07 February 2009

Supermarket shopping in France

We had to go to Montrichard (10 miles west) yesterday morning for a meeting with the health insurance people — they are still studying our situation and trying to figure out how to classify us. It's a long story.

While we were there, we stopped in the Friday morning market and bought some oysters. I've been wanting to make Oysters Rockefeller for a while now, and today is the day. More about that later. The outdoor market is always interesting, and yesterday morning it was sunny and not cold outside. We waited 10 or 15 minutes in line to buy our two dozen oysters because the fishmonger had to clean, scale, and cut up fish for several customers in line ahead of us. He was a one-man operation.

Then we drove up to Contres (10 miles north), to check out the new Intermarché supermarket they've built up there. From the road, it looks a lot bigger and more modern than our local Intermarché store. Once inside, we realized that while it might be bigger, it's no more interesting or well-stocked than our local store or the Saint-Aignan SuperU market (my current favorite).

Last night I read an article about supermarket shopping on Rosa's Edible Adventures blog. Here's a link. It's interesting. In my experience, supermarkets are not just the future of French shopping but also the present and a good part of the past.

Some of my earliest memories of France — Aix-en-Provence 40 years ago! — have to do with a big supermarket there where I quickly learned that you had to be very aggressive about your place in the checkout line and not let little old women push ahead of you as if they owned the place and you were an intruder, or invisible.

There is a widely held romantic myth that French people shop mostly in little specialty stores and at outdoor markets, and that they shop daily. That's just not true, at least not any more and not outside the big cities. Only in big cities where people get around on foot and public transit rather than by car is daily shopping even remotely the rule rather than the exception, in my experience.

I remember going out toward Fontainebleau to visit friends around 1980. I lived at Les Halles in the center of Paris back then. And I did shop daily, in fact, at least for bread and often much more. I had a tiny refrigerator, no freezer, and no storage space in my little apartment. Out near Fontainebleau, the far Paris suburbs, I saw a different reality.

My friends lived a kilometer or two from a gigantic Carrefour supermarket. There I was surprised to see young families with children piling one or even two grocery carts full of food products, drinks, and even clothes and hardware. They then pushed it all out to their cars, which they proceeded to load down with more stuff that I had ever seen American shoppers load into cars. (Maybe it's because the cars were smaller that they looked so packed).

So this is how French people live and shop, I thought. It's a different world.

Here in Saint-Aignan in 2009, there are three full-size and three slightly smaller supermarkets within, say, 3 miles of our house. The parking lots are often full. Some of these supermarkets get a limited amount foot traffic, I'm sure, but two of them you can really only get to by car. There are fewer and fewer small specialty shops around, though some survive.

In fact, the two charcuteries that we had in Saint-Aignan have closed down since last October. There are still two butcher shops that sell some pork products, but they don't do the kind of prepared dishes, pâtés, and deli-style foods that the charcuteries used to sell. There are no cheese shops. There are no produce shops, no little stores that sell fish and seafood. For cheese, produce, and fish, your best bet is a supermarket.

Unless you can wait for the the weekly outdoor market. Or drive to a neighboring town for its market day. But the fact is, on winter days like today, when we are supposed to have snow again or at least a mix of snow and very cold rain, going to the outdoor market is not the kind of idyllic experience we might have in our American imaginations.

It's a lot more pleasant to drive to the supermarket and shop inside, where it is slightly heated and you're protected from the rain. Outdoor markets are great on nice sunny days when it's not freezing cold. They are great in summertime — picturesque and appetizing.

There is no qualitative difference, believe me, between the food you get at the supermarkets vs. what you get in specialty shops and outdoor markets. That doesn't mean you might not have special relationships with the smaller merchants and market vendors and get better products from them — if you develop those relationships.

It also doesn't mean you might not end up buying a lot of junk food and processed food at the supermarket. You wouldn't find those products in a small shop or at the farmers' market. You just have to be selective and buy good fresh or frozen food, wherever you find it.

