In our Canarian village we are blessed with three small grocery stores. They are not very large and it can be a bit of a squash if there are more than a handful of customers in the shop at a time. Despite being surrounded by spacious, modern supermarkets in nearby large towns as well as in Las Palmas city, we have discovered, as have many villagers, that the prices in our local shops are very competitive with the larger supermarkets and usually we prefer to shop locally. There are also other benefits; for example, one shop happily delivers anything to our home, which is a boon for such items as large bottles of water and anything that is particularly heavy. They are also very reliable - items purchased are always delivered to our home later the same day and nothing seems to be too much trouble. I guess our village shops are reminiscent of village shops and post offices in the UK that have since given way to the out-of-town hypermarkets.
On one weekly shopping expedition in the village store, I patiently waited at the cheese and processed meats counter for my turn. There was an elderly Canarian woman in front of me and she seemed to be having some trouble in deciding which cheese should should buy. Eventually she stabbed her finger on the glass counter and pointed to one of large slabs, asking if she could try it. As in all the best UK delicatessens, the shop assistant nodded and cut off a generous slice and passed it over the counter on a cardboard plate for the old woman to try. Ancient, well worn fingers slowly crumbled the cheese into small pieces and I watched as she savoured each tiny piece of the creamy white cheese. The shop assistant, anxious to return to the girl on the till to continue the morning gossip, watched in silent anticipation.
Eventually, the old woman put the cardboard plate back on the counter with some satisfaction, looked inside the glass cabinet for a second time and pointed to another large slab of cheese of a different variety. Again, she asked for a sample. The shop assistant nodded and cut off another slice, this time not quite as large as the first, and handed it to the elderly woman. Again, she broke it into tiny pieces, savouring each delicious mouthful with relish before nodding and placing her plate on the counter. To my increasing disbelief, once again the old woman repeated the process of pointing to yet another slab of different cheese and, without a word, the shop assistant cut of a small piece and handed it over for the old woman to sample.
By now, there was a small queue of people patiently awaiting their turn. Most Canarians are very tolerant by nature (this tends to distinguish them from their Peninsular Spanish counterparts) and we all stood watching with some amusement as the old woman then pointed to some slices of ham. Again, a sample of ham was handed to the old woman to try. This same process was then repeated for two different varieties of olives - each time the old woman savouring each delicious mouthful with considerable enjoyment.
Eventually the old woman appeared to be satisfied. At last she smiled and pointed once again through the glass display cabinet to the first slab of cheese that she had sampled. We all heaved a sigh of considerable relief as a small chunk was cut off, weighed, and carefully wrapped in both plastic as well as tin foil and was finally handed to the old woman, who popped it into the jacket of her cardigan and wandered over to the till to pay for her purchase.
Walking home from the shop I wondered if the old woman repeated this process regularly in all three of our village shops? Certainly, the shop assistant seemed to know the routine well and I admired her uncomplaining attempts to satisfy her customer. I wonder just how accommodating the Saturday girl would be to this old woman in a Tesco's delicatessen in the UK? “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” they say, but maybe there is such a thing as a free breakfast in the Canary Islands?
© Barrie Mahoney
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198