Thursday, 14 March 2013

Whole-Aisle Choices

Each country has its supermarket idiosyncratic peculiarities, personalities that reflect ‘place’. In Bolivia the ‘whole-aisle choice’ was a multiple choice of rice grades, all with a confusion of names: from the cheap Gallito, through Cholo and Faron to the top end offerings from Saman, each further subdivided into a ‘tipo of zeros’, not dissimilar to wire wool. 

In Argentina, the perplexing choice is in Yerba Mates, where the options seem dependent upon allegiance, and your father’s preference, not dissimilar to the way you might once have chosen a bank or your profession. 

In the land of ‘the dream’, it’s canyons of confusion, stacked cliffs of high-fructose corn-syrup breakfast cereals, whilst in Scotland it would appear to be the ready-meal and soda pop.

However, today we’re in Peru and I’m presented with the
stacked Doric columns of tinned tuna. Flaked and blocked, grated and filleted. I’ve joined the Forager for my occasional session of retail therapeutic education, or more accurately: her chance to show me how interesting and frustrating food shopping can become and why it’s such a protracted process. It’s duration, I’m well versed in, as I defend our parked bikes against reversing taxis, curious boys and the creeping interface between sunlight and sunshade.

Today we need porridge.  We always need porridge. We’ve met those who’ll not leave base without the comfort blanket of a sliced white and cheddar wedge, or the remodeled Mars Bar that lurks in the bottom of a rucksac that looks like it’s gone three rounds with an anvil. To forget is to induce instant ‘Bonk’, a collision with ‘the Wall’. When the day goes wrong and the intended re-supply point transpires to be but a name on an anonymous junction and not the hoped for emporium of calories, there’s always that bag of oats. A product on which I feel I’m becoming an international authority, not so much for it’s production as for it’s acquisition.   
In different countries it comes with differing statuses. In Bolivia it was easy to find, ready bagged or out of the bulk bin, but coming with an add-mix of  grit, stone and dust. In Argentina it’s the phonetic generic: ‘Kwacker’, stored in close proximity to the volatilic soap powders, from which it acquires an added piquancy. In the land of ‘the Free’, the message is simple; don’t hunt for your oats in the breakfast cereal aisle, they’re an embarrassing ‘basic’; try looking in that tiny section that has gelatine, flour and yeast. The stuff without added value. Your bag of carb’ will be on the bottom shelf, tucked away in the corner, taking up the least popular spot in retailing: The Unadulterated. It was whilst cycling the southern US states that we found how ‘Quaker’ had managed to circumvent this problem of adding value to oats: the addition of a ‘free’ bakelite beaker, circa mid 20th century gas station.
Here in Peru, things are different. I had speculated as to when we might start to find difficulty in sourcing ‘avena’, and what might we substitute in its place. I need not have worried; our difficulty is one of choice. Take it in the pure form, or with soya, quinoa, maca or kwichi, often coming with a condiment of ‘sticks and nails’. Soya is sufficiently ubiquitous as to require no explanation, quinoa is gaining a devoted following, even if it’s related to the gardener’s bete noire of fat hen. Both offer the addition of cheaper proteins. ‘Kwetchi’ is the Quechuan name for the purple or white flowering amaranth, an occasional British garden interest plant. ‘Maka’, was the new crop to me, a high altitude root brassica. All these permutations, and I think we might have tested all the choices, offer a tasty, if glutinous start to the day, especially if a tin of evaporated milk accidentally materialises in the basket. However on a blind tasting I suspect I might struggle to tell them apart, especially as they all come masked with the an add-mix of sticks and nails; the overtones of cinnamon and cloves.

The Forager enters the gloom of an unlit store, asks for ‘avena’, receives a blank look. This narrative is not new, she’s learning the language, so she asks for ‘kwacker’, and gets handed the requested item. The packet depicts cartoon characters: the three bears and the word ‘Avena’. Oddly there’s no references to a red, glossy-cheeked member of the Religious Society of Friends.