There’s no doubt that supermarkets are the best option for the wandering biker, but Spanish supers are a very different to those in northern climes, especially Britain! The main differences are that except in resorts on the costas. which have imported stuff to suit visiting tourists and some big supermarkets in cities, which pay lip service to the various immigrant populations, mainly from Latin America who have their own shops anyway, there are no ‘ethnic’ foods. Secondly there is little in the way of prepared meals. But both the camping biker and those wanting to find a packed lunch for the day ahead will have to do a little work and planning, especially in rural areas – where all the best biking is. There is actually plenty on offer, it’s just a case of recognising it!
On the supermarket shelf:
As mentioned above there appear to be few ‘prepared’ meals, at least in the chill cabinet. But in fact there are plenty on the shelves – in tins. Don’t look down on tinned foods, many are of very high quality in Spain few household had fridges until Spain’s recent economic boom, so traditional methods of preserving cooked foods, especially fish and seafood, were adopted by the canning industry for which these methods were ideal. As well as canning foods like sardines in olive oil (always check that it’s not vegetable oil, which suggests poor quality) a method called escabeche, in which fish, seafood and small game are cooked in olive oil with wine vinegar and paprika (pimentón) added at the end. Thus you have a ready made ingredient with a rich and tasty sauce – all you need is to add it to pasta or mix with a salad (see below) and hey presto! All of these will be displayed along one large bank of shelves – the variety really s huge: mussels, razorfish, squid (which also comes in its one ink – en su tinta – weird but wonderful!), baby clams, crab and a wide ranges of fish as well as te usual sardines.
Now move around to the shelf with jars of pulses, beans, lentils you name it. Next to them will be tins with names like ‘Fabada Asturiana‘, ‘Cocido Madrileño‘, etc. These are the traditional staples, based on a variety of pulses with bacon, pork belly, and a variety of sausages, black puddings and spicy red chorizos, and more. Every region in Spain has its own version of these hearty, filling dishes and much ink in spilled claiming one is better than the rest. But for the hungry biker they’re an excellent ready meal – yet again, being tinned des not imply poor quality, the reverse in fact. And don’t forget that the jars of pulses come in a syrup concentrated from the cooking – with a bit of sugar so beware! These make a good ‘fresh’ stew with sausages from the meat counter of butcher (more below).
Back at the chill cabinet there is a large range of vacuum packed cold cuts and cheeses in – almost all of which will be local to Spain apart from some universals like Edam cheese and sweet ‘York’ ham. But nearby there will be racks of dried sausages and hams, the former are ideal for bikers as they don’t need to be chilled – even in summer! Despite their leathery exterior these mountain dried embutodos should be tender inside – give them a good squeeze before buying! Once again, the range is enormous and highly regional, but there are two main types: salchica and chorizo, the former simply cured with salt and black pepper and the latter with pungent red pimentón – some types of chorizo, i.e. picante those can be very hot!
Chilled meals don’t really exist. But look out for the universal Spanish omelette, la tortilla, these have appeared ready-made over the last few years – and are so good no-one can believe it’s never been done before! ‘Omelette’ is a misleading term for foreigners; la tortilla is more like a dense cake, the eggs only act as a binding. It really is the most portable way of eating egg and chips imaginable – and just as sustaining when you really have a gap to fill. Another new addition of late is fresh pasta noodles and spaghetti – much les cooking time on the camp stove and ideal with an escabeche. But these are new and only appear in te larger supermarkets, otherwise there is a very rage range of god quality dried pastas, including lots of small types ones for fortifying clear soups.
Apart from in the far north there’s not much fresh milk on sale – and that will be very full cream and in large bottles. So back along the shelves to the milk section, which will be huge! There is a big variety of UHT milk on sale. Apart from finding a tetrabrik with a screw top closure (unless it’s really hot, opened UHT milk will keep for about a day with no fridge, certainly overnight) the main thing to check is full cream, entero, semis skimmed, semidesnatada and skimmed, desnatada, which I find best for tea. Dried milk powder is in the baby food section. This comes in tins of 500g (about 5 liters of milk) with useless tops, so you should plan a container to store this. Also on te milk shelves, or nearby, are stacks of chocolate drinks. The best make is Cacaolat and it’s really handy to get you going on a cold morning – or to soak up all that garlic, olive oil, wine and brandy from the night out at the tapas bar! As well as coming in 1.5 litre plastic bottles ready-made chocolate drinks are sold in six packs on mini-tetrabriks, thee are really good to have lurking in the top of your luggage in cold weather.
Bread in supermarkets is OK – but only just OK. Larger ones do baguettes that are usually really good and a wholemeal (integral) bread called cinco semillas, meaning five seeds (varieties) is also good. Sliced bread in packs is like cotton wool without the cotton – or the wool for that matter. It’s usually much better to buy bread at the baker’s where you will usually find savoury pastries. These vary considerably with each region having its specialities – strangely in central Spain, which is renowned for its bread, is weak in this regard.
Butchers vary greatly between the regions. In Catalonia they are superb, but in neighbouring Aragon it can be like the third world! This is to do both with relative wealth and culture, but in general it’s as well to remember that eating meat, as in steaks, chops, etc. is usually a feast day treat in Spain. And that roasting meat hardly exists outside specialist restaurants. This impression is enhanced as meat is butchered to order, not chopped up and jointed before being displayed (this is also true of the butcher’s section in supermarkets, if they have one). In really hot weather some butchers won’t even put fresh meat in the display cabinet. So you have to ask in detail for what you want. But if you’re in a camp site with a good barbecue but don’t have the langauge never fear – all Spanish people love a good barbecue, simply rub your belly, indicate how many people you are and say ‘¡Barbacoa!’ and you’ll be in good hands!
In country towns and villages fresh fruit and veg. can seem hard to come by. This is partly because many regions simply don’t eat vegetables on their own – they’re included in other dishes – and so people don’t seek vegetables that look good. Moreover, outside the cities many people grow their own, or have an abuelo (granddad) who does, so there isn’t a viable market for shops. But weekly markets more than make up for this, so if you’re keen to cook, try to plan ahead. Most town’s official web sites will have details.