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Walking through the supermarket with my camera, I surreptitiously managed to take several shots. I say surreptitiously because management definitely would not approve. If you’ve read much of this blog before, you already know that most businesses here in Ecuador are highly protective of their information, and that includes pricing and products. Anyone seen gathering such information purposely would be highly suspicious…why, I don’t know. Do you?
One food handling practice that constantly pokes me in the eye is the eggs. Eggs are not refrigerated in Ecuador-not ever, not anywhere.
Even on the coast, where temperatures average in the 80s and 90s, you’ll find eggs on the supermarket shelf without cooling, eggs in the local store, eggs in the corner market, all just sitting out. And even if you buy eggs from the big producers, who do run egg farms, they still stamp them with dates that are 30 days out! Incredible, and I say it doesn’t work. I often get eggs which have 30 days on the “use by” label, and upon cracking them, the yolks immediately break, a sure sign of an egg which is not fresh.
Wines (and liquors) are expensive here and became extremely expensive a few months back, when Correa, Ecuador’s president, implemented some draconian import duties on most everything to save the country from running out of hard currency-the dollar, that is. Ecuador was importing far more goods than it was exporting, and so of course the dollars to pay for those imports were leaving the country faster than they were coming in. Once we put this crisis behind us, duties may come down again and some items might, just might, approach reasonable again.
On the other hand, bananas are cheap, and I mean so cheap, they’re almost giving them away. As the world’s largest exporter of bananas, it should be that way.
And these are high end bananas-you can find them cheaper elsewhere. You can buy pineapples on the roadside for as little as 3 for $1, sometimes less in the growing zones. You’ll see bananas, the defective ones, sometimes piled high in the back of a truck or on the side of the road-they’re used to feed the cows. However, these are not the Cavendish variety that are exported.
Of course, most of the time the bananas you find are not the blemish-free, spotless, even-colored ones we are accustomed to in the US. All the perfect ones get shipped abroad. I wasn’t able to confirm the current price for the 43 pound box of bananas that are the standard for shipping to the US and Europe, of the Cavendish variety, but it seems to be around $5.25 a box, and was recently as high as $11-$12 due to heavy rains in other parts of the world that decimated banana crops.
Plenty of chocolate fills the supermarket shelves, but not a whole lot of it is world-class, nor is much of it consumed here. Caoni has now taken up the majority of shelf-space in the chocolates section, next to Nestle, a few other mass market imports, and other sweets. Caoni has first-class packaging that belies what is to be found inside. It’s produced by Tulicorp, a local processor of cacao based in Guayaquil. Hearsay has it that one of the main investors behind it is Pronaca, Ecuador’s largest poultry, pork, and general mass food processor.
The rest of the mass market chocolates are either locally produced or imported from Colombia, and most contain vegetable fats and hydrogenated oils but no real cocoa butter. As far as appreciation for chocolate goes, most Ecuadorians think chocolate is chocolate. Per cents mean nothing to most consumers, and where it comes from-who cares? As long as it comes in a pretty package, is cheap, and there’s a good amount, most local consumers are happy.
While there is still plenty of basic home cooking going on and the pace of life is much slower here than in the so-called industrialized world, Ecuadorians love their instant soup mixes too. And soup, being part of the daily lunchtime ritual, is a highly popular item. Nestle again dominates the market here, under its Maggi brand of soups and condiments.
Finally, Ecuadorians are very big on cheese and dairy items. Locally made cheeses are abundant and the most popular kinds are fresh cheeses which keep only a few days after being opened and cannot be aged. There is also a Swiss contingent that has been here for decades, that produces a decent Gruyere, among other cheeses. Variety is thin, not the hundreds of regional cheeses like those found in France; there are no more than a dozen or so different types. Imported cheeses are costly as import duties are in place to protect local industry. Almost all dairy products here, especially the fresh ones, have a rich, deep flavor-probably because all the cattle here is free-roaming and grass-fed.
Cream and milk is most commonly purchased in UHT boxes; Nestle also seems to have major control over this sector. Fresh milk and cream can be spotty in quality; because Ecuador’s dairy cattle are almost purely grass fed, flavor and fat content tend to vary depending on the time of year. Also, fresh products are not homogenized so you often get fat separation.