AFTER TWO WEEKS OF FOOD-SHOPPING IN FRANCE, I AM ASKING MYSELF THIS QUESTION: IS THE AVERAGE FRENCH PERSON STILL REALLY INTERESTED IN GOOD FOOD AND WINES? I AM NOT TOO SURE WHAT THE CORRECT ANSWER SHOULD BE.
On July 14, at 8:30 AM our Air France flight from Paris to Chicago landed on time after an uneventful and very peaceful ocean crossing. We were on our way to a week of vacation in a house rented in a small hamlet of 4 houses, SIGALAS, 5 miles South of Saint-Hippolyte du Fort, in the département du Gard, 25 miles north of Montpellier. I was quite anxious to get back to this area of ‘’ Saint-Hippo’’ where I grew-up between 1940 and 1947. Over the last 37 years, since I moved from Paris to Chicago, I had a few occasions to drive through, or make short stops in this sleepy little town of 3,500 souls. But it was really the first time since I moved with my family to Reims in 1947, that I was going to be able to rediscover the place where I lived during most of World War II. Besides, we have very good friends who have their summer home a few miles from there, in the village of Lasalle, in the mountains of the Cévennes, a house that I visited hundreds of times since the early sixties, and I looked forward to going back there to visit with them. I thought that maybe I would have a chance at their place to enjoy again the marvelous country chicken liver-based pâté made by their local butcher, as well as some dry pork sausage, and dry air-cured ham from those same mountains of Cévennes that I love so much.
Disappointing first re-acquaintance with French food: A mediocre meal on Air France and so-so croissants at the Paris airport.
We had to wait 3 hours at CDG (Charles De Gaulle) airport in Paris before we could catch our connecting flight to Montpellier, where rented cars were waiting for us. And since we were very hungry we decided to look for some croissants and we found some in one of the food counters at the airport. The decent champagne, Jacquart, as well as a drinkable French red vin de pays d’Oc were free in our economy class cabin, but the food, prepared in Chicago was at best mediocre and we practically limited ourselves to eating the lone portion of industrial-type camembert with some bread that was served on our dinner trays. Food used to be very good, even in economy, on Air France 15 to 20 years ago. And it is still better than what you eat on the competing American airlines. But obviously this good company does not spend a lot of time, money, or decent products to prepare meals on Eastbound flights. Most components on the tray were in fact American. The meal on the way back was much better, but still not very exciting.
So these croissants that we found at La Brioche Dorée, a well-known franchise of ‘’croissanteries’’ shops, were welcome. But they were not as good as I remembered them to be: a bit too soft with a slightly mushy dough, and I have some serious doubts about the amount of real butter that they used to make them since they were not that flaky. I was told later than most industrial croissanteries produce this kind of tasteless and sort of soft croissants nowadays, that do not even have the well-defined crescent shape and exterior golden crustiness of croissants that you find in good artisan bakeries. But we were hungry and ate them with gluttony.
Since July 14 is a national holiday in France (The ’’Fête Nationale’’ that Americans call Bastille Day and the French, more matter-of factly ‘’Le Quatorze Juillet’’) every store was closed. But I had done some preliminary research on the Internet in Chicago and I had found out that a very big Hypermarket from the CARREFOUR chain, that I already knew from previous vacations in the Montpellier area, would be open until 7:00 PM on that day. So as soon as we had unloaded our bags in the delightful ‘’mas’’ (a word defining any rural small house in Provence and Languedoc) that we had rented in Sigalas, I drove back to CARREFOUR in the outskirts of Montpellier to find enough food and drinks so that the six of us could eat and drink nice things until Monday morning when the SUPER-U, the only supermarket in Saint-Hippo, would open its doors.
My visit to CARREFOUR was a real eye-opener to the present state of the food-supply chain in France. Also, I had forgotten that the size of French hypermarkets is more than three or four times the size of your regular local supermarket in the U.S. It is more like a mix of WalMart and Costco. Therefore, it took me 1 hour and 30 minutes to buy everything I needed (food, water, detergents, wine, bread, baby-supplies etc.), plus a few extra food and wine items that I did not need but I thought would be enjoyed by the all family after such a long trip.
I knew that I should not think this way but every time I was about to select a product I would mentally convert the price in dollars and the result would be so annoying that I would then try to choose a less expensive item in the same family of products. No wonder it took me forever to accomplish a basic first-day grocery shopping trip.
