Fresh from the Mercado del Sur

I’ve never loved grocery shopping but since moving to Gijon, every market trip feels like a competitive episode of Guy’s Grocery Games from Food Network. You know the game show where Guy Fieri gives contestants a list of random ingredients that they need to find in the grocery store, and then race back to the finish line before the buzzer sounds in order to earn big bucks? In my game, there is no buzzer but I have a list of items I need to find, pray I can get my words out properly when the pressure is on, choose the right products and the correct amounts and stay in our budget.

Rocky and Wilma and I have settled into a market day routine of sorts. We drag out the carro, a personal canvas covered grocery cart that everyone who is anyone in Gijon takes to the market, and fill it with our personal shopping bags. We check to make sure we have a wallet full of Euros because the market vendors prefer cash. Then we walk the half mile to the Mercado del Sur.

When we get close to the market, Wilma runs to her favorite bench, already anticipating the treat she gets for waiting patiently outside the market with Rocky while I tackle the fresh veggies, fish, cheese, bread and meat markets. First, I check to see which of my favorite vendor’s lines is the shortest and start there. I take a number from the ticket dispenser and get in line. I mentally rehearse all of the vocabulary words I’m going to need for my purchases. “Perejil (parsley), pimientos (bell peppers), cebollas dulces (sweet onions), ajo (garlic), etc.”

When it’s my turn, I exchange greetings with the seller and tell him or her what I need. Unlike in a super market, the buyer does not get to select the items they want. You can point, but don’t touch! Giving up control of the avocado squeeze test or the cilantro leaf inspection is a challenge for me but the vendors usually do a good job. After all, they want you to come back to their stall next time. They know there are many other vendors to choose from. Occasionally we will get home with a dead looking bunch of parsley or wilted cilantro but for the most part the market foods are super fresh.

My veggie gal looks bad ass with her black smock covered with skulls and flowers and a pierced nose, but when she is choosing my produce she is always grinning. She helps me expand my Spanish vocabulary, gently correcting me if I pronounce something incorrectly. She also likes to practice her English, surprising me with what she knows. When I ask for tomates pequenos she smiles and says, “Da Chair-ris?” “Yes, the cherry tomatoes!” She fills a small paper bag with the sweetest cherry tomatoes while simultaneously asking, “Que mas?” (What else?) and enthusiastically shouting, “Hola, Guapina!” to other customers she knows who are walking by her stall. No matter how many veggies I pick out, I’m always surprised by how little they cost. I will often walk away with three big shopping bags full of veggies for 22 Euros or $26.36 making me feel like a winner in the Gijon Grocery Games. No extra charge for the boost I get from the interaction with my veggie gal.

Most times, the prices are not listed for anything you are buying, or if they are labeled as in the case of the fish market, they are listed in grams and kilos and the ability to convert it in my head while also trying to ask for it in Spanish is nearly impossible. Last weekend Rocky asked me to buy 20 large shrimp for the Cioppino he was making for dinner. They happened to have some shrimp that were much bigger than usual. I thought he would love them! By the time the seller had counted them out, wrapped them, weighed them and told me the price, it was too late to change my mind but I knew I had made a big mistake. She made a big deal about gifting me two extras when she saw my expression. Up close those suckers looked like slightly smaller cousins of lobster! And cost almost as much. They were really tasty but will not likely find their way back into my carro in the future. Chef Rocky had to wrestle with them a long time to get them clean, as well.

The seafood options are so plentiful that we can’t even identify some of the fish that we see on ice in the market. The fish are sold whole but if you want them fileted, descaled, with the spine, tail and head removed, the fish seller can do that for you expertly in a matter of minutes with a large sharp cleaver. Most Spaniards ask to take home all of the parts that are removed so that they can make a caldo (broth) but we have not done that yet. We leave with our perfectly fileted Merluza (hake) and leave the eyeballs, cheeks and tail behind. We really should tackle the caldo-making because the fish and seafood are a bit pricey when you pay for the whole fish and then ask to have a large part of it removed. However, the freshness is unsurpassed.

