Saturday, September 25, 2010

navigating the grocery store

Grocery stores in France are a lot like their counterparts in other countries; indeed, the invention of the "super store" is a French one from what I understand. The first hypermarché opened in 1963 and they have taken over the French landscape ever since. There are some differences, of course, between what I grew up with and what is available to me here.

the smell
I've heard that they use aerosols to make the supermarkets smell appetizing. I think they've got their scents wrong. When I enter a French supermarket, I am usually greeted with a odorous mix of baking (good!) and fish (bad!).

the selection
This is France after all, so there are lots of things you can't get in Canada. In the wine section, they have a special area for wines to go with foie gras and there is a whole aisle dedicated to tins of cassoulet, terrines and confit de canard. The meat counter has all sorts of pâté, charcuterie and sausages. The yogurt and pudding coolers are to die for; there are at least a hundred times more types of yogurt, fromage frais, pots de crème and crème fraiche than I have ever seen in Canada, and most of the items come in individual servings, so the visual effect is overwhelming. Let's not forget the cheese, too; it goes without saying that you can find hundreds of cheeses at reasonable prices (and I've even recently seen local cheeses in the big chains). Anything to do with whole grains or slightly "alternative" products, however, is pretty much impossible to find, so I go to the organic co-op stores to pick up brown rice, whole wheat flour, almonds and other things such as natural peanut butter (you can take a girl out of Canada, but you can't take the peanut butter away from the girl!).

organization of aisles
There is a different logic to the aisles and shelves of French supermarkets. Many items can be found in three or more different locations, depending on how you view them. Here are some examples:
- chocolate: candy aisle, fair trade aisle, organic aisle
- tortilla chips: apéritif aisle, chips aisle, international food aisle
- canned tomatoes: pasta aisle, tinned vegetable aisle, organic aisle
- cookies: cookie aisle, breakfast aisle (!), organic aisle,
- coffee: breakfast aisle, fair trade aisle, organic aisle
This is means that if you want to compare prices and packages of certain items, you need to run around the store. I personally would love to see all the coffee - fair trade, organic and regular - in the same place, so that I can compare and make my choice in one location. I'm not sure why they've broken it down they way they have, but somehow it's what works for them. The thing about cookies in the breakfast aisle is a bit of a concern for me, but apparently there are cookies (sandwich-type chocolate ones) that are considered a breakfast food. This reminds me of the typical after-school snack given to children: a chunk of white baguette with a slab of chocolate inside.

Bright lights, white tiles and annoying music. There is nothing sexy about these supermarkets! I'm not sure if the North American trend of tolerable lighting and more pleasant interior design will ever catch on here, but I think there's a market for it! I have noticed that some of the megastores are starting to open up boutique markets in the city centres. This is a start. We'll see if something like Whole Foods, or a European counterpart, can make a go of it in France.

Of course not all supermarkets are the same and there are different selections and styles of organization, depending on where you go. Ideally, we try to go to the outdoor market and the organic stores, but organic products are even more expensive here than in North America and the markets are only open in the morning, with the weekend ones being the furthest away. We also go to the little asian supermarkets that carry things like soba noodles, rice vinegar and soy sauce. Savennières, our village-to-be, is lucky enough to have a small cooperative supermarket that carries organic and regular products. It's also got a killer wine cave with local wines! I plan on becoming a member and volunteering my time there in order to meet people and to help the store along. Maybe I can even make some suggestions!

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