June 5, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid

I still remember my first curious discovery at the Spanish grocery store like it was yesterday. Perusing the produce section, my nose was accosted by a waft of sweet yet bitter smelling air, which was shortly followed by me realizing that I was surrounded on one side by a wall of pig legs (and let’s be honest, it was then followed by me promptly bolting in the opposite direction). Often the source of tourist spectacle and curiosity, the jamón (ham) in all its pig leg glory is more than a key part of Spanish culture and one of the many unique things I’ve come across at the markets here.

You’ll find those jamóns hanging in bars, restaurants, and by the hundred at the local supermarket. You’ll even find them proudly displayed on people’s kitchen counters, which I unexpectedly learned during my first Christmas in Spain. As is often custom, Jacobo received a fine leg of jamón from a client as a holiday gift. Sure enough, I came home and there it was, like a trophy, pointing its black foot at me. My first reaction was “hmm, this will surely be a good diet as I will indeed stay out of the kitchen,” followed several short hungry minutes later by “Jacoboooooo, get this thing out of here!!” After three years, things have certainly changed, and I can’t quite decide whether I’m proud or ashamed. See, now when I walk through that same part of the produce section, flanked by jamóns, instead of shrieking, my mouth starts watering. Yes people, the site and smell of pig legs now gets me excited.

Moving on to another lovely item that I’ve come across at the markets here, and consequently ended up trying and loving – gulas, which are basically, drum roll please….faux baby eel. Ahh, these lovely little suckers have an appearance that could put just about anyone off. Apparently the real baby eels, called angulas, are terribly expensive but considered an absolute delicacy, therefore they’ve created the imitation version to pacify people’s passion for the wormy-looking critters. The funny part is that I’m fairly certain I couldn’t stomach consuming the real and highly coveted version, but since they are fake, they seem much more appetizing. Despite their peculiar appearance, I’ve come to love them – saute them with a little garlic and olive oil and you’ve got yourself quite a healthy and tasty meal.

Something I generally couldn’t imagine considering as a bizarre market find would be milk and eggs, but sure enough, Spain has left me with one raised eyebrow. Growing up in the US, you usually rush home with your groceries for one very key reason – because of the milk and eggs (ok, and the ice cream too, but that’s irrelevant to my point). Hurry up and get those things in the fridge! Well not in Spain. First of all, the milk is typically sold in cartons in the regular food aisles – that is, not in coolers. These cartons preserve the milk for up to several months (the cartons to the left are good until August!!), which means you can take your sweet time getting back home. Then there are the eggs. Someone lied to us Americans about the eggs. Not only are the eggs at the Spanish grocery stores not refrigerated, but people here occasionally don’t even store them in the fridge once they get home. Instead, they leave them on their counter-top for up to a couple of weeks before considering them to have gone bad. Now I’m not saying that we should throw our food preserving habits out of our American and non-Spanish windows, but next time you bolt home to get your goods in the fridge, remember that you’ve got more time than you thought. On a similar note, don’t even try and find white eggs here for Easter egg dying (fortunately, though, the brown ones don’t turn out so badly).

These are just a couple of the random items that I’ve come across here at the Spanish markets, and really there are a million more, but somehow I assume I’ve managed to desensitize myself to them. I can only imagine the beyond strange findings at grocery stores and markets in more far off lands. I suppose I don’t need to imagine though as this blog is a part of the Foreign Food Finds Blog Carnival by the Lonely Planet Featured Bloggers – it is being hosted by a fellow Californian blogger in Spain, Orange Polka Dot.

Update: After reading this blog, my grandma has informed me of the following, “the milk in Europe has been irradiated, which is illegal in the US though periodically they try to get the law changed. Europe has done this for years – when I was there in the early 80’s milk was on the counter to my amazement. I didn’t know they irradiated eggs though I think they do meat, too. Anyway don’t try leaving your California eggs on the counter two weeks. You won’t be happy.” Only reading briefly about what irradiation is, I’m super confused as to why it would be something that European countries would be on board with. I’ll have to do some more digging. For now though, keep your milk and eggs in the fridge (says Grandma).


