Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Strange Obsession with Grocery Stores

I’ve already discussed at length the sorry state of grocery stores in Norway you have all probably heard my squeals of joy to find Asian grocery stores stocked full of things I had assumed I would not find in Norway. But those were just the Asian stores. It doesn’t account for the fact that I can’t easily get chocolate chips, extracts, zip lock baggies, or anything in more than one brand. Variety, in about 97% of the stores near us, is a pipe dream. A French friend of mine in Norway tells it like this:

“You go to ze store and you want to buy zomesing and zhere eez only 2 brands, so you say do I buy zhees one or do I buy – Oh, merde! I guess I buy zhees one because zhat one eez sold out.”

Really, I’m not making fun of his French accent – it’s super charming, especially when he is telling the story. And it is so true. Mostly, I thank my lucky stars if I can find the item that I seek. I gave up on variety months ago. And then, when I thought variety and quality didn’t exist, I found 2 stores that restored my faith.

Centra , located in Majorstuen
This store reminds me of the gourmet grocery stores I used to go to in Southern California. It’s larger than most grocery stores but what sets this one apart is the quality and variety of the products that stock their shelves. Their meats were fresh and there were multiple cuts of multiple meats. The seafood looked fresh and copious just like their fruits and vegetables. They had gourmet crackers to pair with their wide variety of gourmet cheeses. Centra also had so many different types of jams, or syltetøy, to choose from. Their breads were artisan and laid out so prettily in wicker baskets. The best? I found chocolate chips in the big bag and not for an obscene amount of money. I never thought I’d be so grateful to see a bag of Hershey’s chocolate chips.

ICA Maxi, located in Skøyen
We found this little gem tucked away in an office and shopping park JUST ACROSS THE STREET FROM MY OFFICE. I could not believe a grocery store of this size was so close to the office where I spend the bulk of my time. I was not expecting all too much when we walked into this ICA Maxi. ICA is a grocery store chain that has small stores all over Norway. We have a “gourmet” ICA up the street from us but even they have been known to run short on items like eggs (no joke) so my expectations were cautiously optimistic at best. The sign over the door was modest but when those glass doors slid open, it was like being transported to a new world. It wasn’t gourmet, but it was larger than I thought I’d ever find near Oslo’s city center. This place was enormous. They had more variety of the everyday items you would normally expect to find in a grocery store and they were fully stocked. They even had pallets of food and drink to ensure they could feed the masses. Moreover, because this store had the space, they could focus on merchandising so that my shopping experience was pleasant. It didn’t help me in this trip because I stood for about 5 minutes in the middle of one of the aisles with my mouth agape. Due to the sensory overload, I could only manage to pull my little shopping basket around the store and stare. I will definitely be back.
Why my obsession with grocery stores? Well I have a lot of reasons. Firstly, I don’t grow my own products so I am heavily reliant on the quality of the produce and products available at the grocery store. But that’s the obvious reason. I also like to study grocery stores. It speaks a lot about the food culture of the city and its inhabitants. French grocery stores have a huge aisle dedicated to cheese and are generally large. There is great appreciation of food from all around the world and emphasis on variety and freshness. American grocery stores are heavily merchandised with a huge variety of goods. Emphasis is placed on convenience and marketed towards the busy American who is looking for something quick but still homemade, and more recently healthy. Norwegian grocery stores tend to be small, ill stocked and crowded. The bulk of the items at most small stores are foods that can be rehydrated, rewarmed, or brought back to life from the freezer. The emphasis is on food that is quick and filling if not tasty and fresh. But all of these are generalizations, of course. There are exceptions to the rule. The two grocery stores listed above are two examples that contradict my observation. There’s hope for me yet!

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