I stop at the butcher’s stall for a large golden chicken leg for Rocky. Seeing the warm coloring makes me wonder about the pasty looking white chickens I used to buy in the U.S. The contrast is as stark as the first day you slip into your bathing suit in Hawaii and everyone can tell it is day one of your winter vacation. When I asked Rocky how the flavor differs, he said, “it’s just more chicken-y!” which had me laughing for a good five minutes.

Right next door I buy him some chorizo from the cheese vendor which he likes to add to his entrée for extra flavor in the vegetarian meals he makes for me. He has also fallen in love with Tres Leches Azul cheese. Named for the three milks: goat, cow and sheep that it contains, it has a vein of blue running through it like a Stilton or Oregon Blue but with the added complexity of the three flavors of milk. It’s too blue for me but it makes him so happy.

Next I stop at the bread market for a loaf of medio masa madre, a fresh baguette. Masa madre is a bread that is created with a starter the way that sourdough bread is made. Like sourdough, masa madre acts as a prebiotic, which means the fiber in the bread helps feed the good bacteria in your intestines. It’s practically a health food! It does not have a sourdough flavor but is delicious, with the right amount of airiness inside and a perfectly crusty outside. It only lasts for one or two days because no preservatives are used. Although I avoided eating bread in the States, the masa madre calls me like a siren song and I can’t help but break off a chunk to dip into my bowl during our midday-meal. The cost is only 1 Euro or $1.20.

Eggs are sold by the half carton here and are not refrigerated. Eggs have a natural preservative in the shell that keeps them fresh without refrigeration for much longer than we ever knew. If the eggs are cleaned before being sent to grocery stores like we were used to in the U.S., the natural preservative is washed away, requiring the eggs to be refrigerated. While I’m sure egg suppliers all over the world are aware of this phenomenon, we city folks were surprised to see eggs on a shelf. Cost is 2.26 Euros or $2.71.

On the way out of market, I stop at the flower market and buy five full stems of red, pink and white Astroemerias for just 5 Euros or $6. They make me happy to look at them and last over a week in our vases at home.

Once I finish in the Mercado de Sur, I switch places with Rocky, taking my place next to Wilma on the bench in the plaza Europa. Then Rocky goes to the near-by Supermercado (supermarket), to get anything we can’t get at the Mercado: paper goods, anything jarred or canned, wine, cashews, spices, cleaning supplies etc. It’s much easier for him to shop there because it resembles a grocery store where you can look at the carefully organized shelves for whatever you need and you don’t need to speak to anyone in Spanish. We could actually get everything we need at the Supermercado but the produce, meat and seafood aren’t nearly as fresh and affordable as in the farmer’s market. Besides, I wouldn’t get the adrenalin rush I get from tackling the Mercado del Sur.

Like the eggs, milk is often sold in non-refrigerated cartons here. It is processed in a way that allows it to be stored on a shelf for a long time. The Supermercado is one of the few places where we can buy the “fresh” milk that we prefer which doesn’t last as long as the shelf stable milk but has a flavor more like we are used to. Less than 1 Euro for a about a quart.

Today Rocky reported that he made it all the way through the Supermercado without having to interact with anyone (the goal of his personal grocery game) until he went through the check-out line. This time, he met a very chatty cashier who wanted to tell him all about the special promotions they were having. With his Spanish DNA, Spanish surname on his debit card and his new Spanish haircut, most people assume he is a local… until he tries to say something. He smiled as the cashier waved her hands around excitedly and he nodded patiently until she stopped talking, not understanding much of what she said and anxious to get out of the store.

