Cadiz Province - Alcalá de los Gazules

Shopping in the white village of Alcala de los Gazules
Shopping in the white village of Alcala de los Gazules © Michelle Chaplow

Not so much a retail opportunity, more a way of life

by Claire Lloyd

A few years ago, while still a wage-slave in the UK, I made a list of all the reasons why I didn't want to live there any more. Near the top of the list was Big Bad Supermarkets: their crimes included driving small shops and farmers out of business, seducing us into buying microwaveable prepared meals packed with additives, selling tasteless meat alongside jars of goo that supposedly turn it into something a celebrity chef would be proud to serve, wrapping fruit and veg in umpteen layers of plastic and then charging us for carrier bags "to help protect the environment" ... you know what I'm on about. And as for 24-hour opening, I'm not even going to go there; it's the road to madness.

To cut a long story short, I now live in Alcalá de los Gazules in the province of Cádiz. Shopping for food here is not like it was in England. Oh no. Not one bit. I love it.

Alcalá has around 5,600 inhabitants and at least 33 food shops, including five butchers, three greengrocers, two fishmongers and six confectioners/bakers.  There may be more, lurking in backstreets I haven't ventured into yet. This works out at 5.5 food shops per 1000 people; in the UK, the ratio is 1.6 per 1000 people (Euromonitor.com). Then we have four bazaars, three ironmongers, two saddlers, two chemists, three shoeshops, half a dozen clothes shops, two gunsmiths and an amazing agricultural emporium which sells everything from flea powder to live partridges.

Many of these shops are just a room in a someone's house, with goods spilling out onto the pavement. Sure, we have supermarkets too, the largest being Día; I go there occasionally to buy butter, as it seems to be the only place in town that sells it. Others innocently offer you Tulipan when you ask for mantequilla, which just doesn't do it for me on a nice crusty baguette. There are rarely more than half a dozen people in Día, and these are mainly visiting the meat counter (the butcher's name is Rocio and she sings flamenco). Conversely, the shop nearest to my house measures approximately 8 square metres and is almost always overflowing with customers. It sells pretty well everything Día does, except butter - and the Wines & Spirits selection is somewhat limited. The shelves are stacked up to the ceiling, the chiller cabinet is bursting at the seams, hams and chorizos hang round your ears, a tray of free-range eggs balances precariously on a shelf, fruit spills out of wicker baskets that you trip over blindly as you go in out of the bright sunlight. Fresh bread is delivered twice a day. Pictures of Nuestra Señora and her son are bluetacked to the walls wherever there´s a gap.

These little shops can be daunting at first. At 5'6" I tower over the rest of the clientele, which makes me feel like a large, clumsy hippo. Then there is the queuing system; at first sight it looks totally random, but the trick is to ask "¿Quién es la última?" ("Who is the last?") and then dive in as soon they've been served. Or you can stand there for 20 minutes clutching a couple of lemons and pretending to be fascinated by the 14 different types of lentil on the shelves until the shopkeeper takes pity on you (or till everyone else has gone home).


Top-quality seasonal produce ©Michelle Chaplow
Top-quality seasonal produce

Twice a week we have a fruit and veg market in the street, which is amazingly cheap. I can fill a shopping trolley bag (yes, I have a shopping trolley bag - lugging my shopping up the hill is cheaper than joining a gym, and just as effective) with top-quality seasonal produce for less than €10.  

Competition for service at the market is fierce and the "¿Quién es la última?" stunt doesn't always work. The senior alcalainas, despite their lack of stature, have sharp elbows and the strength and agility of Jack Russell terriers. They also know all the stall-holders by name and can spend five or ten minutes asking the price of everything before they start actually buying things. On my first few visits, I still had a residual aversion to wasting time and after being ignored for ten minutes I would slip off to the little supermarket over the road, ending up with a few ageing bananas and wrinkled nectarines. Now I elbow my way in shamelessly with the rest of them. Trolleys at noon!

The Spanish seem to be obsessed with plastic bags. Left to their own devices they will put bananas, oranges and apples each in separate bags and then put them all into a larger bag. When I ask them to put everything straight into my trolley they look at me as if I had ordered them to strip naked. I try to explain the ecological drawbacks of a world full of plastic, but this concept hasn't quite reached Alcalá yet, at least not the older generation.  And I must admit the bags are useful when cleaning out the cat-litter trays.

The butchers' shops are a carnivore's heaven. Pigs' ears? bulls' testicles? No problem. Pork dripping for your morning tostada? Three different flavours. In the UK I used to read recipe books that said things like "Ask your butcher to ..."  Ever try that in Tesco's?  Here, it's the norm. The butchers will lovingly fillet a chicken breast into eight slices, so thin they are almost transparent. They don't sell prepared mince; choose your meat and they will mince it to the consistency you need. This all takes time, of course; I soon learned not to go on Saturday mornings, when the amas de casa are shopping to feed for a family of 12 over the weekend. Hours can pass while you wait to be served.  

These corner shops are more than just for buying things; they are little community centres in their own right. Listening to the locals gossiping gives you good opportunity to improve your Spanish and  to tune in to the daunting local accent. Of course, they assume you don't understand a word (they are usually right) so they often talk about you. My husband was collecting his prescriptions in the farmacia once and heard a couple of old dears ask the pharmacist what pills he was getting. Astonishingly, the pharmacist told them; they then discussed his various ailments, right there in front of him!  Being a decent sort of chap he didn't embarrass them by letting them know he understood every word...

Walking to the local shops and buying fresh food on a daily basis gives me so much more pleasure than driving to an out-of-town hypermarket once a week. It's cheaper, it's good exercise, it helps you get to know your neighbours, the fresh produce is tastier, and I'd rather hand over my meagre pension to local businesses than to some multinational corporation.  Notwithstanding, I must confess to the occasional trip to Mercadona to stock up on cat litter and beer, and naturally the biannual excursion to Gib for teabags  ...

Of course, things are changing. Rural Spain is edging inexorably towards larger retail outlets and processed food (comida basura, rubbish food, as they so elegantly put it). But I have my fingers crossed that the tide of change will take a long while to sweep away the little front-room shops in the pueblos. Not so much a retail opportunity, more a way of life...

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