Monday, 23 August 2010

Colruyt: A User's Guide



I've made myself promise to stop being so dreary. It'll be a challenge, particularly when you see we're starting with a guided tour of a Belgian discount supermarket. Oh yeah.

Not only that, but I've already written about this. This is the enhanced version with PHOTOS.

You're going to thank me, honest. Stick with it.

Look, here's a trolley AND now you know how to say, "please bring me back to the trolley shelter" in two languages. I mean, that, right there, is ineffably useful in Belgium. I've lost count of the number of times I've wished someone would just take me back to the trolley shelter.



I think I might actually write that on my forehead in marker pen the next time I am unwise enough to try and go out drinking in Brussels. Just tidy me away with the other trolleys and see if you can get me to spit 50 centimes out of my mouth.

But come! Step into the magical kingdom that is Colruyt. Colruyt, regular readers will recall, is a luxuriant palace of discount joy in the Belgian style (that is, bewildering and unfriendly, but ultimately verrrry useful).

You'll need to let your eyes adjust to the gloom. They don't waste money on luxuries like lights.

Oh, I should have mentioned that the photos are terrible. I was terrified I was going to get arrested for industrial espionage. Especially around the meat counter. That shit is CLASSFIED.

Here's the entrance. You can tell, because it says 'Entrance' on it in two languages. I told you it was worth persisting with this, didn't I?



You might not be able to tell, but Colruyt nails its colours to the mast right from the entrance, as the very - and I mean very - first thing you reach on going in in giant litre bottles of cheap spirits.

The booze aisle goes on for mile after ill-lit mile. It is filled with bargains in outsized packaging. I bought lots of them.



Also, and this is very characteristic of Belgium more generally, beer has its own aisle. I don't think beer is classified as alcohol. It's more, I don't know, a refreshing health food? They have beer on the tables of the meeting rooms in my office and they sell beer in all manner of places you wouldn't expect to see alcohol. I mean, McDonalds, sure, but also, I don't know, children's fêtes, or vending machines in the airport.

(Belgians, or rather Belgians by adoption, since I imagine native Belgians do not find beer incongruous in any setting, where is the strangest place you have seen beer sold? )



If you're in Colruyt and you're buying beer, you better not be the kind of pussy who buys less than a crate at a time. That would be a bit pathetic.



Ok, brace yourselves, I'm going to tell you about meat.

The meat in Colruyt is behind a glass window, just in case anyone should get overcome with unstoppable MEAT LUST and try and shove it all into their mouths, raw.

Like this man:


Look at him. Look at the longing way he is staring at the giblets. And what giblets! They are probably the finest breadcrumbed offal pieces in the whole of Europe!

Is it only me who finds this whole, meat behind a window, thing a bit red light district? Harsh unnatural light, flesh on display? Just me then. MOVING ON.



Colruyt is widely - indeed universally -reputed to be the finest purveyor of meat in Belgium. Dioxin free! Belgians will tell you reverently.

And such meat, well. You can't just stick out your ignorant, grasping, carnivorous paw and help yourself. Oh no. You have to deserve it.

And by 'deserve it' I mean fill in a lengthy questionnaire detailing the meat you want, what you intend to do with it and your cooking qualifications. The form is filled with pornographically detailed pictures of meat in saturated technicolour. I love it.


You fill in the form and hand it in. Then you wait for your name to be called over the tannoy. Your meat may be ready, or the severe meat operatives at the counter may just wish to quiz you on your intentions.

Like this lady:




She is trying to explain why she isn't going to sear the lambs gizzards. That dude in the hairnet is giving her a very hard time about it. I doubt she'll be going home with what she ordered. He'll give her a couple of chipolatas and let her off with a stern talking to, if she's lucky. If not, lifetime ban from the window of plenty.

