Vacation rentals in Italy (villas, farms, estates, agriturismo, apartments)
Grocery Shopping in Italy (and France)
Martha S. Taccarino (to_italy)
When we travel, my husband and I usually rent a house for at least a week of our stay. We have rented on the coast of Galway Bay in Ireland, in the Dordogne Valley in France and many lovely locations in Tuscany and Umbria. Renting a house and a car gives us a small thrill and a fantasy life to plan for in the long winter months waiting for our vacation to come. To make our selections, I carefully pour through the catalogs from the house rental agency while my husband scans car-leasing sites on the Internet. We end up with a brand new car for a few weeks and a new (to us) house to enjoy.
Having a house provides us with a kitchen and the freedom to eat what ever we want, whenever we want. The need to stock this kitchen with food can be a challenge by itself. Most house rentals start on a Saturday, late in the afternoon. Grocery stores in Europe keep their own unique set of hours. Many times they close in the middle of the day and fairly early in the evening and might not be open at all on Sunday and certainly not open 24 hours as many are in the US.
Some of the same rules for grocery shopping in the US apply when traveling too. NEVER go grocery shopping when hungry and have a list are two of the best rules to follow anywhere. To this end I have drawn up a quick list (which follows) to use when checking into the house.
Each house we have rented has been stocked differently. Each host has treated us differently. In Ireland we were provided with a roast chicken for our dinner. In Italy it is usually a bottle of wine or olive oil. But you can't count on anything. Generally, I have found that the later in the season that you rent, the better stocked the house is from the previous vacationers. Having the list permits me to scan the kitchen quickly, mark things off, turn on the refrigerator and dash off to the store just before it closes. We have also learned to use the big chain stores' web sites to get locations and hours so we know just how much time we have and how to get there. There are some links to stores at the end of this.
Italy and France have unique shopping areas. There are the traditional neighborhood stores on the small streets that are fine for leisurely visits after we have settled into the house. There are wonderful weekly markets.
And there are the chain stores. Some of the chains are just freestanding stores. Some are located in large retail centers that provide many services (laundry, shoe repair, tobacco, quick snacks) all clustered around the chain grocery store. At certain times (such as Saturday afternoon) these places are a bee hive of activity and the people who live in the country you are visiting just want to get on with their lives. They are zipping around like crazy in the parking lot and in the stores. This is not a place for the cranky, indecisive or ill-prepared tourist. Give them and yourselves a break. Have a snack or a glass of wine before tackling grocery shopping. Then relax and go with the flow. Don't try to park right by the front door. Park where you can easily manage to get in and back out again.
Watch the people going in to the store. Are they getting grocery carts outside? Many times carts are stored in the parking lot under a canopy in a locking method. The customer slides a 1 euro coin in the slot and the cart comes loose. This 1 euro is a deposit. You will get it back when you return the cart. (See Slow Travel's notes on Shopping at the Large Supermarkets (Italy) for more details.)
Finally the entrance of the store. Look carefully, there are well defined entrances, sometimes with turnstiles, don't just wander through any large opening you see. Natives and store security seem to get real upset if you go "in" an "out". Pay attention and watch what everyone else is doing.
Fruits and Vegetables
If the store carries clothing or a large number of household goods these are usually just as you walk through the entrance and groceries will be off to the left. If it is only a grocery store, then the first thing you will see is the produce section. This is one of my favorite parts of the store. There is so much choice and it all looks great. But I have a list and I know that I will also see great fresh produce in the small stores and street markets that I will visit later in the week.
So now I am just concentrating on produce for tonight and maybe breakfast or lunch for tomorrow. Check out the prices. In many stores a 3 or 4 digit code is next to the price. After I have picked and bagged apples, I take them to the scale, punch in the code and a price label is printed and I stick it on the bag. Self weighing and pricing is an important step. They really don't like it at the cash register if you forget to do that. (See Slow Travel's notes on Shopping at the Large Supermarkets (Italy) for more details.)
Bakery and Deli Counters
Continuing on, most stores have an in house bakery. There usually is a self-service display as well as a counter. At the counter I might need to take a number to be waited on. I take the number, but I'm ready with my choices and I'm not afraid to try the local language, point, smile and have fun. Elsewhere in the store will be another bakery aisle with goods produced by outside vendors. These products might be less expensive and might be of lesser quality. The store will also have a large prepared foods section. Again a number system to be waited on.
