p1090130One of the biggest differences between life in the U.S. and life in Europe is buying groceries. Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of people who head to the hypermarché once a week and load up their shopping carts with everything from apples to zucchini, with socks and motor oil and kitchen appliances as well.

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Get your shopping cart in the parking lot. You’ll need a jeton (token) or a €1 coin, which helps guarantee you’ll put the cart back.

In fact, the hypermarket was not invented by Walmart  (first Supercenter in 1988) or Target (SuperTarget introduced in 1995). It was born in France, when Carrefour opened a combined supermarket-department store combo near Paris in 1963. Like many firsts in history, this one is disputed–GB, a Belgian chain, had opened three hypermarkets in 1961, calling them SuperBazar, which is kind of funny, because un bazar not only is a market but it’s slang for a mess or disorder (GB stood for Grand Bazar). However, Carrefour is the one with the last laugh, because it bought GB in 2000.

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You know you’re in the south of France when the covered walkway in the hypermarket parking lot has trellises of grape vines.

We also have food-only supermarkets that don’t take a week to walk across, and épiceries, or small grocery stores. And there are a whole range of specialized stores, such as the Thiriet and Picard chains for frozen foods.

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The little pig and lamb!

Many French still make separate trips to the fromagerie for cheese, the boucherie for meat, the poissonnerie for fish, the boulangerie for bread, the primeur for fresh produce.

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Get your fruits and vegetables here if you missed the market.
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Here in the south of France, it’s a chocolatine, or choco, not a pain au chocolat. Worth a separate trip.

Most towns and even larger villages have markets, along a street or in a square, usually two or three times a week. In tiny villages without an épicerie, itinerant vendors similar to food trucks arrive, one selling produce, another selling fish or cheese….it’s the moment for the little old ladies to get out and gossip. The mairie, or town hall, will make an announcement over loudspeakers set up through the village–the modern town crier–so nobody misses the vendors.

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At a roundabout, from left, vegetables, eggs, oysters, apples, and, by the red tent, oranges.

Farmers also set up stands at roundabouts, and not just in summer. Maybe it’s because the winters are mild–we are in the midst of a cold spell with highs in the low 40s and lows flirting with freezing. New England it isn’t. On offer: fresh eggs, fruits, vegetables, mussels and oysters, mushrooms, oranges from Spain sold by a poor Spanish fellow who lives in the truck until the load is sold and he can drive back….

The common thread is freshness. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh.

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Endives at the market, still in their dirt.
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Fresh basil, sold in a pot. Of course.
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Escargots, alive, already jeûné–kept without food (up to 21 days) in order to clean out their intestines. Aren’t you glad you learned that?
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Fresh. Some work involved.
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At a village épicerie: green beans from the garden (picked by hand) and garden tomatoes. Obviously the photo was taken in summer.

Alas, one must go to the hypermarché from time to time for such necessities as laundry soap and toilet paper. Some surprises: The milk is UHT (ultra-high temperature, a treatment that allows it to be stored at room temperature until opened), so it isn’t in the refrigerated aisle and the biggest size is a liter, though you can buy packs of liters. Eggs aren’t washed so they aren’t refrigerated. There’s an entire aisle of emmental (like Swiss cheese, the French go-to cheese that’s on everything from crêpes to pizzas to croque-monsieurs). There are about three kinds of boxed cake mixes and no ready-made frosting. There are about a million kinds of yogurt. And butter. And cream. The industrial cookie aisle is called biscuits industriels–industrial cookies. It makes you think twice about taking anything off those shelves. Never fear–there’s usually a table with fresh-baked goods near the checkout.

Bring your own bags. And a €1 coin or token to unlock a shopping cart. It’s DIY–nobody will bag your stuff much less carry it to your car, and usually you have to weigh your produce yourself on a scale in the aisle that spits out a sticky ticket. Woe unto you if you have stood in line (because there are 36 checkouts but only three open) and haven’t weighed your carrots. You will spend more time standing in line to pay than you spent filling your cart because the people in front of you will inevitably huff and mutter about how slow the people in front of them are, and then they will play with their phones, and then, like the people before them, they will take their sweet time to carefully arrange their purchases in the carts after they’ve been passed through the scanner, and then, while the cashier is tapping her pen and everybody still in line tapping their feet in impatience, they will rummage through their purse to find their checkbook, because OMG what a surprise, they have to pay. Nobody ever fills out the check while standing in line. Nobody. And then they will empty their purse onto the conveyor belt in order to find their driver’s license for ID for the check. More people are paying with cards, but the French still love writing checks. More than once I have been in a checkout line that stretched all the way to the back of the store. Will the manager open more checkout lanes? Never. Unthinkable.

