08 May 2011

The changing landscape, part 2 — food

Saint-Aignan has changed more than our village has, but if you had been here 10 years ago and just came back today, you might not notice. The town has been prettied up slightly. For example, six or seven years ago the main street was completely dug up and then redone in paving stones instead of asphalt.

Last year, they did the same thing to the square — la place de la Paix — where the open-air market is held every Saturday morning. That job took longer than planned and the result was a mess, but now they seem to have gotten it under control. Walt and I were down there yesterday and saw that they have marked out new parking spaces and installed big planter boxes for summertime flowers.

When we came here in 2003, there were two charcuterie shops — French delicatessens — in town. Both of those have now gone out of business. One of the former charcuteries stands empty, and the other one has been converted into a shop specializing in women's lingerie. There are two butcher shops in town, still, and both of them also sell some of the hams and sausages you expect to find in a charcuterie. Oh, and there is also a boucherie chevaline — a horse meat butcher.

One little grocery store in the old town shut down several years ago, and the space it occupied has been taken over by an insurance agency. The other grocery store in town changed owners and brands a couple of years ago. It has a complete butcher and deli counter, so it fills the void left by the charcuteries that are now gone. As was the case eight years ago, there are still no cheese, produce, or seafood shops in town. Three or four years ago, an organic products — produce, honey, wines, and so on — opened up near the main square, but it went out of business after a year or two.

In 2003, there were four bread bakeries (des boulangeries) and one pastry shop (une pâtisserie) in Saint-Aignan. Now there are just three boulangeries — the other two closed down two or three years ago. All of them sell some pastries, of course, but there's no longer a specialized pâtisserie.

However, there are two Asian delis now, one on the market square and one on the main street. If you want Chinese or Thai dishes, you're in luck. These didn't exist in Saint-Aignan eight years ago. One of them took over a storefront that was a book shop until three or four years ago, when the woman who ran it was killed by a hit-and-run driver — she and her husband were walking along the main street in the village where they lived when it happened.

So there's no bookshop in Saint-Aignan. There is, however, a maison de la presse, a newsstand, where there are some books and maps on sale. There are several gift shops, and there's a little gourmet grocery store — a Hédiard outlet. There was a stationer's shop for a year or two, but it recently closed down. And a few years ago somebody opened up a laundromat. I remember there was no laudromat in Saint-Aignan when we first moved here in 2003 and needed one.

So where do people really shop? They go to the weekly open-air market on Saturdays, of course, where there is a big seafood stand and a well-stocked cheese vendor. There are two or three charcuterie stands, several produce vendors, two or three butchers (including another horse butcher), two poultry sellers, a man who specializes in escargots, and several farmers selling goat cheeses and fresh produce. There's also a Sunday morning market over in Noyers.

And then there are of course the supermarkets. In 2003, we had three full-service supermarkets within five kilometers (three miles) of our house. French supermarkets are like mini-superstores — they sell hardware, electrics including small and even large appliances, school supplies, clothes, and shoes, for example, along with groceries. They have nice butcher, deli, and cheese counters where you can buy products à la coupe — cut to order, not pre-packaged.

Two of the three supermarkets are still in business. The third, a Champion store over in central Noyers-sur-Cher (just three miles from our house), went out of business a year or two ago. The sheet metal warehouse of a building that it occupied is slated to be torn down, I've heard. There's another supermarket, Intermarché, on the western edge of Noyers. I used to go there often, but new management came in a couple of years ago and the prices went way up.

In Saint-Aignan, we have a SuperU market. It was enlarged a few years ago, and has become the best supermarket in the area, in my opinion. There's also a so-called "hard discount" market near SuperU. It's an Ed store, and I shop there too. Its prices often are not lower than SuperU's but the store carries a few products that I like and can't get elsewhere.

Another hard-discount grocery chain, Netto, opened a store in Noyers, across from Intermarché, two or three years ago, but it went out of business after a short time. Now there's a nicer Netto market over in Montrichard where I like to shop once a month or so, just for variety's sake. Montrichard is a 10-mile drive, so I don't go there very often.

Everybody has a car nowadays. Small businesses in town centers, where parking is not always easy, struggle to survive. That's not news. It's true in all the developed countries — France too. People shop in supermarkets, usually out on the edges of the towns. In our case, we even drive up to Contres, 10 miles north, or even to Blois, 25 miles north, to shop in the larger SuperU, Auchan, Leclerc, and other hypermarchés — superstores. So does everybody else, I'm sure.

This gradual evolution toward large supermarkets isn't really new. Small shops that offer exceptionally good products can attract enough customers to make a go of it. People still want their fresh bread every day, so the boulangeries, though fewer in number, seem to thrive. There are about 10 of them within 7 or 8 miles of where we live. We would buy bread in more of them if we didn't have bread brought to our door four days a week by the village baker's porteuse de pain.

The nice thing is that we still have a choice of markets and shops. Most often we buy meat at the supermarket, but on Friday we went to one of the butcher shops because we know the meats there are top-quality. We buy often by cheese at the supermarket, but when the lines aren't too long we buy it from the cheese vendor at the Saturday market in Saint-Aignan or the Sunday market in Noyers. We buy goat cheese from the farmers who make it. And we grow a lot of our own produce.


  1. I think your account on the 'changing landscape in St Aignan' is probably reflected throughout rural France.

  2. Gaynor, I'm sure you're right about that. Sometimes people have very romantic notions about French people buying fresh food every day in friendly little specialty shops in the villages and towns. That's less and less the reality.

  3. Strange how the horse meat butcher has survived whilst a charcuterie no longer exist. I am assuming that the markets and supermarket don't duplicate this speciality.

    Anyway, Saint Aignan sounds like a very appealing and thriving town despite the world wide recession.

  4. It sounds like a very good life with many possibilities, despite changes...You have chosen well!

  5. If your organic shop was like the ones here in the States where they rip you off big time for stuff that isn't even organic in the first place, I can easily understand why it's no longer in business.

  6. I have known a lot of Frenchmen over the years, and I have never known one who admitted to eating horse meat. I am really surprised to know that your little village can support two businesses of this kind.

    Who eats horse meat? Is it more expensive or cheaper? Are there horse slaughter houses in France? Are the horses purpose bred or cast off pets? Well, I guess I could research this myself. Just a curiosity.

  7. Harriett, I don't know the answers. But there are the two horse meat merchants in town, one open every day and the other at the market on weekends. I've never bought horse meat myself, but I'm sure I have eaten it. It was back in the '70s in the university restaurants in Aix and in Paris.

  8. I did a little checking. Most of the horse meat sold is imported, and a lot is or was imported from the U.S. As a matter of fact, there was a horse slaughterhouse in Dekalb, Illinois that was closed just a few years ago --cruelty charges. That place shipped almost exclusively to France.

    Well, I know that the DeKalb slaughterhouse bought old, sick and injured horses from the sale barn in Arthur, Illinois. The Amish use them up and throw them away. Now that most horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. have been closed down, people lament that they don't have any "cheap" way to dispose of their horses tht they can't otherwise sell.

    I guess if I wanted to eat horse, I would not be happy knowing I was eating old, and sick animals.


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