Onwards! Remember that if you want to try and drive that violent, unpredictable trolley, the advice I received on my last visit was to always look straight ahead of you, never to left or right. Yes, this makes shopping tricky, but just seize everything that you can reach. It'll all work out somehow. So what if you don't have a cat? You can probably barter the bags of litter for more litres of gin at the till. You'll be waiting in the queue there for all eternity anyway. Maybe it's edible?

Can you see what this is?



No, because the photo is spectacularly bad. But it's the chiller section. The chiller section of Colruyt is WALK IN. It's like something out of a bad horror film, except I don't see how you could get trapped and freeze to death in there, what with the plastic curtain. Anyway. You stay in there for as long as you can bear, collecting food. If you are an Antarctic explorer, you can probably amass enough stuff to feed your family for a week. If you are a southern European nancy used to temperate climates, you'll probably give up before you have time to pick up a packet of Herta Knacki Hot Dogs.

You can warm up by trying to lift vast packets of cornflakes.

Quick! Over to the tills before you get hypothermia!

So pretty, the tills.



There is no way of knowing where to queue.

I asked Jeremy, but he was unable to shed any light on the matter. This is Jeremy:


Jeremy is 19 but some people think he is 22. He told me this defensively when I burst out laughing when he tried to ID me buying whisky.

Peculiar Colruyt exchange:

Jeremy: Vous avez plus de 18 ans? (are you over 18)

Me: Hahahhhahaha. J'en ai 35. (Hahahhahahahahha. I am 35)

Jeremy (horrified): Non! Je n'ai pas besoin de connaître votre age! (No! I don't need to know your age!)

Jeremy takes all your shopping out of one trolley and puts it in another as he scans it. Don't ask me why, none of it makes any sense. Then he wheels the new trolley forward to the till. No, still completely incomprehensible. Then you and your NEW trolley - not the one you've spent half an hour getting to know, gaining the trust of, but a new, feral trolley with bloodlust in its heart and a half-formed plan of escape in its head - stagger into the car park. It won't end well. Look straight ahead and hope for the best. If the worst comes to the worst, jettison a couple of litres of gin to placate the metal tyrant. They probably only cost you 2p.

So there you have it. How to shop in a Belgian discount outlet. I could go back to being melancholy tomorrow if you prefer?

35 comments:

Kippaxlady said...

Fook me that's depressing. Although I have to thank you for turning my evening of irrepressible rage into one of bewilderment. I'm going to bed to dream of tortoises.

She Means Well... said...

Ah, the meat counter!
Thanks so much for reminding me why I went veggy.

hairyfarmerfamily said...

An ENTIRE chilled section? Dear God, I'd have someone's eye out with my nipples after I'd been through there, even at a brisk trot!

Much like your young self, I never thought I'd have a list of reasons why I might like living in Belgium. But I now have an item on my embryonic list: beer in meetings. Beer in meetings I could live with no problem at all.

glummymummy said...

I must say, the meat section looks very interesting. Laughed out loud at the man standing there casually, picking out his lamb for tonight's roast. :-)

the fly in the web said...

I love shopping in Colruyt...after shopping in rural France it is wonderful to go somewhere that has things I want to buy...

Never mind the Atomium or the Manekin Pis.....take me to Brussels and take me to Colruyt!

Christina @ Fashion's Most Wanted said...

That looks absolutely mental! But very funny xx

Em said...

Dear Lord. That is... peculiar on so many levels. But you have some nice delis and pastry shops on your street, right? I mean, you have OTHER places to get nutrition, don't you? Because I feel like you should be saved from something - beer on your conference table for a start! And do people ever go into the chiller and never come out? I'm concerned for your safety.

Alison Cross said...

well done, that's me laughing like a drain and it's not even 8am!

Ali x

dragondays said...

Come and visit our Colruyt in Ixelles one day, and then you will really see how the Belgians live ... I think the floor is beaten earth but as there is no lighting this is difficult to verify. I don't shop there much as I always forget to take a torch with me.
In three weeks we will be out of this mean city and living in deepest Dorset. Thanks be to the Lord!