If you are curious about pricing, here is what we’ve discovered about some of our regular items:

Anares Rioja wine 4 Euros per bottle (Rocky’s favorite find for very drinkable, and affordable red. This is really an unbelievable price considering how discerning, er picky, he is about his vino!);

Mantequilla 250 grams (butter) 2,40 Euros $2.88;

Almendras 200 grams (almonds) 5,99 Euros $7.18;

Oikos natural Greek yogurt 4 individual 110 g containers 4,10 Euros $4.91;

Cafe Molido 200 grams (ground coffee) 6,18 Euros $7.40;

Toilet paper 9 rolls 3,99 Euros $4.78;

Aceitunas Ali Gordal 800 gram jar (large Spanish olives) 2,29 Euros $2.74;

Piquillo peppers 200 grams 2 Euros $2.40 (These are usually $10 in the U.S.!);

Dark chocolate with orange 200 gram bar 2,06 Euros $2.47;

Dental floss 1,50 Euros $1.80

When you add what we spend on food to our other monthly costs, we really come out ahead here in Spain. Internet, TV and phone service are bundled together just like in the U.S. We paid about $250 monthly to Comcast for the same bundle. Here we pay 27 Euros per month plus another 7 Euros for our new Spanish cell phone. Our rent is 1500 Euros for a 3 bedroom, 2 bath apartment that is approx. 1500 square feet with a view of the waterfront in Gijon. We paid hundreds more for our 568 square foot one bedroom apartment on the waterfront in Tacoma.

The biggest savings for us though, is healthcare. As NLV visa holders in Spain, we are required to pay for private Spanish health insurance. Our policy is comprehensive, with no-deductible, no co-pays, includes hospital stays and dental insurance and we pay 250 Euros per month for the two of us, or about $300 per month. Our policy in the States was 5 times that amount and had a deductible and co-pays. We’ve been told we are paying a premium price so we may be able to shop around and find it for even less.

According to the World Population Review 2021 report, Spain was ranked 7th in health care in the world ahead of the U.S. which comes in at 37th so we do not think we will be sacrificing level of care. That said, we have not received our Covid vaccinations yet or been to a doctor so we do not have direct experience with Spanish health services yet. I do know that there are other Americans living in Spain who call themselves “medical refugees.” They retired in the U.S. before they were eligible for Medicare and moved to Spain to be able to afford health insurance until they are old enough to get Medicare.

We actually moved here for adventure, to learn Spanish and to travel but also to stretch our retirement dollars. At least until we have grandchildren! Could be 2 to 10 years or never. Who knows?

What is not such a good deal here? Electronics, bedding, furniture and anything that has to be imported. We bought two extra-long twin beds that we belted together to make a king sized bed because we are spoiled and got tired of our feet hanging off the edge of the smaller bed that was provided. A king sized bed would not fit in the tiny elevator or up the narrow stairwell so the two twin sized beds did the trick. Quality bedding was no less expensive than at home but worth the investment for our comfort.

Now that we have that major purchase out of the way, our monthly budget should be much smaller than what we were used to in Tacoma. We can even support local restaurants 2-3 times per week if we choose from the Menu del Dia offerings that run 10-15 Euros per person and include a starter, a main course, wine, water, bread and dessert. (It is as difficult to resist chocolate flan and arroz con leche, a rice pudding infused with cinnamon, as it is to say “no” to the fresh loaves of bread, especially when they are included in the cost of your meal!)

What about yoga? I pay 30 Euros per month for two 1 1/2 hour classes per week outside by the water. My yoga mat (esterilla) was 25 Euros but is not as nice as the ones I had a home. We pay 60 Euros per month for two 1/1/2 hour classes per week of Spanish lessons. Both my haircut and Wilma’s grooming cost 24 Euros. Rocky’s was only 16 Euros. Typical propina or tip for hairdressers is 1-2 Euros here.

I feel like we are winning at Gijon’s Grocery Games and our overall budget. Our new lifestyle takes the pressure off of retirement and allows us to enjoy our days without worrying about our bills. We have not been in a car, taxi, bus or any wheeled vehicle for 6 weeks, preferring to walk everywhere, as is the custom here. Walking, preparing and eating fresh food, napping in our hammock, doing yoga, writing, taking photos, playing Scrabble and studying Spanish fill our days. We look forward to when travel restrictions are lifted so that we can explore even more of Spain and Europe. Until then, you’ll find us playing games in Gijon.