Grocery shopping as a tourist activity? I warn people who are coming to visit me that they will get a tour of the local grocery stores. They think I am kidding. Silly people.
I also advise people who are thinking of moving to Portugal to explore the grocery stores while they are here. Believe it or not, grocery shopping in a foreign country can be anxiety inducing. You spend a lot of time just trying to figure out what it is you’re looking at. And then you spend a lot of time hunting for the things on your list. The checkout procedure is a whole thing, too.
So, let’s start.
They’re Smaller on the Inside… and Outside
Most of the grocery stores are going to be smaller than you are used to in the States. The size of the grocery store is often relative to the size of the town or city it is situated in. The Continente in Gran Plaza Tavira and the Auchon in the Municipal Mercado in Faro are good-sized. Lisbon is the place that will have grocery stores most like what you are familiar with.
Most of the stores have a medium “footprint” – about the size of an Aldi or Trader Joe’s in the States. The village markets are even smaller. You will learn that size sometimes does not matter.
Prices vary store chain to store chain. For the most part, food costs slightly less here than in the States. Within Portugal, food in Continente costs slightly more, Pingo Doce slightly less, and Lidl and Aldi are less still. The little village stores are priced about the same as Pingo or Lidl. For those of us who are used to getting screwed by the corner/gas station stores in the States (aka “Quick Rips”), it’s a pleasant and welcome surprise.
The Spanish chain, Mercadona, has opened 48 stores in Portugal (so far) and they are, yeah, I’ll say it, amazing. Brightly lit, wide aisles, lots of prepped food, greater variety, low prices. The closest Mercadona to me happens to be in Spain where the food prices are lower than Portugal’s. Because we’re so close to the Spain border, some of the people here tend to pop over for cheaper gas and to do their “big” grocery shopping.
Now You See It; Now You Don’t
Just because you bought something last week at whichever store doesn’t mean you will find it this week. The staples, of course, are always there: bread, milk, eggs, flour, butter, sugar. LOTS of fish, including stacks of dried fish. There are always crackers and cookies, but it might not be the brand you like. Sometimes the store has Heinz ketchup and other times it doesn’t.
Some things are seasonal. At Christmas, certain spices and candies, spirits and holiday goodies, fill the aisles. Same at Easter or Halloween (not quite as big here as in the States). Sonhos, basically little round donuts, are only made at Christmas time. Don’t expect to find whatever traditional food you are looking for on a specific holiday. I don’t know why Americans are amazed that Portugal doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving (or the Fourth of July), yet every year I see people ask in the online groups if any restaurants are serving Thanksgiving dinner or if a town is having fireworks. Read this slowly: It’s PORTUGAL.
Variety? Not So Much
You will see some familiar brands and when you first get here, you will gravitate to them, mostly because they will be a type of comfort food. There are Oreos, Lays Potato Chips, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. You can easily find Cheerios and M&Ms (more often peanut than plain). There are Starbucks K-pods and yes, even a few Starbucks coffee shops.
What you won’t find is forty different kinds of cereal or fifty kinds of cookies or twenty brands of toothpaste. The exception to this is yogurt. Most groceries have a WALL of yogurt. Some will look familiar (Activia), most will not. There is Greek yogurt, fruit yogurts, high-protein yogurts, liquid yogurt, kefir and quark (not the atomic quark, of course). Regular old sour cream is not as common. Sometimes a store will have it, sometimes it won’t. It comes in smaller containers, about the eight-ounce size. Sometimes it comes with chives and herbs. I have yet to find the bigger 15 or 16 ounce tubs of it.
What About “Specialty” Foods?
You mean like Mexican or Chinese? Yes, mostly. I can get some American-branded Mexican foods like Old El Paso brand tortillas, salsa, and cheese dip. One of my go-to stores has Chinese dumplings ready-made, that come complete with a packet of soy sauce and chopsticks. You don’t have the wide variety of pastas and ready-to-serve sauces. The only brand I recognized in the pasta section was Barilla and I’ll admit, I haven’t found any ready-made sauce that tastes like Prego, much less my mother’s sauce. Want grated parmesan? There are hunks of parmesan in the cheese section. Grating it will pre-burn those calories. You can find grated parm (usually Parmigiano-Reggiano) but it comes in small packets. On the plus side, Portugal is big on helping you make carbonara. There’s premade sauce in preserve packs as well as packets of powdered fixings.
