One of my all-time favourite things to do in foreign countries is to check out a local supermarket. It’s free (well, to an extent), has pretty good opening hours and is a sure-fire way of being introduced to some local delights.
It doesn’t matter where I am, but it’s generally the first thing I do in a new country. I learnt a lot about Estonia after discovering two-litre softdrink bottles of beer, got a new appreciation for Italy after being introduced to Fonzies, and pondered why on earth the Germans are keeping the EU afloat when their supermarkets are among the cheapest I’ve seen.
Anyway, yesterday I went off to my local Dutch supermarket, the Albert Heijn. To give you an idea of how much Dutchies love Albert Heijn supermarkets, they transported the first ever one to Zaanse Schans and re-assembled it. (Zaanse Schans, by the way, is sort of like a Dutch Disneyland, with windmills and people in traditional dress and so forth.)
My Albert Heijn isn’t as quaint, but it’s a pretty good introduction to Dutch culture. So, let’s start where just about every supermarket starts. At the fruit and vegetables.
Okay, so I was a teensy bit embarrassed about taking photos in my local Albert Heijn supermarket, so I used my iPhone instead. Still, I felt as if I was working for a rival supermarket or something (of which there are many, like Jumbo!).
Anyway, the Dutch go on about how environmentally friendly they are, but at the supermarket just about everything is sold pre-packaged. However, just so they can take comfort in how greenie they are, you’re then confronted with this.
These are for your plastic bottles and beer crates. You’re charged a bit extra when you buy it, only to get it refunded if you bring it back. You get a little Albert Heijn voucher as a printout which makes you feel like you’ve won something, when you haven’t at all.
OK! Time for the fish.
Ugh! Herring. I find these little guys particularly gross, but the Dutchies love them. The only thing more disgusting is the way they eat them; holding them by the tail, and lowering them into their gaping wide mouth. Horrible.
However, herring is cheap. The fish I tend to like is insanely priced…
Yep, you saw right. Eight euro for supermarket sushi. Time for some meat.
You see, the Dutch really don’t think that they’re similar to their German neighbours, but I beg to differ. If fresh wurst doesn’t grab you, you can even find them in tins.
What gets me about all the sausages and so forth isn’t their presence, but the insane number of varieties you can go for. Skin on, skin off, in liquid, dry-packed, with buns, with special sauce… the list goes on.
However, do not, under any circumstances, buy these. Trust me.
Time for dairy. Hang on, I just spied this on top of the strawberries…
It may look like tomato sauce, but it’s actually wine. And unlike in Australia, alcohol is sold freely within the Albert Heijn. It’s not even kept to its own aisle, but is suggestively positioned near possibly matching food. A work experience student must have had fun with that.
But back to the dairy. The Dutchies like to shake things up a bit, serving their yoghurt in milk cartons…
And strangely enough, they have a bit of an obsession with cheese.
That was just a warm-up. These guys take their cheese very, very seriously.
I have always been way, way too intimidated to buy my cheese by the weight. I mean, look at those things! Before coming to Europe, I never thought they were practical, I thought they were a remnant of some bygone era. But no, here they are in prime position at Albert Heijn.
Of course, you need a good wine to go with the cheese, and oh-so conveniently, the wine is just here…
Yep, and I can buy my Australian wine for less here than I would pay in Melbourne. Go figure.
Of course, if wine’s not to your liking, there’s also two aisles of beer, mostly Belgian…
But of course these guys are the main act.
Other Dutch obsessions include hagelslag…
… otherwise known as glorified hundreds and thousands. This is basically the Dutch version of Vegemite. They also love their pancakes…
And their bread. They’re European, of course.
Which basically means that there’s only one thing left. Think about it. What is more Dutch than fries and mayo? And I’ve already shown you the quarter aisle they’ve devoted to their mayo.
There are not one, not two, but four whole freezers full of fries. They’re divided into themes; shoestring, grated rosti-style, sliced German-style, and fat Dutch-style.
So what does fifteen minutes in the Albert Heijn teach you? It’s all about fries and mayo; and cheese and alcohol, basically.