Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hunting and Gathering - Revisited!

Over the past two years that I have been writing this Blog, one of the most popular postings was “Hunting and Gathering” in February ’09 where I described the grocery shopping process here in Loreto and identified the stores that I frequented. Well, much has happened in the two years since and I think it is high time to update the information with some of the newer stores that have opened.

That’s not to say that shopping here has changed in any fundamental way – it is still a “hunting and gathering” process which can involve visiting a number of stores to comparison shop before you find most of what may be on your list. That is because we are still served here by a number of relatively small independent, usually family owned and operated stores, and the selection (particularly of fresh fruit and vegetables) can vary from week to week and store to store.

For most North Americans the idea of going grocery shopping and NOT finding lettuce or salted butter is hard to imagine, and although that sort of problem is less common now than it was when I wrote about this two years ago, it still can happen. But before I give the wrong impression here, let me be clear when I say that compared to when I first started housekeeping here five years ago the variety, selection and quality of the food available in town has improved dramatically.

But the procedure remains much the same – to “harvest” the full range of what is available on any given day, it is necessary to visit five or six stores (at least) and therefore a trip into town can easily take a good chunk out of the day. And, that remains one of the things that reminds us that “we’re not in Kansas anymore!”, which, after all, is why most of us chose to live here in the first place. If I gaze into my crystal ball, I think I can see the day, someday, when there will be a “supermarket” here in Loreto with everything that can be hard to find now, under one roof. But, I for one, am not looking forward to that day, because then shopping will be a somewhat tedious chore as opposed to the adventure it can be now, when you come across a new store and find artichoke hearts!

I enlisted a research assistant for this week’s posting, my friend and neighbour Camille, who added her local knowledge and support, and joined me on the trip to town earlier this week. Incidentally, for the edification of those of you up north who have been suffering, so far, through one of the nastier winter’s in recent memory, the day we went shopping was one of the coldest I have ever experienced here in Loreto – with a high of only 55 deg. and an overnight low close to freezing! These “extreme” temperatures were accompanied by very strong winds which kicked up a dust storm that blanketed the area and proved that wind chill is a concept that is not limited to the Snow Belt! Before any of you get the wrong idea and start feeling sorry for us down here, I am pleased to report that as I write this on the weekend the clear blue skies have returned along with gentle breezes and a comfortable “winter” temperature in the mid-70’s – so I think we will survive!

Although I intended to focus on “new” additions to the shopping selection in Loreto, our first stop on Juarez was at Dali Delikatesan, which I wrote about in the previous posting two years ago. At that time Beatriz and her husband Jose Luis had just relocated to a new larger store. Over the past two years they have steadily grown and added more products to their selection including the opening of a wine “cava” with a wide selection of fine wines that are not available elsewhere in town. Space does not permit a detailed inventory of this store, but they continue to specialize in a wide selection of frozen meats including delicacies like New Zealand lamb, a variety of cheeses and dairy as well as a growing assortment of ingredients that make gourmet chefs smile. In fact, it is not uncommon to see local restaurant owners shopping here.

Our next stop was nearby and an important addition to the foodie scene in Loreto. Pan Oli is a new Euro-style Bakery that has opened strategically two doors away from Dali. The charming front of the store has a refrigerated glass display case of pastries and cakes next to the sales counter and on the adjoining wall there are shelves stocked with a variety of breads, and buns that vary depending on the time and day of your visit. But usually you can find long skinny baguettes, chibata buns, boillos, focasia and sweet rolls sometimes including cinnamon buns (one of my favourites). This store has filled a void for many of us who have been craving baking “like home” and the young Mexican couple running it are a welcome addition to our community. My only complaint is that often when I have dropped in they have been almost sold out of most of their specialties, but I guess that is just another sign of success.

Speaking of baked goods our next destination was a couple of blocks further down the street was not technically a food store, although some people may consider their product one of the major food groups – doughnuts! Yes, Loreto now has a doughnut store located next door to Promaza, one of two tortillarias across the street from each other on Juarez. Although this small franchise operation has been in operation for over a year now it still counts as a “hidden treasure” as many people I know had no idea that it is even possible to get an Old Fashion Glazed anywhere near Loreto! Part of the reason this enterprise has stayed below the radar for so many people is that they don’t actually have any signage to advertize outside the store. The closest they come is a poster in Spanish for a specialty coffee stuck up in one window. After going through an iron gate on the sidewalk you enter into a small crowded serving area with a 3 foot wide display cabinet of doughnuts and muffins – maybe. Because this is another enterprise that apparently doesn’t believe in inventory. In fact, when I wanted to have donuts for an event last year I had to call and order 2 dozen for the next morning – and when I went to pick them up they only had a dozen left at 8:30 in the morning!