Again, at the holidays, the stores put out a wider selection of baking supplies that you might not normally see during the rest of the year. You also have tins of cookies, Panettone cakes, gift packages of various foods, plus all the chocolate Santas as well as traditional Portuguese foods.
There’s also a lot of gluten-free and “bio” (organic) food available. The produce may not be strictly organic, but it’s just as organic if not more so than the stuff the US chain supermarkets pass off as organic. Some people who could not eat gluten in the States can eat it here. The wheat is different in some way. Some friends who are allergic to gluten say that they can eat some breads (better quality, fresh-baked) but still have trouble with other breads. That’s going to be a matter of personal experimentation.
But There’s Booze!!
I remember it was a big deal when US grocery stores added wine and beer. Portugal (and Spain) don’t mess around. First of all, wine selection in both countries is huge. Beer selection not so much, but you won’t go thirsty. There’s also hard liquor. Portugal (and probably Spain) stores stock gin for all the Brits, but there’s also scotch, vodka, rum, and some liqueurs. The selection of hard liquor isn’t huge (except in the larger stores), but if you need to pick up a quick bottle, you can usually tide yourself over til you get to the liquor store with your favorite brand. For the record, the little village groceries carry a fairly good selection, too. And port? You could float a ship with the port selections. (See what I did there?)
I hate to cook and honestly, I miss grabbing a sub sandwich or picking up a rotisserie chicken. Most of the supermarkets have cooked chicken and a variety of other prepped foods. You can get “bagged salad” fixings. My local Pingo Doce has soups and other sides ready to re-heat. Some stores will have things like macaroni salad (though I now make my own). Just about every store has pre-made hamburgers in buns to reheat but so far, I have had no trouble passing on them. I can’t imagine what they taste like but I am very sure it will be disappointing, no matter how low you set your expectations.
The Mercadona store in Spain had a nice variety of ready to eat meals (or heat up and eat). If you go to major cities like Lisbon and Porto, you have a wider variety to choose from. The smaller the town, the less prepped food because—logically—there are fewer people who will purchase it.
It’s the same in the States. The bigger the town and the bigger the store, the more likely you will have a wider variety to choose from, prepped or otherwise. My visits to the large supermarkets in New England were eye-opening. The stores in Florida certainly had meals you could take away. But man! The stores in New England put them to shame. Florida prep leans more towards chicken (rotisserie and fried), with some sides including mac and cheese, potatoes (mashed and fried), and a few veg. You could also pick up pints and quarts of things like prepped chicken, mac, and potato salad, deviled eggs, the sad vegetable and dip tray, etc. But hit a Boston-area supermarket and you could lay out an entire dinner party for thirty. It’s all relative.
And then there’s the weird stuff
Every store has an aisle of bargains, much like the Aldi’s in the States. At my local Lidl, I can find reading glasses, kettle bells, small side tables, miscellaneous clothing, school supplies (mostly in August/September), and really, just random items. There’s always an assortment of tools, but not necessarily basic tools. Instead of say, a set of screwdrivers, you might find a small socket wrench set. I was thrilled to stumble across an air compressor for bicycle tires one day. The things in these aisles are like stray shipments that they put out and once it’s gone, it’s gone, never to be stocked again. Unless they find another box in the back of the warehouse.
If you’re living in a small town or village, check out the little grocery stores. You’ll be amazed at what they carry. The little stores in my village all have a butcher counter. With a real butcher. Sometimes they have goods that the bigger stores don’t have—or maybe that I just couldn’t locate in a bigger store.
My favorite grocery in the village, the Coviran (we have three plus a mini-mart type thing that resembles the bread stores of my early childhood), has a backroom that is nothing short of magical. The aisles are so narrow that I only attempt them on an empty stomach. But I can find things back there that I can’t find elsewhere. I can get electrical and plumbing supplies, a bike lock (if I wish), scrunchies for my hair, a salad spinner, hiking boots, dishes, mousetraps, and who knows what. It’s like going into a country hardware store—you find things you’d never expect to find anywhere, much less in the backroom of this little store.
Just about every town has a municipal market. Here you will find locally-grown fresh produce, meats and fish, spices, baked goods and local specialties. It is the happening place, particularly on Saturdays.