This is why the Carnivore goes to the hypermarket and I go to the outdoor market in the central square on Saturdays. Which would you choose?

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This?
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Or this?

 

 

 

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57 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping in France

  1. Fascinating. The market seems a better fit for me, but my husband would be too stressed in the hypermarket so I would opt for it for more peace at home (I can calm myself anywhere these days). My favorite part of shopping at our nearest grocery store? Half of the employees have developmental disabilities and love to chat as they bag groceries, replenish tomatoes, or gather carts. They stand out – they bless us – they often make my day. 🙂

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    1. I have always admired that about U.S. grocery stores, and someone told me that you can count on the special-needs workers to actually remember to put your eggs on top so they aren’t crushed. OTOH, employees here earn a living wage. An ideal world would have both.

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      1. Fear not and shop with your minimal French. I did so when I visited France, and afterwards when I moved here. If you just know the word for the item, and remember to hold up your thumb (not your forefinger) for “one”, say bonjour first and s’il vous plait when you leave it will all be fine. During my visits here it was one of the things I looked forward to the most!
        bonnie in provence

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  2. I go to Carrefour and independent food shops out of convenience (market day is mid week here with very few stalls), but we have a Carrefour market so it isn’t overwhelming. We go to the proper market when we can, and to wander around if not actually to buy anything. They are always fun!

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  3. I believe you forgot about a couple of Canadian hypermarche. Raised in Vancouver, B.C., Canada in the 1950’s, we always did our grocery shopping at the grand locations of Woodwards Department Stores. $1.49 day was every Tuesday. I still remember how magnificent the selections were. An entire floor devoted to all things edible. The other stores were Eatons, founded in 1889 and Hudson’s Bay, founded in 1647, but Mom thought them a bit expensive!

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  4. In our area, which is outside Washington, DC, we have both open air markets, a number of local farms, which are open year round, as well as small and large grocery stores. Growing up I can remember fish mongers (there a great fish market in SE DC), butchers, etc. For the most part, those disappeared with the arrival of large grocery stores, although I know of several small, what many here call “Mom and Pop” stores. My weekly shopping trips are to the markets and the local farms for every thing from eggs, bread (if I don’t make my own) and fresh vegetables, cheeses, honey, jams, and local fruits.
    These do exist in other parts of the US as well. So many people are going back to the “old” ways of shopping and that’s great. I guess I’m rather prejudice about the old ways, because many in my family and my husband’s are farmers.

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    1. It’s kind of about quality rather than quantity. I also remember going to the bakery and the butcher with my grandma, and to the tiny grocery store in the neighborhood. As you say, some of those are coming back, whether thanks to locavores or immigrant communities going to small, specialized shops.

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  5. Here in KY, in summer and fall,I always go to the Farmer’s Market first, then get what I can’t find there at the huge grocery across the street. Alas, I have not mastered preserving that bounty to enjoy through the winter, so now in the ice and snow, I will trudge through the enormous aisles. At least I know the guys in the floral dept, he who stocks the dairy case, and the sweet folks who make the sushi – so there’s some human interaction.

    I do at least try to eat seasonally, though. Next year I might dust off my root cellar and kick out the groundhogs so I can store veggies and (heavens!) even try canning!

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  6. I keep the little white tokens in my purse, ready for the moment when we return to France. I have to admit that the large Carrefour in Toulon always takes my breath away. Three long aisles of delectable cheeses….as well as the section that custom slices you choices. For this small island girl it was a revelation. However, we always buy le pain from our favourite Boulanger.
    Ali

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    1. I have those tokens everywhere. In every bag I own, lots of coat pockets, the car….And a bunch of reusable tote bags folded up and ready, though my husband prefers a plastic crate that doesn’t tip over in the trunk when making turns on the way home. The trunk of my car is so small it holds 1.5 shopping bags and they have no space to tip.

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      1. LOL we also have those tokens everywhere when we’re in France as well as reusable tote bags always in our car or in a purse. We’ve accumulated – ahem – many because so often we used to forget to bring them. We also have tokens and tote bags in our vacation rental with instructions for our guests 🙂 I love shopping at the market but the supermarket is an endless source of fascination for me too!

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        1. When I first moved to Europe, I had a French tutor, and at my request several of our lessons took place in the supermarket, so I could learn the vocabulary and the differences in products (sucre vanille!)

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  7. The endive and the basil are beautiful. I would much prefer fresh markets than the large grocery store chains, but alas… I don’t have many fresh markets in San Antonio. The ones that are here are far from me and only early Saturday mornings. “Fresh. Some work involved.” You’re cute! Brenda

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  8. I’m always interested in this subject. So there are enough customers for both the market 3 times a week, and the grocery stores, and the hypermarket in a small town?