One of our main objectives for this trip was our next destination – the Green Grocery – which has assumed mythical properties since it opened some time ago. I say mythical because, prior to exposing it in this Blog, I had only been taken to this store once before by a return customer and so far had been unable to find it again. My investigative shopping partner Camille, had had a similar experience and so, between the two of us, we were determined to find it once and for all and so reveal it to the world! The proper name of the store is actually Mercabastos Raygoza, but for the first few months of operation there was no name on the store at all. However, the fluorescent lime green exterior paint job was, to say the least, noteworthy and hence came the familiar name – Green Grocery, which is how most people I know identify it (if they are in the know).

I am not going to try to describe the location near the corner of Missionaros and Preparatorio, but before you start to write me a nasty email about holding out on you, I am including a special feature in today’s Blog – a MAP! Don’t look now, but at the bottom of this posting you will find a scanned image of a map of most of the town of Loreto that was the work of Harry Morgan and that I copied from the locally produced “Gringo” phone book (many thanks and credit where credit is due). But suffice to say, it is in an obscure location, far away from any other stores, which has contributed to it’s mysterious appeal and reputation.

As one enters through the narrow front door you are immediately beside the single cashier counter, around the corner from which is a large, impeccably clean meat cooler display with a wider variety of fresh product than I have seen elsewhere in town, including (according to a poster on display) fresh carne asada a particularly delicious marinated skirt steak that is a favourite of mine. From this meat counter, running lengthwise down the store are four aisles of packaged foods with tidy, well organized and fully stocked shelves, again, space does not permit any attempt to detail what is on offer, but I would sum up the selection as better than average, for everyday staples, but exceptional for the variety of specialty foods ingredients, and condiments etc.

But wait – there’s more! At the back of the store is a wide arch closed off with a clear, heavy vinyl “fringe” drape separating a refrigerated produce room about ¼ the size of the rest of the store with the largest and best selection of fruit and vegetables in town, well displayed, carefully organized and - dare I say it about vegetables – EXCITING! To sum this up I will give you just one example, for the first time in my experience here in Loreto I found broccoli crowns - stored on chipped ice – and it was not even hot outside!

After both Camille and I stocked up on things we didn’t even know we needed it was time to head back home to Loreto Bay – anything else after the Green Grocery would be an anticlimax. But I did have to make one more stop, which will be the last entry in this shopper’s tour of Loreto 2011. I needed to get some gas for Denny, my SUV. Now there are three Pemex stations in the town of Loreto; one each on Salvatierra and Juarez (the main “drags” toward the Malacon and the shoreline) and a third at the corner of Padre Kino and Independencia, north of “downtown” Loreto, well off the beaten track, so to speak.

However, of these three stations (remember, gasoline is a monopoly here in Mexico and all stations are under the Government owned Pemex brand) only this third (and newest) one is ever busy. You may well wonder why, in a town of over 12,000 people, and plenty of cars and trucks, would one station, in the least convenient location, be the only one with a steady line up of customers. Bearing in mind, that the Government sets the price of gas (currently about 85 pesos per litre, or about 70 cents US – it’s not just beer that’s cheap down here) so it is not because of any discounted prices, quite the opposite.

Now I will be cautious here, as I don’t want to be accused of slander, but suffice to say, when I USED to buy gas at the other stations, before this one opened several years ago, I was occasionally surprised, when I filled up a near empty tank, that my familiar 90ish litre tank sometimes held slightly more than 100 litres. Curious, but not something I thought about, other than fleetingly as I paid the bill. However, since I have become a loyal customer of the Third Pemex (or as I now call it, the Good Pemex) my fuel tank seems to have magically returned to it’s traditional capacity of a maximum of 90 litres.

Now far be it from me to imply anything nefarious about the weights and measures of the other two stations (which are owned by the same franchisee), but I am convinced it is no coincidence that virtually ALL of the local Loretanos only buy their gas at this one station (hence the permanent line ups) and typically you usually see mainly Motorhomes and other out-of-town travellers buying their gas at the other two stations.

With our Hunting and Gathering complete for another week, Camille and I headed back to Loreto Bay and unloaded our treasures after our successful expedition. Where else does a grocery shopping trip take on the dimensions of entertainment? But, then again, knowing where to find broccoli on ice and fair measure gasoline that too is part of “Living Loreto”!