I’ve previously expounded upon my love for farmers’ markets in general and the Canberra one in particular, but, given my lack of a car and the market’s limited opening times (three hours every Saturday), there’s not much possibility that it can be my main source of food. For everyday supplies, I rely on my local supermarket. It’s probably the place I’ve spent the most time besides my apartment since arriving in Canberra (including one memorable day during our first week here when I went three times), and I’m becoming very familiar with its little quirks.
I almost always enjoy grocery shopping, and try to visit supermarkets even when (or especially when) I’m a tourist. I’m perennially interested in what other people are eating, and supermarkets are a great window into other people’s food culture—and culture generally. And I’m not just talking about snooping in other people’s baskets (as much fun as that is), but about what’s on the shelves and how the place runs. Since I’m still more of a newcomer than an old-timer here, I’m still noticing things that distinguish my Canberra supermarket from its Boston and Oxford counterparts.
Interesting things I’ve noticed about my local supermarket which may or may not be true of Australian supermarkets generally
1. Fascinating new varieties of familiar items: Bonza apples, anyone? How about a nice Nashi pear?
2. New names for familiar items: we’ve already talked about how scallions/spring onions are known as shallots down here. There’s also capsicum (red pepper), the supersized silverbeet (a giant variety of chard), and the misleading pumpkin (which seems to apply to any kind of winter squash).
3. Produce items I’ve never seen in any supermarket before anywhere, or maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough, and am not sure what to do with: fresh lychees, “drinking” coconuts (which have had their hairy outsides removed and been cut into points on the top and bottom), and, just recently, persimmons.
4. Frugal practices: there’s a special rack near the entrance to the produce section where you can get packaged produce super cheap. From my past experience, I would expect this stuff to be damaged or past its sell-by date, but a lot of the stuff here is in excellent condition, just can’t hold its own in the produce bins—loose grapes, teeny zucchini, that sort of thing. They wrap it up and sell it for a buck or two. For the grapes especially, this is an amazing bargain, since we’re now moving into the time of year when grapes go above $10/kg, but preschoolers continue to hoover them up like candy. They also sell half- and quarter-cabbages, in case you don’t really need one that’s bigger than your own head, and at the butcher counter you can buy just about any portion of a chicken carcass you can put a name to, with or without meat on it.
5. An idiosyncratic selection of imported brands and items: Oreos, Special K, and maple syrup, check. HobNobs, golden syrup, and Heinz baked beans, check. Molasses, tomatillo salsa, and cranberries (other than dried): no way José.
6. Australia-centric packaged foods: including my personal favorite, ready-made pavlova bases. Because when I saw them I finally understood why the first Australian I made pavlova for in England asked me, “Wow, did you make the base yourself?”