I was quite impressed by the very wide choice of various qualities and brands for one single food product. But after a while, a sort "who cares about the price... it's our first day of vacation in France'' prevailed and I relaxed a little and continued my shopping spree in a more '' French" way.
And then there was a special counter where bouchers (butchers) and charcutiers (cured meats and deli clerks) would cut and slice for you the same kind of products, but from the whole piece and usually from better brands or selected regional specialties. This is why I bought pre-packaged ‘’ jambon cuit au torchon’’ from the refrigerated shelves, but slices of ‘’pâté en croûte’’ and ‘’terrine de canard au foie gras’’ from the fresh charcuterie department.
The bread that I bought that night at CARREFOUR, a ‘’baguette rustique’’, was barely edible. But it was the end of the day and therefore it was normal for the crust not to be crunchy anymore. But the price of a ‘’baguette’’ was quite cheap, around 80 centimes (68 cents).
The ham was excellent, much better than its American counterpart, for about the same price or less. But I had selected good well known brands, with limited amount of processing, fewer additives, leaner cuts, rather than generic house brands or cheaper products.
The pre-packaged fresh chickens that I bought in super markets, bearing the ‘’ label rouge’’ that is supposed to indicate a better quality category of poultry, and clearly indicates its area of production in France, in this case the ‘’Cévennes’’, were supposed to have been ‘’cage free’’, free of antibiotics, and mainly grain-fed. I do not know if all those qualities printed on the label were the truth or not, but these fresh chickens were very meaty, tasty, and much more flavorful that their counterparts from ‘’Whole Foods’’. But they were about 3 dollars a piece more expensive than their American cousins.
I bought the best quality of fresh eggs, from Loué, that I could find on the shelf. They were super-good,with large nice colored yolks, but very expensive: the equivalent of 5.17 dollars for a carton of 12 eggs.
The fruits and vegetables, whose country or region of origin were clearly indicated on the signs affixed on the shelf, were OK, but not great. But they were a little bit less expensive than their equivalent in the U.S. You find much better fruits, especially from local producers in the South of France, at smaller points of retail and at roadside fruit stands. Locally grown peaches that we bought from one of those roadside stands were very juicy and flavorful.
But in supermarkets, even in South of France which is an area of production, you often find tomatoes, red peppers, or zucchinis that are produced in other European countries, and are not as good as the local fresh produce. Obviously they were harvested too early and sent by trucks to refrigerated distribution warehouses before reaching the French supermarket.
The consumers that I could observe at Carrefour or Super U did not seem as picky and demanding as their predecessors of 20 years ago who bought their fruits and vegetables in a mom and pop local grocery store. They would by them without really inspecting them for flaws, over-ripe soft spots,
I am far from being one of these anti European integration grumpy Frenchmen, but I have to admit that one of the most depressing results of the opening of the French local markets to produce and fruits grown in other countries that are members of the European Union like Holland, Germany, Spain, or Poland, is that the average quality of fruit and vegetables in French supermarkets has become very unpredictable. Good French locally-grown vegetables and fruits, even during the summer, are often difficult to find in large supermarkets, even in South of France.
No such problems with regional wines at CARREFOUR or SUPER U. Good bargains were abundant in the well-supplied wine departments of these stores. I could buy very pleasant red and rosé wines from regional AOC’s (Appelation d'origine contrôlée) like Fitou, Sant-Chinian, Corbières, Minervois, Costières, Pic Saint-Loup, etc., for 3.00 to 4.50 euros (4.11 to 6.16 dollars). Local vins de pays could be found for even less than 4 dollars a bottle. I found some decent wines produced around Saint-Hippolyte, like the Salles de Gour, for less than 3 euros at a mini-mart downtown St. Hippo.
But once again, I noticed that many people, especially the younger ones, did not seem to know much about wines when they had to purchase a bottle and were facing the well supplied racks in the store. Quite often they would end-up buying a mediocre cheap wine from a ‘’négociant’’, because they recognized the brand name from an advertisement , rather than a decent ‘’vin de pays’’ from a local vineyard owner. Obviously, the younger generation does not drink much wine , or at least does not seem very interested in wine. A pity. But they sure enjoy beer.
