It’s official. We are – as the Chinese would have it – living in interesting times. Prices are skyrocketing as the peso devaluates, and products that were once affordable are now in the category of luxuries. The middle classes are complaining bitterly, and one can only imagine the effect the price rises are having on poorer families, which make up the majority of Dominican households. A visit to the supermarket or the colmado has become a depressing experience.
Although things are particularly difficult at the moment, it has not always been easy to shop in the Dominican Republic, especially if you have spent most of your life in countries where the consumer has much more power to demand minimum standards of product safety, quality, freshness and customer service.
For instance, ‘sell-by’ dates. Although more and more fresh products are now labeled with these, there are still some products – notably eggs and packaged bread – that do not have a packing date stamp or a ‘best before’ label. A couple of years ago local cheeses did not have a ‘sell-by’ date, but now I am pleased to see that most at least provide a packing date. My fear is that as people cut back on luxuries, the supermarkets will have more and more out of date products to shift, and will take advantage of the relative unsophistication of the local consumer. Products that have passed their ‘sell-by’ date are sold on the shelves without any price reduction, it appears that many supermarkets rely on the fact that some consumers are not in the habit of checking this, and in any case labeling in English is meaningless to most people.
Labeling in English is fine for me, of course, but I wonder what the vast majority of Dominicans, who speak little or no English, make of the fact that so many of the products on offer are labeled in a language they do not understand. How do they know what a product is? One example would be laundry detergent and fabric softener: unless you understand English the packaging and labeling are almost indistinguishable.
If you are have a restricted diet how do you find out whether the product you are buying contains the ingredients you are trying to avoid? What about the significant percentage of the population, which has poor reading skills or none at all? I am frequently stopped by people in supermarkets who ask me to read a label or explain something about a product. They usually say they have forgotten their reading glasses but in many cases I would guess they are simply unable to read. I was always happy to help until one fine day this method was used by a pickpocket’s accomplice to distract me. While I helped the person calculate which diapers were cheapest, her partner lifted my wallet out of my bag. Since then I am a bit more cautious. I still try to help out, but keep my bag clamped under my arm as I do so!
Another problem is erratic refrigeration. I used to buy fresh (non-UHT) milk – there is only one option available on the market here – but almost every carton I bought would go bad well before the ‘use by’ date. The last carton I bought, which still had several days to go before the sell-by date, was already off when I opened it. On a more positive note: although customer service is not consistently good, I have to say most people working in supermarkets make up for this by being far more pleasant than their European counterparts!
Dulce de Leche is the simplest of the traditional Dominican desserts. Prepare in larger quantities than just one serving and keep in the refrigerator in sealed jars. It keeps for nearly two weeks with appropriate refrigeration.
- 6 cups of whole milk
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (optional)
- Mix the milk and sugar and boil in a heavy saucepan over low heat.
- Stir regularly to prevent sticking. When it has reduced to 1 1/2 cup remove from the heat and stir until it cools to room temperature.
- Serve chilled.
Dulce de leche a la dominicana is slightly different in texture and flavor to the South American version.
To prevent overboiling and sticking you will have to stir constantly once the milk reaches a rolling boil. There will be bits of darker milk as you cook it, as long as it is not burned it is fine, it gives the dulce de leche a bit of a smoky taste.
Boil in as big a pot as poosible to prevent overboiling. Another trick is to paint the pot with butter from the rim to an inch below it.
Patience. The trick to this is patience. It might take half an hour or more to be done. If when it is cold it is thicker than drinking yogurt add a bit of milk and reheat, mixing in the milk. Remove from the heat as soon as you have incorporated the milk.
If it is too runny just boil some more.
Yes, this is insanely sweet. This is to be consumed in small portions.