And you might always prefer certain products that you get from a specific small shop or market vendor compared to what you find at SuperU or Champion. But the supermarkets have great produce sections where you can handle and choose the lettuce or apples that appeal to you. They have excellent deli, cheese, fish, and butcher counters. Prices are often lower, but not consistently.

An AOC cheese or AOC sausage is what it is whether you buy it at the supermarket or at the outdoor market. Most produce is too. Probably 90% of the produce at both the outdoor market and the supermarket comes from the same distribution centers and wholesale markets. That was the conclusion of a study of the food distribution system financed by the French government a few years ago.

You still can find local farmers and cheesemakers — for example, the mushroom lady at Saint-Aignan on Saturday mornings — selling products at the outdoor market, so the trip is worth it. Encouraging them to keep selling by buying their products, when the products are excellent, is a good idea. But you still need to go to the supermarket for most of your shopping.


  1. Hi Ken,
    It's a pity that all these village shops are closing down. Until 18 months ago there was only one baker left in our village of + 10.000 inhabitans, where there used to be 4 when I was a little girl. But we were lucky, in August 2007 a young baker modernised one of the closed down stores. He has been running it ever since. He spent two years in France to learn how to make real 'artisan' bread ... and his 'spelt' (épaûtre) bread is to die for ...

    Next door to the bakery is one of our two local butchers. Over the years we've become good friends, and he always gives/sells me the best and finest cut when it comes to roastbeef or steak :-)!

    The fishmonger closed down 35 years ago and the only fresh fish you can get these days is on Thursday morning at the outdoor market. Our GB supermarket (part of the Carrefour chain) also sells fish, but it is prepacked and I don't really 'trust' it! Martine

  2. Ken, you really are at heart a blend of sociologist, economist, anthropologist, and historian. I love these entries.

  3. In your last entry you said there was little to chose from in the lettuce catagory with the exception of chickory (which I love and my husband detests!)because that is what is in season. So if you are shopping at Super Marches do they not import foods? I'm sure you remember here in the States at Supermarkets we get strawberries in December and countless choices of lettuce year round.

    This makes me sad that the small shops are closing and the french are caving in to the big box concept. There is a movement here in the states to buying more locally grown foods what with all the problems of samonella and ecoli scares from the large producers. It's going to be hard as a national movement because we are so used to getting every type of foodstuffs when they aren't locally in season not to mention the loss of regional farmers. The locally grown foods is also what makes each region's dishes unique. If France goes to buying in large supermarches they can say good bye to their national pride of having over 300 different cheese to choose from and they will be buying the same Brie I buy here in the midwest. YUK

    Be on the look out for the Wal Mart executives looking to put a Super Wal Mart in your town!

  4. The supermarkets all have a well stocked local produce section.

    With regard to fruit and vege, I always prefer to buy from my local producer at the market, as the same product will be days older in the supermarket. The supermarket serves to fill in the gaps, with fruit and vege that is not produced locally enough to be sold at the market.

  5. Hey there, Linda Hanselman... you don't by any chance know Deane and Dave, also of Edwardsville? I'm from St. Louis, and they're good friends of ours -- just thought I'd give it a shot since you're in Edwardsville!

    Ken, I always knew that Paris was a couple of years or so ahead of the U.S. (and especially the Midwest) in fashion, but my impression was that, when it came to societal changes, the U.S. was about a decade or two ahead in their changes [the changes not necessarily being a good thing]-- I'm thinking of things like TV (the move to tons of channels and cable ruling all came about 10-15 years earlier in the U.S.) and food shopping (I think that the U.S. still had some neighborhood food shops back in the 60s and 70s, but just about nothing left of that in the early 80s, when it was still part of Paris life. Also, the super duper huge grocery stores came about in the U.S. a good bit earlier than in France, I'd say.

    One thing I noticed: those thin plastic bags at grocery stores were in France already in '81 and I had NEVER seen anything like them in the U.S. at that time.

    Just my 2Cents!


  6. to Seine
    I don't think I know Deane and Dave? I've been here many years so I may know them and just can't place them without a last name. You could email me their last name if you would like. My email is on my profile


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