What did we buy?

Charcoal or spinach?

With the luxury of an open-air farmers’ market three days a week being about a 15-minute walk from our front door, our refrigerator is typically full of a variety of fruits and vegetables that we’ll use within the next few days. Occasionally we’ll be following a recipe that either asks for something that isn’t in season or specifies a frozen ingredient. That was the case when Bill was making a quiche Florentine and the cookbook author recommended chopped spinach from the grocer’s freezer section. We could have picked up some beautiful dark green leaves at the market but then that would have involved guessing about how much to buy, then chopping and cooking it. The ready-to-go version seemed to make much more sense until we opened the package and out poured what appeared to me to be green charcoal briquettes. Bill’s impression was a little more “earthy” since they reminded him of “road apples”, especially after the horse had consumed large quantities of fresh grass.What did we buy?


Following the defrosting directions on the container, we soon discovered that our surprise package was indeed spinach and it actually tasted pretty good. The quiche that Bill made with it turned out to be great. That got me thinking about other foods that we’ve seen in the market that were different from what we were used to in supermarkets in the US. I’ve written earlier about some funny mistakes we made soon after our arrival when we bought some incredibly inexpensive hand cream that had such a cheap price because in reality it was hand soap. Then we found Thousand Island and Ranch salad dressings that were both just mustard vinaigrettes and the big bottle of BBQ sauce that turned out to be charcoal lighter fluid. Oops.

While those errors all took place at the supermarket where it’s generally self-service, at the market when you have a question, there is person, often the farmer her/himself, right there to ask. Of course we might not fully understand their answer, but at least we’ll know not to pour lighter fluid over a vegetable that we don’t recognize. One of the strangest looking vegetables we’ve seen is that green, spirally, spiky cauliflower that is officially called Romanesco or sometimes Roman cauliflower or broccoli. It looks weird but tastes great steamed.

Colorful carrots

At another vendor’s booth we saw what looked like carrots except they were every color other than orange: red, green, blue, purple. No surprise, they really were carrots and again, steamed, roasted, or even raw, turned out tasty. Displayed right next to that colorful lot were balls of black dirt. These were roasted beets that our friend Shell raves about. The classic cooking method is to dig a hole in the ground, fill it with charcoal, then the beets, cover and roast until finished. Maybe that’s where the dirt on the outside comes from? Not really, the outer peel blackens to protect the vegetable inside that becomes sweet and tender.

This story wouldn’t be complete without talking about charcoal, green or otherwise. The first time Bill poured out the contents of the bag marked “Natural charcoal” I knew there had to be a mistake. These were just bits of burned sticks as you can see in the photo below. Luckily, many successful meals later cooked above those black sticks and lots more from other bags (even ones that Sally & Larry brought us from Spain) proved that this natural charcoal worked. I wonder if we poured some of our special BBQ sauce (aka, fire starter) on our green briquettes if we could use those for cooking?

Roasted beets
Natural charcoal

5 thoughts on “What did we buy?

  1. It’s pretty easy to make mistakes like this here! Thinking that a “poule” looked good and the price was right, my husband bought a tough old stewing hen instead of a roasting chicken. He more recently bought a small roasting chicken – “poulet fermier” which, when unpackaged, turned out to have its head still inconveniently attached, but tucked under the bird. Now we know what a “farmer’s chicken” is!

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  2. I was struck by your comment ‘our refrigerator is typically full of a variety of fruits and vegetables that we’ll use within the next few days.‘ I’ve noticed when looking at the various estate agent web sites that the kitchens, if they have a fridge, it is often quite small. When watching shows like ‘House Hunters International’ the North American clients often complain that the house they are looking at doesn’t have an ‘American fridge’. I think it really illustrates the difference in shopping habits between the States (and Canada) and Europe. Here we drive for twenty minutes to the big grocery store to do our weekly shopping and fill our big fridge with everything we think we’ll need for the week. Then we hope we’ll use it before it goes bad. Sometimes our cooking decisions are based on using something which is close to the end. In most European towns and villages the proximity to shops as well as open markets makes it easy to decide in the morning ‘what are we eating today’ and walk a couple of minutes to get it. Food is always fresh and no need for a big fridge. Also, you get the enjoyment of getting out and doing some people watching. Seems a better way to me.

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  3. I must ask, what does frozen spinach look like in the States? Its always been in little block in Britain as well?


    1. Sometimes it is in 10oz rectangular boxes and others it is in a flat pack plastic pillow type bag in multiple sizes but never in compressed briquettes.


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