Some say that British tourists love a booze cruise but the truth is there’s quite a lot of French life, food and culture to sample in the humblest of French supermarkets. If you’re on a self-catering holiday then you’re going to need some serious supplies. Here’s my guide to French supermarket shopping for holidaymakers.
Wine and beer
If you’re not a wine buff, the simplest trick is to subtly follow a French shopper on the wine aisle. Buy what the French are buying. Avoid the full sections on the shelf, instead take from the areas which have already had a few bottles removed. The French know what they are doing. Observe and copy!
In the beer aisle you will probably find only French lager and Belgian beer, no ales. Try out the Breton cider instead, it goes down very easily.
Don’t copy the French for this one, the TV adverts have strongly influenced French shoppers’ choices on the pre-packed cheese aisle. Big business names like President sell well because of the advertising campaigns. Instead go to the deli counter and try any free samples. If your French is good enough then ask the staff a few questions:
Avez-vous quelque chose de moins fort? = Do you have something milder?
Softer = plus doux
Harder = plus dur
More mature = plus mûr
Avez-vous un fromage bleu? – Do you have a blue cheese?
Avez-vous un fromage de lait de brebis? – sheep’s milk
Goat’s milk = lait de chèvre
When you have chosen if you ask for any less than 200 grams you will get a funny look – cheese is meant to be eaten in proper amounts!
Cheddar is rare, for grated toppings they tend to prefer Emmenthal.
Office supplies and stationery are always particularly good value in French supermarkets compared with the UK. You can get some lovely pens and good value folders, also school equipment like compasses. The only negative is that the notebooks are all squared paper to comply with requirements for French schools.
Meat and poultry … and other “meat”
Make sure you know what you are buying. Learn the vocabulary because French supermarkets sell things which you might prefer to avoid like Fois Gras and white veal, both produced with controversial methods of animal care. Also you can buy meat labelled ‘horse’, ‘cat’ and ‘dog’. Tripe is common, even in tins and in sausage (‘andouille’ is tripe sausage). The range of whole salamis in the supermarkets is quite exciting. Bacon is commonly sold in little cubes or lardons rather than slices.
Vegetables and Fruit
With the exception of Super U – my favourite French supermarket so far – we found the range of green veg was very different to the UK with only haricots verts (French beans) in the bean section, nothing from the cabbage or broccoli families at all. On our summer visits there were no sprouts, mange-tout, runner beans, kale or cauliflower. Perhaps some autumn veg would come round in season or be available regionally at different times. A more recognisable range was available at Super U but broccoli was expensive and haricots verts so cheap that one Euro buys 900g (2lb). They were delicious too! Parsnip is rarely eaten in France, although the older generation remember eating them during the war.
Your challenge with fruit in the summertime is to not buy far too much. They sell abundant crops of wonderful summerfruit by the boxload and it’s just a pity you can’t bottle it to take home.
Bread – or let them eat cake
Not long ago a rectangular sandwich with sliced bread was a rarity in France but now sliced loaves in the British style are readily available in the supermarket, some with crusts already removed as if they have been prepared with your poshest cucumber sandwiches in mind. The daily French baguette is unchanged and the routine of buying them each morning continues (they go stale after one day). If you want wholemeal then search for “complet” or “pain de campagne”. Gâche are soft, sweet loaves that look like brioche but we all hated it, it was quite different, sour and gritty.
If you’re planning a road trip through France and you cannot transport much chilled or fresh food then tinned food is an important subject. Again, Super U is my recommendation for range and variety, and along with Lidl was almost the only place with tinned vegetables. Carrefour is not bad either but Intermarche is a lot like Leclerc. In Leclerc we found that the “ready meal” aisle was all tins of pre-prepared dinners. We tried cassoulet and it was like a tin of baked beans and sausage mixed with chicken soup. Lidl alone we found did not sell fresh milk but long life milk is for sale everywhere. All tins have ring-pulls so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that our gite didn’t have a tin opener! The supermarket tinned aisle is probably the only place you will find something labelled “curry” and there is only one flavour.
Hours of shopping
Cock this one up and you will go hungry. 7-day 24-hour shopping culture has not arrived in France. The small shops shut at noon, some open again at 2pm but others not until 5pm. In the UK if supermarkets are shut we search for an all-hours corner shop. This does not work in France as small shops shut the most often. However on a Sunday morning many large supermarkets are now open until noon. If you’re hungry in the afternoon, don’t go looking for afternoon tea, they do not have this habit either and the café will most likely be shut until 7pm.
What do you like to buy in France? Read my French shopping list here.
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Read another of my blog posts about French supermarket shopping – click here.
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