HAZLET –Is there any good reason to cheat on your regular supermarket to shop at Lidl or Aldi? The aisles require thinking and you can’t count on anyone bagging your groceries. Besides, cravings for the exotic can be satisfied by a hop to any of the organic, gourmet or ethnic markets around town or by clicking “Buy Now” for home delivery.
To get to know the German twins in town, I recruited someone I thought might know more than we do. I invited Dorothea Drew, 49, the managing director of the German Language School of Holmdel, to go shopping with me. She lives in Middletown with her family and returns home to Frankfurt every summer. A regular at Whole Foods and Costco, she pops in Lidl and Aldi for what she says it does best: baked bread and German specialties.
“You get a good value here, that’s for sure,” she said on our tour in late October. “You don’t always get German products all the time, but you find some of them most of the time.”
LIDL – 2973 Route 35 North, Hazlet
We met at Lidl during the Alpine Fest promotion. The store was a little empty, like at ShopRite at 6:30 a.m. As I waited for Dorothea to arrive, I realized my first impression of Lidl is that Lidl loves me because it greets me with the hot baguettes and chocolate croissants. Also, the shopping carts are very slippery and fun to maneuver. Most everything is presented on the shelf in the carton it shipped in, which looks a little lazy to anyone who’s ever worked retail. There are bright signs everywhere touting low prices and high quality.
Dorothea arrived and wasted no time leading me to her go-to items. German Sourdough bread ($3.99), which she declared authentic, is her favorite thing in the store “We love our crust. We don’t cut it off,” she explained. She demonstrated how to use the adjustable bread slicer, a rumbling, mechanical entertainment.
At the refrigerated case Dorothea reached for a package of white, uncured German bratwurst, ($3.99/12 ounces), which she browns in a pan or grills and serves with roasted potatoes and red cabbage. “We like the Franconian bratwurst, not the ones with cheddar and cheese and all these kind of funny things,” she said. Franconian refers to the northern region of Bavaria.
If you are in a Christmas cookie exchange and somehow nobody jumped on the gingerbread category, Lidl has you covered. In the seasonal aisle you will find Lidl’s house brand, Favorina, which Dorothea likes. She picked out the big, fat Lebkuchen gingerbread cookies glazed with chocolate in the display box. There are versions with or without nuts.
Another must-have for Dorothea is a bag of stamped Speculoos Cookies ($1.99), spiced shortbread with cinnamon and a kick of clove, traditionally sold at Christmastime. “They are so good, they are amazing,” she said, explaining how has to keep supplying them to her sons’ high school fencing team. Dorothea also swooned over the Marzipan Log with hazelnut nougat ($2.49), a holiday favorite. The sugar-coated roasted almonds are standard fare at any German festival.
The frozen cakes beckoned to be taken home from their chilly prison. A cream cake with almonds is available year-round ($6.99). “It’s kind of like a sponge, and a vanilla cream in between. On top is almond, sugar, caramel. We love it,” she declared. The Plum Crumb Cake ($4.49) also available with apple, which she thaws and then crisps in the oven. “That is typical German,” she said.
Nearby, she couldn’t resist hugging an old friend, the folded Leifheit outdoor clothes rack. Electricity is expensive in Europe, and not everyone uses a clothes dryer, she explained. You get attached to your racks. “Honestly, the first 15 years I was here I was dreaming of this,” she said, admiring its aluminum construction.
ALDI – 3020 Route 35, Hazlet
Who remembers the coin-operated kiddie rides outside the old Kmart? Well now you put in a quarter and all you get is a shopping cart.
We took our clattering cart into Aldi, which feels a little less fun than Lidl. It’s darker and there was no music playing, just the sound of beeping supermarket scanners and the hum of HVAC. Banners proclaiming “Red Hot Deals” were hung from the ceiling. Again, lots of boxed items, in boxes.
The German week promotion had ended the week before and there were fewer specialties for us to discover. “It’s not as culturally rich, but there are great bargains here,” Dorothea said.
Instead of a fresh bread section, Lidl offers an extensive fresh produce section. Dorothea recommended the Simply Nature lettuce spring mix ($4.19/16 ounce), because it seems to last forever. She also grabbed the French Brioche hot dog rolls ($2.49) and raved about how inexpensive canned tomatoes, beans and vegetables are. Her kids stock up here for food drives, because every can counts towards a goal and the cans are cheap.
We found evidence of Germanic heritage among the soups. In the Deutsche Kuche line, you could buy German Bean, Harvest Potato, Pea and Vegetable Soups ($1.99/28 ounce can.)
“This is the chocolate I grew up with,” said Dorothea, holding a Choceur dark hazelnut bar ($2.27). There is also the Shogetten brand of Alpine milk chocolate with hazelnuts ($1.39) and Knoppers milk hazelnut wafers. Taste test, anyone?
Haribo Gummi Bears (.99/5 ounces) were cheap. I know, because I just got talked into buying the same package at Bed Bath & Beyond checkout line for three times the price. Dorothea is a label reader, and scanned the package ingredients. “If you get them in Germany they actually use fruit juice for flavoring,” she said.
She looks for the Deutsche Kuche specialties and when she finds them, she hoards them in her home freezer, like the strawberry cream cake ($6.99) and imported strudels ($2.49). The Bavarian soft pretzels or pretzel sticks are also nice to have, she said ($3.49). When she finds mini Stollen fruit cakes, she gives them out to all her friends. Fruit cake sharing is a tradition in my family too, but that is because nobody actually eats it.
Like at Lidl, there are non-food items. Ten years ago, Dorothea bought a cast iron pan from Aldi, and recently it cracked. She paused to look at the huge, heavy Crofton cast iron grill pan ($16.99). “At Le Creuset, it would cost $200” she said, hoisting it into her cart. “It’s just so much cheaper here.” She recommends checking out Aldi for Christmas present ideas. I just looked in this week’s circular and saw a set of Crofton electric salt and pepper mills ($12.99) suede slippers ($12.99) and a net bag of chocolate coins ($1.99) – if that helps you out.
At neither store did we happen upon alcohol, as you will in Germany, a country that appreciates efficiency. Nor Spaetzle, the chewy German noodle which you can find at nearly every American supermarket in the pasta aisle. “In a way it’s a little disappointing,” Dorothea said. It’s usually featured at Lidl and Aldi during German food promotions twice a year. Stop & Shop may have it for $4, she said, “But here you can get it for $1.50. When they have it.”