We are in France right now visiting my husband’s family, and so I’ll be doing a few posts on France in the coming days. This is the first time I have come to France with a child, so it’s a great opportunity to discover the food options for children in France. I also have an adorable niece who will be turning 4 this September, and whose eating habits, as I will explain, offer somewhat of a counter-example to the current wisdom that French children are perfectly well-behaved at the table and eat everything put in front of them.
For my first post, however, I will go on a small digression, because it is a subject that gets me very excited every time I come to France. People who know me know that I have an eccentric hobby of visiting grocery stores everywhere I go and buying all kinds of odd products. My husband indulges this hobby with exceptional grace and often accompanies me on my adventures. I’ll tell him on Saturday morning, “you’re going to LOOOVE what I have planned for today.” And he knows what’s coming. So if you look in my cupboard, which my mom frequently does with great befuddlement, if not a bit of disgust, you will find arepa mixes, pomegranate molasses, cassava flour, and on and on. For the most part, I rarely do my shopping in regular grocery stores such as Jewel and Dominick’s in Chicago, mostly because I find the vast majority of the products they carry quite inferior. I also feel that visiting a country, town, or even neighborhood’s grocery stores is a crucial part of understanding the people. In addition, they are often so different from each other that it is always interesting to find new tastes and new ways of preparing or packaging more familiar items.
Let’s just say that if grocery store tourism is a form of spiritual travel for foodies, France is Lourdes. The French food market no doubt has it shortcomings. For example, in France there is a considerable resistance to (and therefore unavailability of) foreign tastes, an astounding aversion to spice (I’ve seen a Mexican restaurant that posted a disclaimer in the window that their food was not at all spicy!), and a rather pale approach to beef. As an American, I can also tell you that what they pass off as Tex Mex or American is just downright embarrassing. I’ve tasted “tacos” that had no seasoning whatsoever beyond salt and pepper, and chocolate chip cookies that I thought could not possibly have come from the hands of the baker who has mastered the delicate art of croissant-making.
But when it comes to basic food, the staff of life, the French are simply superb. The great thing about French supermarkets is that beautifully made products are virtually standard. Beautiful, artisanal products in the United States can be found, but they are considered luxury items, are sometimes difficult to find, and are priced accordingly. The French of course have their upscale markets, their specialty items, etc. But what they consider standard bread, standard yogurt, jelly, deli meat, frozen dinners, and on and on, is so far superior to most average American products that it leaves me almost annoyed. At the end of the day, the question I’d like to leave you with is, why can’t we rethink standard? I don’t mean luxury or specialty products. I don’t mean the “something-free” products that dominate the “natural foods” sections. I don’t even mean certified organic (in addition, organic rules do not always favor small producers, and traditionally produced foods don’t always need to be certified organic to follow organic principles). Just standard.
Without further ado, I would like to take you on a little photographic tour of a typical large French supermarket. Three different stores, one hypermarché (super large Target-like store) one more normal-sized supermarket and one slightly more upscale store, are represented here.
Let us begin with the yogurt aisle of the regular store, which is pictured to the right.
Here, you get a sense for the sheer size of the yogurt/dairy dessert section. In the US, where yogurt is generally considered a light breakfast or snack food, the vast majority of yogurts are nonfat, chalky, artificially flavored and (in my opinion) overly sweetened either with HFCS or aspartame. In France, however, some variety of dairy cup generally caps off every home meal, so this is part of the reason why the choices are so numerous. To your right are the plain yogurts and fromages blancs (a plain cheese that has the consistency of yogurt). Some are made from cow, some from goat or sheep; some have an airy layer of cream mousse on top and others are lightly sweetened with cane sugar. On your left are the dessert cups. This includes chocolate mousse, flan, crème caramel (I am actually not a fan of the prepackaged version of this one), and any number of other dairy-based dessert. Further down, you will find fruit-flavored yogurts, kid yogurts and low-fat or nonfat ones. Here’s the one that I picked today which was made with vanilla extract and ever so lightly sweetened.
Next in the dairy department is the cheese, of course, and there are generally three separate aisles, one for more mass market products, one for store-packaged cheese, and then the cheese counter. This picture from a “hypermarket” is the store-packaged section. It really does stretch farther than you could comfortably shout.
Next is the more upscale market’s cheese counter, which is much like most French cheese counters, but with a more modern presentation:
Unlike US cheese counters in which everything is wrapped in plastic both before and after purchase, in France it is often unwrapped in the case and wrapped in paper once sold. This undoubtedly gives the fridge bad breath, but makes the cheese ever so much more appealing. You get the impression that it comes from a farm, not from plastic cows.