For me, every year the cheese counter is a welcomed site. Again take a number. Again there is another refrigerated aisle of prepackaged cheese. Definitely, less expensive. In France, on this aisle there are mini cheeses (sized for 1 or 2 bites) where I pick from an assortment for a set price. This allows for a nice sampling. There are meat and fish counters as well as cases of prepackage meat and fish.
One thing to keep in mind, when you are at one of the counters at one of the larger food chain stores during a busy time; know what you want to order in advance. The person behind the counter will get very impatient with you if keep her/him waiting because there are other customers wanting to get in and out of the store. It is not a time to use your limited language skills. Please come back at a later time when it is less busy and usually, the counterperson will take the time to assist you with your selection and purchase.
The Rest of the Store
The dairy and frozen foods aisles are usually near the meat and fish counters. Milk is not always available fresh and refrigerated as we buy it in the U.S. Many times it is aseptically packaged, in boxes sitting on a shelf. It does not need to be refrigerated until it is opened. If you want skim or low fat, check the milk fat content on the side of the package. While milk might not be in the refrigerated section, cream normally is. Cream and butter are very good in many parts of Europe. Splurge and try it.
The center aisles will have paper goods, detergent, canned goods, cereal and cookies. There usually is a large health and beauty aids section for hand soap, toothpaste and other personal needs.
Many stores also have a "typical products" section featuring local specialties such as foie gras or truffles or whatever. This is a great place to pick up gifts to take home and much less expensive than at specialty stores and tourist stops. The spice and herb aisle is also another spot for good gifts. I live in a metropolitan area and McCormick's line of salt, pepper and spices in jars with grinder tops are easily available. This is not the case in other parts of the US. My friends in North Carolina always appreciate a bottle of Herbes de Provence with a grinder top and a French label. The word moulin means grinder in French and in Italian it is macinello. My favorite brands are Ducros (French) and Drogheria & Alimentari (Italian). The grinders in Cannamela (Italian) are not strong enough and don't last.
Finally one of the best parts of the any European grocery store, the beer, wine and spirits aisle. I usually have to be taken away from this aisle. Oh, the choices, the variety, so much wine, so little time! Near this aisle will also be soft drinks, (which really are much less expensive in grocery than at the rest stops along the highways) and the bottled water aisle.
There is a lot of fun that you can have just trying different foods. Before every trip I do some research to know what the local products are. In Ireland I bought five different brands of butter and lined them up for a butter tasting. They were so good. In northern France and in Ireland hard cider is a local product. That was a fun tasting. Potato chips are really good too. There are many varieties, some cooked in lard, some in olive oil with rosemary, some flavored with ketchup. And there are some things that are hard to find. Here are some items we have had trouble finding: Ziploc bags, Splenda, bagels, distilled water, and decaffeinated tea bags.
While there is always the exchange rate to consider, I try not to be shocked by the prices. Remember everything is measured in grams and kilos, not ounces and pounds. One kilo equals 2.2 pounds. So just divide the cost per kilo in half for a rough approximation of the cost per pound.
And now for the checkouts. I have seen as many as 30 with all of them open and crowded. Look carefully, some are express lanes, 15 items or less. Watch others to see what is going on. More than likely you will have to bag your own groceries and you might have to pay for bags. Many times we take canvas bags with us for grocery shopping (as well as other duty). Sometimes it is up to you to pull out the number of bags you think you will need and plop them on the counter with your groceries.
You can pay for groceries with most credit cards. We have never had any luck cashing or using a travelers check in a grocery, even when it was issued in Euros.
At last the grocery trip is done! I always feel I need wine afterwards. But there is still the ride home and groceries to put up and a meal to cook.
Grocery Stores in France and Italy
If you find more websites for chain food stores in Italy, please email us (see contact info in footer of page).
Small Food Shops
The list above is for medium to large chain food retailers in Italy. They are not an "alimentari" which is a small grocery store (mom and pop) operation. However, some of these chain food store retailers have smaller stores depending on location but they are not to be confused with the local and neighborhood alimentari. Some of the above chain food retailers are only in specific Regions of Italy and France. A few of the above are headquartered outside of Italy or Frane, and are Pan-European or International operations in scope, e.g., Carrefour, LECLERC, Lidl, Penny Markt. (See Slow Travel's notes on Shopping in the Local Shops (Italy) for more details).
Rental House Grocery List
(Mark off anything already supplied)
Baked Goods and Snacks
Buy the ingredients you need for dinner. If you are arriving on a Saturday, you may need to get things for Sunday dinner too (many shops are closed on Sunday). Remember you have no pantry; there is no flour, spices, crumbs, cans of chicken broth.
Buy the ingredients you need for breakfast.
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