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    1. Yes. The surrounding villages have only small épiceries, which have the bare necessities but not much more. They allow the older people who can’t drive to get their groceries (and the épicerie delivers). They are great for emergencies, and some of my friends shop there almost exclusively because it’s in the family. I want weirdo stuff like Mexican tortillas and whole wheat pasta, which they don’t carry, so the hypermarket is required. Although another hypermarket with shopping center is being built east of town, which I think it idiotic. It IS going to suck customers away from the other stores and also suck non-food retailers out of downtown–the hypermarkets are the anchor stores for shopping malls here. I find that weird, because either you are getting groceries or you are getting clothes, or buying a new fridge. Maybe you buy clothes and also need to pick up a couple of groceries, but who really combines the two completely?

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  9. I love dealing directly with producers and getting to know them. I do both supermarket and market shopping in our household. My husband is an absolute menace. I always have a rough menu plan and he will buy weird stuff that messes the plan up and means the budget goes over before I’ve got the basics.

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  10. One of my favorite souviners that I use Every day is a small glass by my bathroom sink for brushing teeth and sips to rinse…it’s a prior mustard jar I bought in a little market in Provence lol! Pretty little green ring at the bottom makes me smile. I remember them here as a child were sold with jelly inside. They may still make them but I make my own jams.

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    1. A souvenir that you use every day is the best kind!
      Back in the days of thriftiness, one assembled a cupboard of glasses recycled from jam jars and glass yogurt pots. Still possible.

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      1. I love Picard! At least one to two times a week, I eat their food for lunch at work. I went to Thiriet for the first time last week and still have to try their food next week though.

        And I agree, open markets are much better than Carrefour, Auchan and the likes…

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  11. Open Air Markets! Because you can go from Town to Town if you choose to…….there is one somewhere every day of the week! It is one of the reason we choose to go to France for our Winter get away! 🇨🇦🇨🇦🇨🇦

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    1. Yes, it’s true that if you need something you can just go to another town for market. When I miss the big Saturday market in Carcassonne, I go to Trèbes on Sunday or Mirepoix on Monday.

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  12. I live quite close to Carpentras in the Vaucluse, which has a huge market on Friday morning, its quite well known. Its a “marche hebdomadaire”, weekly market that sells food, clothes (new and used), ethnic foods and supplies, food to go, housewares, shoes, automobile accessories and parts, seeds and garden tools, plants, artisan items, of course fish, meat and charcuterie, and has hundreds of individual sellers. A few kilometers away is the village of Velleron, which has a large “marche producteurs” which allows only the actual producer of the item to sell there, and it is all food or food related. In summer it is open every day, but always only a couple of hours in the early evening. Love it!
    bonnie in provence

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    1. We have a separate market, a couple of blocks away, for clothes and housewares, only on Saturdays. The food market has some producteurs, but also some resellers. It’s pretty easy to tell them apart. The Velleron market must be heaven in summer! And, of course, Carpentras is famous for its truffle market.

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  13. I am totally conflicted about this. As I’ve posted before, I find shopping in France exhausting and far too time consuming. (Not for nothing is it called ‘les courses’!) 😆 But the market to me is even worse than the stores in terms of stress. Crowds, a lot chaotic lines ups, too many hucksters who chat up the customers instead of getting on with it. And yet, the quality of the fresh products is far superior and cheaper than the big stores. So I do try, But we only have one market near us, on Sunday mornings. In fine weather I make it more often but in the winter it is tough. When I do go I have my favourite stalls (organic produce, a fabulous bread guy…) and make a beeline for them. I’m far too Type A to take the laid-back French approach to wandering around for the fun of it and being inspired by what I see. Alas…

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    1. I love the outdoor markets, but like you I am somewhat conflicted about the prices charged and the quality of the produce. I rationalise is that at least that way the producers get a fair price for what they sell – the supermarkets make a killing in any case. I also love the social aspect of the market – on Sundays it can easily take me two hours to get my shopping done. It wouldn’t be much faster at the hypermarket if I count the time it takes to get me there…

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    1. Yes. In the photo you can see a thing with a red handle that’s chained to the cart. When you put the cart back, you take insert the gadget from the cart that’s already there into the slot on the handle of your cart and it makes your coin pop out.

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  14. I cannot believe people write cheques to pay for their groceries!

    When I lived in Castleneau le Lez we stuck mostly to our closest Intermarché which was within walking distance of our apartment. It’s a shame we didn’t visit the open air market more often but taking a bus in on the weekend was too much of a hassle.

    Suzanne
    http://www.suzannecarillo.com

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