WV fration - this must be a word used frequently in Colruyt.

Jaywalker said...

Oh DragonDays. I am still laughing at that ten minutes later. I am TOTALLY coming to your Colruyt.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this! Hilarious! I love Coloruyt but it's cousin store, Okay, even better. A tad less dreary, still the warehouse feel, but they have tons of samples...EVERYWHERE.

Anonymous said...

I preferred you melancholy. I was aiming to move into your house in September and keep you in the cellar. Now what am I going to do?

Fran

\d said...

good one , this one.. :-)

Brysselkakan said...

Haha! You made me laugh until I cried. And since I live in Brussels I also live like this! It's a crazy country...

BTW you forgot beer at the gas station and they also have stronger things!

Jessica said...

Oh lord, you have managed to *capture* the dreary so very perfectly. I'm convinced they are able to sell you things for less because they have invented a soul-sucking machine that removes a little of your spirit each time you step through the door. : /

But still, sometimes for the cheap booze we feel it's worth it.

Bart said...

You've forgotten the best reason for shopping at Colruyt: if you go there on a Saturday morning, it's a veritable walking buffet. First grab a hot nibble at the meat counter (try our unidentifiable meat soaked in orange sauce!). Better take two, 'cause the kid wants one too'.
Then it's over to the biscuits to stuff your pockets and mouth. Grab some nuts and raisins over at the dry food, before you enter the freezer. There you can feast on grapes and oranges. A bit further the cubes of cheese await you.
Leaving the freezer, walk past the beverages section towards the snacks and grab a handful of nuts or crisps (and another handful for the kid). Finally, if it's winter, stop at the soup bowl for a cup of soup. Or if you fancy a coffee - which I don't - have one for desert.

I expect sooner or later Mr. Colruyt will notice the sharp drop in daily profits in our particular shop, draw the inevitable conclusion and ban me to GB or Delhaize, but for now I'm loading more than my trolley with food.

Jaywalker said...

You're right Bart, of course, the Saturday smorgasbord. And the samples are so HUGE. Whole slices of cake! Biscuits the size of your head!

Lovely, lovely Colruyt.

om said...

I don't think I have laughed quite this hard in some time. Thank you!

From Belgium said...

You forgot the internet shopping at Colruyt. Just sign in on their website, click what you need (spend ages looking for the wine in their bigass winelist). Their friendly staff will load your shopping in pretty boxes for you and you can pick it all up at the end of your long and grueling day. Makes you feel like the queen.

Anonymous said...

I tried Colruyt once but I found it so depressing I swore I would never go again (but yes, everyone assures me that the meat counter is the best...) I tried Rob on the Boulevarde de la Woluwe to, and it has a doorman with gold braiding and lots of little old ladies in fur coats, to remind you that lots of people here have more money than you, and what are you doing here? I decided to compromise with the bank manager (apart from the fact that Rob doesn't sell what you want either) and go to Delhaize. The stangest beer related thing I've seen here was a sculpture at the Atomium made out of beercrates. Sadly, it was a couple of years ago, and I can't find a picture.

kai said...

Excellent! loved every line of your colruyt survival guide - for me path down memory lane...

Anonymous said...

Wow, Jaywalker! Colruyt AND a massive housecleaning in the week after holidays. Be careful, you might do your taxes next.

I admire your courage.

C/Kalgon

puncturedbicycle said...

I love this post. It makes me want to shop there, especially for the meat bureaucracy.

It looks and sounds like a more dimly-lit Costco, where American pensioners go to graze on the hot and cold food samples as an alternative to the more usual Early Bird Special. At lunchtime (weekdays as well as weekends) you can hardly move in the place for all the enthusiastic sample-buffet partaking.

Z said...

I'm still chuckling at Hairyfarmerfamily. I'll have to come back later to re-read properly. Or improperly.