You Will Have New Go-To Brands
In the States, we tend to buy brands. While you will see some familiar logos, you’re going to find new favorites. I haven’t come across Louisiana Hot Sauce for my wings, but Piri Piri, which is hotter, makes a damn fine replacement. (Adjust your hot-sauce-to-melted-butter ratio accordingly.)
One thing I was highly suspicious of was preserve pack milk (and cream). I am super-picky about milk. I drink whole milk, not that watered down, low-fat blue stuff. But unrefrigerated milk? What the what? I picked up a liter, fully expecting that I would dump it out. Nope. The stuff is great. It’s whole milk with all the lovely fat. (I’m pretty sure they have low fat milk in preserve packs, too. I just haven’t paid attention.) I also get cream for my coffee in the shelf-stable packs. Lately, I’ve been making my own “Half and Half” because sometimes the cream is too thick or you get floaties. Also, I’ve been eating a lot of high fat stuff. Time to dial it back a bit. Sigh.
And Some Things You Just Won’t Find
Portugal has broken me of my Twizzler addiction. Friends sometimes ferry the Twizzlers to me (thank you Carlos for my latest delivery—FOUR POUNDS!). I haven’t found Cream of Wheat which I love in the winter, but there’s a farina-type cereal that I am going to try and I am sure it will be close enough. With the amount of brown sugar I put into my cereal, it will be hard to tell the difference. A friend has been looking for mini M&Ms for cookies; I tell her to just go with the big ones. Life is short.
Some spices are hard to source. I couldn’t find ground cloves in the supermarkets, but I remembered there was a spice booth at the municipal mercado and I got some there. Romaine lettuce is rarely on the produce shelves in my area but every so often, my little village Coviran has it. Lidl also has baby Romaine from time to time. I got used to the ruffle-y local lettuce after a few uses and while it’s nice to find Romaine, I don’t miss it.
My fallback for many things I can’t find, food or otherwise, is Amazon Spain (and Germany, for that matter). If you’re really jonesing, there’s a Costco in Seville. I’m also learning substitutions for certain things. I haven’t gone looking for Cream of Tartar. It may or may not be available. But I know there are various substitutions for it that I can use. I like honey mustard salad dressing which is sometimes hard to find here. I can whip up my own in about five minutes. My cooking skills have improved greatly and I now make a lot of things from scratch that I used to buy prepared. While I’m not in any way a good cook, even my homemade stuff tastes better than the commercially prepared versions in the States. As it turns out, a lot of things don’t take that much longer to make from scratch.
Get used to bringing your shopping bags with you. The stores here don’t give away plastic bags the way they do in the States. Almost everyone shows up with cloth or vinyl bags. When you go through the checkout line, the cashier will ask you if you need a bag. The stores have bags right at the checkout counters if you forgot to bring yours. They range from a nominal fee of about ten cents to a couple of Euros for the bigger vinyl bags.
I usually use a card to pay. Most of the time, I just touch my card to the reader–no PIN needed. The cashier will usually ask for your NIF (finance number). You get a certain tax credit based on how much you have spent in the year. I still haven’t memorized my NIF. I only use it for large purchases but the Portuguese will rattle off their number for just about everything.
We bag our own groceries here. (Now if your bread gets squished, it’s your own fault.) For the first two years, I was very self-conscious about the time I took to bag my stuff. I would go as quickly as possible, apologizing the entire time. It turns out, nobody cared. People in line are very patient. They are not huffing at you if you need another minute or two to finish bagging your stuff. If someone behind me only has a couple of items and I have a full cart, I will offer to let them go ahead. You will see the clerks having a chat with people they know as they come through the line. The clerks are fast, but they never make you feel rushed or feel like you are too slow. Maybe they do in the bigger cities, but not where I live. The US is all about speed—get everything done as fast as you can so you can do even more stuff quickly. Portugal is about people and relationships. Speed is not necessary; everything gets done in its own time.
Eventually, Shopping Becomes Routine
Moving to a new country, learning new products, hunting for things and not finding them—you wouldn’t think that grocery shopping would be anxiety inducing, but it is, at least at first. I have gone from feeling like I am somehow in everyone’s way to wheeling my little cart around the store, humming along with the music. There are times when I still can’t find certain items. I probably backtrack at least once on every shopping trip. But I am familiar enough with the layout of my local stores that I can buzz in, get what I need, and buzz out again. And on a really good day, I will actually run into someone I know. That’s when you know you’ve settled in.