Europe feels pinch as Spain’s vegetable fields suffer

Vegetable lovers across Europe have been making hard choices this winter after storms battered fields in southeast Spain, the continent's main fruit and vegetable patch.

Europe feels pinch as Spain's vegetable fields suffer

Courgette prices are soaring, but shoppers are also thinking twice before shelling out for pricier tomatoes, peppers and aubergines.   

Some British supermarkets have even resorted to rationing sales of broccoli and lettuce in light of plummeting harvests.   

The vast fields along Spain's Mediterranean coast usually stay warm enough to produce year-round, even in winter.   

But torrential rains hit the region late December, followed by shock snowfalls in January – areas near Murcia, in the heart of the farming zones, had not seen a snowflake in 34 years.

For most of the year, Spain supplies around 30 percent of the main fresh fruits and vegetables on European shelves. In winter, this proportion rises to half – and to a whopping 80 percent when it comes to lettuce.

After the bad weather hit, a Spanish federation of agricultural exporters reported a 30-percent drop in European shipments. The COAG farmers' union says output has halved in the worst-hit regions.

Some farmers “have lost their entire crop”, said Andres Gongora, COAG'S Almeria director.

The province of Murcia, which exports two-thirds of Spanish lettuce, a trade worth €423 million ($450 million), has been particularly hit.   Young lettuces, growing in open fields after sprouting from seeds in greenhouses, were destroyed. After the foul weather receded, a thick coat of thawed mud held up replanting in many places.  

“We won't be able to plant here this year,” said Javier Soto, manager of spinach and melon growers Agrar Systems near the town of Murcian town of Torre Pacheo, pointing to a field gouged out by a muddy torrent.

Adding to the veggie crunch has been heavy snowfall in northern Italy, another major supplier to Europe.

Thousands of growers there have lost their crops, with expected losses of to around €400 million euros, according to Italy's main farmers' union.

Luxury lettuce

The double whammy is now being felt in European stores.

Lettuce prices have doubled in Germany, and even tripled in Finland. In France, courgettes fetched four to five times their normal price in mid-January.

Spanish supplies of iceberg, romaine and other types of lettuce had already been hit by a dry autumn, and artichoke harvests had fallen by a fourth.    

Many shoppers have vented their anger on social media, using hashtags like #lettucecrisis and #courgettecrisis.  

Laureano Montesinos, a marketing director at Fruveg, a producer near Murcia, said British supermarket chains had not immediately grasped how dire the situation was.

In Germany and northern Europe, produce stalls are not as packed as usual, but stores have managed to avoid drastic measures.  

“We've had some supply problems with iceberg lettuce these past weeks. But until now, we've been able to offer enough for our clients”, said Kirsten Gess, communications director for the Aldi-Sud discount chain.

Spain's agriculture minister expects production to recover in a few weeks, with producers aiming to be back on track by early March.    

But for lettuce grown in open fields, the wait could extend into April.    

For Alan Clarke, a strategist at Scotiabank in London, the price increases could spill over into processed food products, such as veggie burgers and other ready-to-eat meals.

“More generally, restaurant prices face upside risks, especially because spring/summer menus are due for imminent update”, he added.    

So even though higher produce prices may prove short-lived once Spain's harvests recover, diners may be paying the bill for months.

By AFP's Emmanuelle Michel

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Six Barcelona bars serving delicious free tapas

The Local's Esme Fox, a long-term Barcelona resident, shares some of her favourite city bars that serve free tapas when you buy a drink.

Six Barcelona bars serving delicious free tapas

Spain is of course celebrated for its tapas, small plates of food, designed for sharing and consisting of favourites such as patatas bravas (fried potatoes topped with spicy sauce), pimientos de padrón (fried green peppers) and croquetas (croquettes of different varieties such as ham or mushrooms). 

One theory is that tapas were invented in order to cover your wine or beer glass, so that flies and other bugs wouldn’t fly in. The barman would give customers a piece of bread topped with jamón (ham) or queso (cheese) in order to act as a lid or in Spanish ‘tapa’, hence the name tapas.

Although most cities in Spain no longer serve free tapas when you buy a drink, there are still some cities where you are guaranteed a free snack. This is still true in the southern cities of Granada, Almería and Jaén, in León and Segovia, as well as a few others dotted around the country.

Despite this, you can still find the odd bar serving the old-fashioned free tapa in some of Spain’s largest and most expensive cities, including Madrid and Barcelona.

So, next time you’re in the Catalan capital, save some money by visiting one of these bars, where you’ll still get served a free tapa along with your drink.  

READ ALSO: Top ten Madrid bars serving free tapas, one for each barrio

Keep in mind, you won’t be served a free drink if you just order a coffee and sometimes not with a soft drink either, it’s usually when you buy a glass of beer or wine.

Ca’l Chusco

This small traditional bar in the old fisherman’s neighbourhood of Barceloneta offers one free tapa every time you order a drink. It’s usually something small and simple, but if you’re still hungry then you can always order one of their delicious paellas or plates or seafood too. 

This cute and contemporary little tapas joint, situated on the edge of Gracia, is so popular that it often gets very crowded, so get here early if you want a spot at the bar. It costs around €2-4 for a drink and a small tapas dish, which you can choose from a large selection. There’s everything from croquetas and hummus to small sausages.

Pappa e Citti

It’s not just authentic Spanish bars offering free tapas in Barcleona, at traditional Sardinian restaurant Pappa e Citti in the barrio of Gracia, they offer it too. Be aware that free tapas with your drink is only served between 6-9pm. Small tapas offerings may have an Italian twist or maybe something simple like a piece of bread topped with cream cheese and caramelised onions.

La Xula Taperia

In the heart of the Gracia neighbourhood, this modern and stylish bar offers the closest thing to a Granadino-style free plate of tapas. Rather than just a small piece of bread topped with an ingredient, their free offerings include meatballs, anchovies or even ensaladilla rusa (Russian potato salad).

Casa Arana

Located in the heart of the Sant Andreu neighbourhood, not far from the metro stop of the same name, Casa Arana is a small local barrio bar. As well as the regular drinks on offer, they make their own beer in either tostada (toasted) or rubia (pale) varieties, which is served in a tall glass and looks like an ice cream sundae. The free tapa served with your drink is typically a piece of baguette topped with a simple ingredient such as jamón, chistorra (cured sausage) or cheese.

Cassette Bar

This tapas and cocktail bar located in the heart of Raval has a decidedly 80s themed vibe and name to match. They have been serving free tapas for the past 14 years – something typical like piece of bread and tomato topped with a slice of tortilla (Spanish omelette).