go to the check out! You can find packaged traditional Spanish desserts such as flan (a spongy, egg-based dessert), arroz con leche (rice with milk), or natilla (custard). Natilla con galleta (custard with cookies) is a popular way to eat it. When you buy natilla con galleta in a package, there is an entire cookie on top which you break apart and mix into the soft, sugary cup of delight. YUM.
Whenever you’re in Spain, or any country for that matter, take a look inside a local supermarket! It can be an entertaining and educational experience.
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