A recent comparative study in Europe found France to be one of the cheapest western European countries when it comes to food and non-alcoholic beverages. That’s good news for tourists who want to shop like locals! The French don’t shop like we do. Its rare that people go to one large supermarket to buy everything from bread to medicine for the week. We’ve put together this survival guide to help you shop for food the authentic way, and find a few hidden gems as you go.
1. In larger cities, there are mini supermarkets everywhere you go. We’re not exaggerating. Just like the ever-present pharmacies with their green crosses (no, really, there’s a pharmacy on almost every street in Paris!), you’ll usually find two or three general grocery stores on every block. The most common chains are Carrefour (meaning ‘crossroad’), Monoprix (often abbreviated to Monop’) and Intermarché. These stores can be anything from 5 to 10 aisles, and stock everything from fruit to facewash.
2. The French don’t shop in advance. Sure, there are certain basics all pantries are stocked with, but because of the abundance of grocery stores, most people buy what they need for the next 24 hours instead of doing a weekly shop. This might also have something to do with how most people get around on foot, where ten bags of groceries would not only exhaust you, but would take up too much space on France’s narrow sidewalks. The same rule applies to breakfast. Who wouldn’t choose to wander down to the bakery for a croissant that was baked an hour ago instead of something that was made the day before?
3. Bread and cheese are usually bought at specialty stores. Though supermarkets stock them, most French people buy bread from a boulangerie and cheese from a fromagerie. Why? Because this is where you’ll find pepper-crusted goat’s cheese from the neighbouring farm, or a baguette that’s are still warm to the touch. It’s common to see locals walking home from work with a fresh baguette under their arms – with the end missing because nobody in the world can resist warm, freshly baked bread! Not only are these items bought at separate stores, but most locals have a particular favourite boulangerie or boucherie (butchery). Each bakery has their own recipes, so most locals have narrowed down their favourite shops. Their selected bakery may even know their name and usual order. All this, without a doubt, adds to the charm of French living and cuisine.
4. Shops in small towns still close during lunchtime. Usually only for about an hour between 12:00 and 13:00. This doesn’t always apply to the supermarket chains mentioned above, but you would be right to plan grocery shopping at small local shops accordingly. Local bakeries, butcheries and the like will close at end of business, but shops like Monoprix and Carrefour are often open in the cities until 19:00 or 20:00. Most stores close on Sundays entirely, but certain supermarkets are open for a few hours in the morning. You won’t find 24-hour shops in France – it just isn’t the French way. Your best bet is to pay attention to trading hours on shop windows when you arrive to avoid being lunchless and wineless at the end of the weekend!
5. French supermarkets have a unique layout. For example, some supermarkets have a Foreign Foods aisle, which stocks imported products like tortillas and sometimes Rooibos tea. Other items, like sugar, are nowhere near where they’re usually stocked back home. Most people expect to find sugar next to the flour with the baking goods. Wrong! In France, you’ll find it next to the eggs. Tinned anchovies, too, are elusive. They’re never next to the tinned soups and vegetables. You’ll find them next to the refrigerated taramasalata and smoked salmon, of course! There will also be a number of products you won’t find at all, like Fruit Loops and Mountain Dew. These items are banned in France due to their harmful additives.
6. There are no shop assistants in a French grocery store. Its very rare that you’ll be approached by someone with a nametag and a smile if you’re walking around looking lost and confused. You’re very welcome to find someone and ask, though. Here, you may need the following helpful French expression: Où est le/la ___? (ooh eh luh/lah), meaning ‘Where is the ___ ?’
7. You might find horse in the meat aisle. That’s right, horse meat. It’s more popular in France than you think. In fact, there are numerous boucheries chevalines (horse meat butcheries) all over France. Horse meat, which is slightly sweet and very lean, was the answer to meat consumption for starving soldiers and the lower classes during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Throughout the 1800’s, where beef and pork were too expensive, horse meat was affordable and accessible. Today it’s less common, but still beloved. Look for the word Cheval over the pre-packaged meat section.
8. You can buy crustless sliced bread in France. So many of us rebelled against our mothers when we were made to eat the crust from our sandwiches so as not to waste. France has done away with the issue completely by offering sliced bread, as you would normally buy it, but without the crust. Not only does this cater to children’s preferences, it’s the perfect product for making finger sandwiches or bread-based puddings.
9. Cold cucumber soup cartons make for a wholesome, travel friendly lunch. Gazpacho, any cold soup made from raw vegetables, originates from Spain. French supermarkets stock it in the refrigerated section, along with the pre-packaged lunch and snacks. Its comes in many flavours, but you will always find cucumber-mint! Not only is this product typical of France in that it’s supremely healthy, it also makes for a convenient snack while you’re roaming the sights, as the cartons re-seal and are durable.
10. The variety of tomatoes available is inspiring. You’ll see tomatoes in the fruit and vegetable section you may not ever even have heard of. Some are green, some are yellow, some are huge, some are soft, some are different shapes. Each variety is distinct and exciting – and they’re sold loose, so you can buy one of each and try them all!