Next, we find the cream and butter section, which includes a variety of AOC butters and creams (AOC or Appellation d’origine controlée, designates traditional agricultural products that come from a specific geographic location). Some hail from the Jura mountains and others from Normandy or Brittany, all traditional, dairy producing regions. There is thick cream, thin cream, creams with all different fat contents, textures, and purposes. There are butters with fleur de sel that are eaten as an accompaniment to smoked salmon and radishes. Today I saw a display of raw milk butter in the regular grocery store.
Keep in mind that many of these are large-scale producers with industrial equipment. They are simply more firmly bound to traditional recipes, tastes, and ingredients, thanks no doubt to public demand. As far as milk, a curious difference is that the French drink almost exclusively shelf-stable cartons or bottles of milk. They have a distinctly different taste from fresh milk, but I’m not sure it is better. Also, eggs are un- refrigerated at the store. Hm…
One thing we learn about the French culture by looking at their grocery stores is the potency of the idea of terroir, a nearly untranslateable word that refers to the earth, to geographic location, and to the distinct foods that come from them. For one, most French people are much closer to the rural past than most Americans, since the rural exodus occurred late in its history. Up until the first World War, the majority of the French population was rural, and so for many people, grandma actually did knead her own bread, make her own paté, and can her own jam, and grandpa made his own sausage. The proximity of many French people to rural traditions of preserving such as canning, fruit syrup-making, curing, etc. is visible in the areas that correspond to these arts: jams, pates, cured meats, fruit syrup drinks. Here is a small part of the extensive jam selection one finds in a French grocery store.
The jars with the yellow label are part of a line called “Our Regions” which features products from all over France that are faithful to the traditional recipes and methods. They market apple cider from Brittany, Gruyère from the Alps, dry sausage from Lyon and so on, with products in almost every category. All grocery stores carry such lines in addition to products by local producers. I might even venture to say that a majority of food items in the French grocery store are attached to a geographical location. While some of this is undoubtedly pure nostalgia, I find it to be a thoughtful approach to food and culinary traditions.
I will spare you the meat counter, partly because photographing counters means confronting employees the mood of whom one cannot predict. As I said, I don’t think anyone can beat Americans in the beef department, but meat-counter chicken in France barely resembles American chicken. It is yellower in color, sometimes still has feathers and head attached, and is generally traceable to the farm it was raised on, as is all meat in France I believe. Pork is of course the meat of choice in France, and an endless variety of charcuterie and pates.
Next stop, the bread department. Here are typical loaves of supermarket bread in France.
One I picked up at the smaller grocery store:
And here are supermarket pain au chocolat, or croissants:
A basic apple tart that is made with AOC butter from Normandy:
As far as produce is concerned, I would not say it is uniformly better than US produce, but certain things, such as grapes, melons, and tiny potatoes, are almost a different food from their American counterparts. Grapes are generally muscat and have a complex, floral taste, and melons are unfailingly super sweet in summer. We’re enjoying them with almost every meal right now!
Cherry tomatoes from the more upscale market:
I will also spare you photos of frozen foods, but trust me that they are vast, varied, and of high quality. They also have a category of stores, such as Picard, that sell nothing but good quality frozen foods. When I lived in France, we would often get frozen pasta or vegetable dishes that contain disks of sauce that melt in the pan. The ingredient list would look something like this: Pasta, peas, green beans, olive oil, butter, onions, garlic, and herbs. Trader Joe’s now does carry some of these frozen dishes at reasonable prices, but they are mysteriously usually imported from Italy or France.
Finally, I have left out baby food for another day.
So there is a general sketch of the French grocery store. I believe that the differences in US and French grocery stores is all about demand. My point is not to say that US grocery stores should be filled with French products, (although come to think of it, that doesn’t sound half bad), but that we should be attached to our own foods and traditions, and treat them with great respect. Why can’t we have rows of products that remind us with nostalgic reverence of the agricultural products and culinary traditions of the Deep South, of New England, or of the Southwest? Why is Trader Joe’s nearly the only US store to specifically market high quality and diverse frozen foods? Why is the only butter-based frozen pie dough that I’m aware of $15 at Whole Foods?
Some geographical markets in the US have vastly stepped up their game with regards to grocery stores, but I find that Chicago is an odd exception to that. I suppose you could say that Whole Foods (and my favorite Trader Joe’s) has replaced the need for this, but in my opinion, WF does not always cut it. Firstly, they do not carry mainstream brands, and so you must go with their narrow brand choices. And while their meat is wonderful, I find many of their products do not merit the significantly higher prices they charge, especially cheese, produce, and prepared foods. And sometimes I think they take the vegan, gluten-free, etc, too far. There have been times when the only cupcake I could find was dairy-free and the only pizza dough mixes were gluten-free. I fully understand the need for these things in the marketplace and am happy that they exist, but the percentage of products devoted to that market has me a bit confused.
OK, I’ll get off my soap box for the day. I have croissants to eat. No, actually, I have a teething baby with jet lag who is trying to pound on the keys and it is after 10 PM… Wish me luck. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed my tour! See you next time!