My 9-year-old son won a bottle of whisky at the Middle School Fête. I confiscated it and returned it when he was 18. It was about the 20th bottle, I kept absent-mindedly drinking it, but he didn't know. As for beer,I've not seen it sold anywhere that struck me as strange, but the best way I have found to drink it is by having a keg in the front porch and going to fill a nightly jug.

WrathofDawn said...

You may return to melancholy if your wish, but PLEASE! more Belgian tours! Loved this! "Colruyt: The Little Shop of Ennui (and Horrors)."

wv - synting - Belgain for shopping, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

A long time follower, delurking just to congratulate you on capturing the essential essence of Colruyt. After shopping there for over 20 years, I forget how strange it is. I spend the long time in the queue trying to guess which side I have to slide my full trolley into. I know somebody who was barred from his local colruyt as he used to go on Saturdays just for the samples - he ate nothing else for the rest of day.

Fat Controller said...

I love how the French for Shopping trolley is 'Chariot' Are you never tempted to have chariot races round the car park?

The universal availability of beer is no shock to a resident of Denmark. Beer is freely available at all motorway service stations and from dinky little vending machines which may also offer anything from pastries to hard-core pornography.

Pam said...

I adore this entry ! Bravo.

SUEB0B said...

That is grim and terrifying. But now I will feel comfortable if I ever go to the discount grocery in Belgium, so thank you.

Our discount grocery - well, everything store, actually, because you can also buy mattresses and tires there - Costco - features croissants the size of bus tires (only available in packs of 12 or 24) and other only-in-America-sized items like bins of red licorice with 1000 pieces. It is ridiculous and absurd in scale, and since I live in California, I always fear I will be crushed in an earthquake when I shop there. I can see the headline "Local woman killed by a pallet of falling diapers."

Jeannie said...

I am SO glad this was a funny piece--it made my night! Gosh, now *that's* depressing, a blog making a night? Well, it did, and I'm going back to read it over again when I'm done posting this comment (lol).

Loved the lady at the meat counter being rejected for her lamb preparation! So funny.

And yes, we have those chiller sections at Costco and tasting stations. But to tell you the truth, half the time they're unmanned and the other half of the time the food isn't done cooking. And no one's mentioned the 48-roll packs of toilet paper.

J. said...

I love these photo essays! Colruyt sounds like Costco (U.S. club card discount market famous for upmarket products and union wages/excellent benefits for their workers), even down to the guy who looks like he's about to do a face-plant into the meat counter window. In Costco, he'd be waiting impatiently for the well-paid meat market staff to pack up his live lobsters while fingering a packet of $7.99 Calvin Klein dress socks and snacking on organic flax seed and berry granola samples.

J. said...

p.s. Belgium sounds like Wisconsin re: the availability of beer. You can get it anywhere, including the student unions at the universities (this is not true of any other state in the U.S., as far as I'm aware), preschool picnics, and wakes at funeral homes. There is even a tradition that between a wedding ceremony and the start of the wedding reception a few hours later, the bride's male relatives take her out for a bar crawl.

Lisa-Marie said...

So, it's like a B&Q sized Lidl? I've been in one supermarket in France where they had the big chiller section, and I refuse to go in - It was New Year and we were in Northern France, it must have been about -5, and husband's parents, who took us to stay in their (heated by only a tiny wood stove) cottage. They wandered in like it wasn't even cold!


The big crates of beer, and the though of beer at meetings pleases me though! mmmm!

Ben said...

I was also so inspired that I wrote about it. It's awesome. I love Colruyt so much....

http://www.benjarman.info/2010/10/retail-hell-retail-heaven.html

Petra H said...

I absolutely LOVE this post!! Sooo funny and sooo true! My parents were very disappointed that they couldn't pay with credit card in Colruyt, they had planned on bringing home lots of cheap wine and cheese to Sweden (but had to make do with the more expensive stuff in Carrefour).