12 Responses to “Jamón and eggs and baby eels, oh my!”

  1. Status Viatoris Says:

    Yum yum! Pata negra! Whenever my gitano brought a jamon home for us, I would paint it’s toenails with pink varnish. He was never very impressed. Strange boy!

  2. Victoria Says:

    Very funny, I don’t know how to get around the look of Gulas…but I am with you on the fact that Jamon grows on you despite the esthetics.

  3. Erin Says:

    I’m pretty sure I couldn’t bring myself to paint the poor dear’s toenails. While I love my jamon, I have to keep the relationship purely “eater” and “eatee.” @Victoria – I just like to think of the gulas as though they were pasta, and who doesn’t love pasta!

  4. Tito Says:

    ¡¡ Absolutely yummy !! :)))))

  5. Ninna Says:

    Oh my lord that ham is delicious. When I was in Spain I would eat that ham with cheese and olives everyday.

    Check out Julia Dimon’s blog, she just took a Tapas tour of Madrid, and the places she went look amazing!


  6. Erin Says:

    After spending my last two weeks in the States, just the mention of ham has my mouth watering! How did I ever live without it?! And thanks for sharing Julia’s blog – I’ll take a look!

  7. Kernel Panic Says:

    Irradiated milk? whaaat?? 0_o

    I’m from Barcelona, and this is first time that I’ve heard something like that.
    The milk in Europe can be usually pasteurized. I think that it isn’t a misterious technology 😀

    Btw, congrats for your interesting blog. It’s funny to read how can be the daily things surprising to the eyes of the people from other countries 🙂


  8. Erin Says:

    Haha – I thought the same about the irradiated milk. Grandma is about 90 years old, so who knows if her recollection is correct or not. Sounds mysterious to me too!

    Spain surprises me everyday – never a dull moment!! I love it here though 🙂

  9. Carlos Says:

    Kernel Panic is right, milk is not irradiated, neither are eggs (usually, there might be exceptions). Milk is usually pasteurized (high temperature long time) or ultra-pasteurized (ultra-high temperature ultra-short time). Surprise surprise, the “fresh” milk you can find refrigerated in supermarkets around the “first-world” (including USA) is pasteurized most of the time (very little milk is sold raw). Naturally the insides of eggs are bacteria-proof as long as the shell is whole, therefore refrigeration is not always necessary. A constant temperature is more important, and surely a refrigerator is more stable in that respect than the average kitchen counter. Finally, I don’t know about US, but in EU countries any irradiated food must be labeled as such, still to see the label anywhere so I assume irradiation is not widespread here. You can check Wikipedia and their cited sources for all this information except for the egg temperature controversy.


  10. Erin Says:

    Wow Carlos, you know your stuff! Certainly more than I ever imagined myself knowing about milk or eggs! I’m still curious as to why the milk can be left out so long here without being refrigerated….perhaps one of these days I’ll immerse myself in the Wikipedia sources to figure that one out. Until then, I’ll just do as the Spaniards when in Spain 😉

  11. Margot Izard Says:

    Irradiated milk has been treated with UV to clean it up and/or add vitamin D. Carnation used to sell tinned irradiated milk in N. America. If you search “irradiated milk” and Carnation, you’ll find an amusing quote from a very old Carnation cook book.

    The irradiation of food is very different, but the food irradiation ghouls try to confuse people sometimes by using the word “pasteurized”. They use gamma rays, x-rays and e-beams. Very very different, not a good idea.

    Also, there is no need to refrigerate eggs providind they haven’t been washed. A wipe will do. They last for weeks. You need your own hens to accomplish this feat though, as N. American supermarket eggs have been powerwashed with who knows what.

  12. maria Says:

    very simply milk in spain is UHT (ultra-high temperature)and in usa is fresh or only pasteurized. Not radiation, not x-rays not strange things.

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