If you ever wanted to do a study on just how human behavior buckles under the untold stress of shopping duress, I suggest you stop by the seafood section of the Corte Inglés Department Store supermarket at around 10:15 a.m. on Christmas Eve, and you should be able to gather a plethora of data to draw conclusions. If you can’t take the opportunity, I’ll sum it up for you: it’s ugly, and it dismisses any semblance of earthly dignity. But it’s sure as hell fun to watch.
Especially since I never have anything to buy there, maybe an item or two for the table, but I can always scan them at the self-service cash registers because most shoppers at the Corte Inglés possess a natural aversion for cashiers they can casually talk to as they pay. They always happen to be women. It must be store policy.
The lines build up outside the building minutes before the doors are opened, and once access to the building is legally permitted, a steady stream of humanity flows in and down the stairs to the grocery store which, the reader will surely like to know is one of the best in the city. There are scores of destinations in their minds, but the main hub centers on the aforementioned seafood section, where a queue that rivals those waiting to see 50 Shades of Grey piles up higher and higher by the second. From what I can tell, there are three major profiles: The father of the family who trails down to perform is one yearly duty because he believes he has an eye for picking the finest shellfish around and his wife, delighted that she doesn’t have to do it, encourages him eagerly by saying that she thinks he is right; the disgruntled husband who has no choice but to go if he wants to be allowed to sit at the dining table that evening; and the woman who would trust her husband in front of a stack of salmon lying on crushed ice if her life depended on it.
What is it that the Spanish crave for? Oh, just about anything from the sea is fair game, but at this time of year, it’s the shrimp department that is the hardest hit. I say “shrimp” in a very generic way, mind you, because if there is one thing you learn about Spain the minute you take an interest in how much they enjoy eating, it’s these little crustaceans which often take center stage and which are known by handful of names. In America we call them all “shrimp” and when they are a little bigger, “jumbo shrimp”. In England, they do something similar, denoting them “prawns” and the large ones get the term “king prawns”, which is appropriate for a society which has been under a monarchy for a thousand years.
The Spanish use a score of other names, much like the way they say the Eskimos employ God knows how many words for snow (the truth of this is a debate which rages to this day).
When it came to crustaceans, it would appear that size is the factor. I was originally taught “camarón” because I guess in Latin America that’s what they say in general. In Spain they use that word, but it refers to tiny shrimp so small either you use them for flavor purposes or eat them whole, shell and all. Here are some others:
- Gamba arrocera
- Gamba blanca común
- Gambas de Huelva
- Gambas de Garrucha
- Gamba roja
- Langostino tigre
I’m sure there are more. They are consumed massively on these dates. Most are purchased frozen at competitive prices, but there are those who want their shellfish to be as fresh as possible and as good as possible, and the Corte Inglés is just the place to satisfy both demands. If you are willing to put up with the two-hour wait.
One thing that the unfamiliar reader should be aware of, especially if they live in North America, it’s that they aren’t sold peeled and clean and free of all signs of previously being alive. In Spain, this detail is overlooked and the burden of removing all the unwanted parts, like heads and tails, is left up to the consumer. I have become accustomed to this, but I still have issues with people who enjoy sucking the insides out of the shrimp’s head. After all these years, even I have my limits.