One of our regular activities in Cuenca, as it would be anywhere, is buying food. While maybe not one of the most glamorous aspects of our life here, I thought it might be interesting to share what the options look like here.
I had anticipated that we might make every other day trips to a neighborhood market for our fresh produce. In fact, covered markets are located throughout Cuenca and feature sections where one can buy fresh veggies and fruit, meat, poultry and seafood section, natural remedies (featuring herbs and liquid concoctions) and a cafeteria area where you can be served up a yummy plate of a variety of local dishes. During our first month in Cuenca we had one such market close to our house and went there regularly to buy produce, fruit and grains. However, I am hesitant to buy meat at these markets because it is often displayed open air, and I have no way of identifying a reliable vendor to buy from. These markets also (obviously) don’t carry the comfort foods we were craving from home (peanut butter, spaghetti sauce and American style cereal). Below are pictures of the dry goods and meat sections of one of these city markets.
When we moved to our long-term housing I discovered an organic market that operates nearby every Saturday morning. Unlike in the larger markets where vendors sell goods purchased from importers or big growers as well as local items, the vendors at the organic market are all local growers and certified by an organic growers association. Some of the goods they sell are cultivated, but others, like blackberries, tree tomatoes and flowers, are often items they’ve gathered from their own properties. The market starts at 5:00 AM and by 6:30 some of the best local fruit is often gone. So I stick to my week-day wake-up time and usually make it to the market by a little after 6 am. I’m a morning person and kind of enjoy the crack of dawn experience, but I’ve had trouble getting company from family members on a regular basis. Meat, cheese, seafood and fish are also available at the organic market, although I don’t buy them there. I do buy some tasty local honey and whole wheat bread, and free range eggs. The type of fruit and veggie that are available has been pretty consistent, but every now and then a new fruit will show up that is “in season”. I’m still a bit baffled by how seasons work here, but it is fun to try something new. The market vendors have been very patient with my questions about what things are and how to prepare them. The best reward for my early bird activity are the tortillas de choclo, a kind of fresh corn pancake, that I pick up once I’m done shopping. I sometimes sit and enjoy them with a cup of over-sweetened coffee right at the market.
Cuenca has several American-style supermarket chains, Supermaxi and Coral. Coral is actually more like a Walmart- combining a big grocery store with home goods, hardware, clothes, office supplies, etc. Coral may have the lowest prices but it is so crowded and chaotic that it usually gives me a headache. It also requires that every single produce item be bagged separately and weighted in the produce section. I find it hard to stomach using all that plastic. So Coral is our go-to store only when I’m needing some household staple or last minute school supply that we don’t know where else to find. Usually our weekends include a trip to Supermaxi. When I was first thinking of this post I thought the only unique thing about Supermaxi, compared to US markets, is that it is quite a bit smaller in size, and they require you to check backpacks and large bags by the door when entering the store. But as I took these pictures for the blog I realized that there are significant differences in the offerings. The egg section includes quail eggs, and eggs are not refrigerated. The meat coolers have a big organ section. The milk is boxed, not fresh. The grain section includes lots of grains used for traditional grain-based drinks. And of course the produce and fruit are different, with a lot more tropical fruit available. Another difference is that the grocery bagger will take your groceries to a taxi stand and flag down a taxi for you.
Even though we’ve stuck to a US- style once a week shopping model for most things, we take full advantage of local mom and pop stores for anything we need in-between times. We can walk a block away to a store that has any last minute thing we need. These little neighborhood stores usually have a grate you can’t get by, and the owners live above the store, or in another part of the first level. Convenient so they can leave the store open but not have to attend it every second- just ring the bell or call out for service. The bigger store by us has eggs, the most common fruits and veggies, dry goods, butter, small quantities of meats, toys, basic school supplies, laundry detergent, snack food etc. It also has an extensive candy counter with 5 and 10 cent options, which has allowed the kids to indulge their sweet tooth tendencies and practice their Spanish. This is the aspect of our local shopping I think I will miss the most (well, maybe after the tortillas de choclo): the ability to walk 2 minutes for an essential item, or to send my very willing 10 year old to the corner for eggs.