The greatest source of temptations and food budget destruction remains the cheese department.
There was an enormous selection of butter, cheeses, and yogurts (the French consume a large amount of yogurts), of every possible denomination in their pre-packaged form on refrigerated shelves. But it was in the fresh cheese department, where cheese mongers would slice, weigh, wrap, and price the items that you either selected yourself or asked them advice about, that you would find an attractive, but more expensive, selection of better AOC and regional cheeses, as well as various fresh beurre en ‘’motte’’ (lump butter). There are also AOC classifications for some cheeses certifying that they are prouced in a specific region.
The Cantal, Saint-Nectaire, and Bleu des Causses (a regional blue cheese from the Cévennes Mountains), that I bought for 12 euros (for the 3 pieces) were quite edible, but not as good as the similar cheeses I buy in my small family-owned ‘’fromagerie’ on the Rue du Commerce in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. They had a very extensive selection of blue cheeses from various regions, and their choice of goat cheeses, one again in various shapes and styles, was impressive. But most of them were not adequately ''affinés'' (aged).
This only category where the choice was limited was AOC Camembert au lait cru and Brie. Perhaps because the demand is more limited in the South of France than, let's say, in Paris.
Speaking of cheese, I made an interesting discovery on that first shopping trip, that confirmed what I wrote about on this blog several months ago: Some producers of AOC real camembert from Normandy, sell not only the traditional camembert au lait cru (raw milk camembert), that you find in the specialty cheese department, but also an other variety called ‘’camembert de Normandie au lait thermisé’’, meaning that the milk they used in this camembert has been heated a little bit more to kill potential bacteria and extend the shelf life of the cheese but without reaching the point of ‘’pasteurization’’ that eliminates part of the original true flavor and character of the authentic AOC au lait cru. These camemberts thermisés are found in the refrigerated sections and are surprisingly quite decent. I bought two of them made by some of the better known producers, LANQUETOT and LEPETIT, after making sure after reading the expiration date on the side of the box that they would be almost ripe, and I was not disappointed. Besides, the camemberts thermisés from AOC brands were actually quite cheap: about 2 euros a piece (2.74 dollars) much cheaper than the 9.99 dollars I pay in Chicago for a Le CHATELAIN, a good but pasteurized camembert de Normandie, made by the giant LACTALIS group, that also owns LANQUETOT.
But I noticed that most people bought cheaper pasteurized, non AOC, camemberts, quite often with a generic brand label. A shame.. I was also sad to see that many young people bought packs of sliced processed cheese, Kraft-style, and bland creamy industrial cheeses, rather than traditional regional varieties.
I could not believe what young French people eat and drink nowadays.
But in small towns and rural areas people still seem to enjoy spending time drinking their ‘’aperitifs’ (before lunch or dinner drinks) while sitting and talking with friends at the terraces of cafés and bars. Otherwise the South of France would have lost one of its biggest, joyful, and charming traditions.
What really surprised me the most was the fact that you did not see many young people buying their cheese, or ham, chicken or meat from the specialty counters but from the shelves in the pre-packaged form. The few people that would buy from the cheese monger, the butcher, the fish monger or the deli counter in super and hypermarkets, both in Paris and in smaller towns were most of the time over 40 years old. The same is true in smaller family-owned food and grocery shops. Their customer base there is adult or mature.
And I was horrified to observe the way young people, single or couples, in the 25 to 38 age bracket, shop in supermarkets. I thought for a few minutes that I had been transported back to the U.S.
They rush their carts between the aisles and fill them out rapidly, without taking the time to compare products, quality, or prices, with mostly pre-packaged food, often frozen. They also buy lots of ice cream products, frozen cakes, and candy bars. They seem to drink lots of beer, coke, sodas, mineral water, and juices but, as I said earlier, very little wine. They also buy lots of pizza, often ordered from the local Pizza Hut. Obviously cooking traditional French meals is not their cup of tea.
And for lunch most of the time its a sandwich or some fast food with a coke. The Mc Donald’s and other fast food franchises, American or French, are always packed.
By the end of our trip, I was seriously concerned about the transmission to future generations of the traditional French cooking and wine drinking heritage and traditions, after observing the way contemporary adolescent and young adults eat in France . And they even copied that bad American habit: eating lunch or dinner in front of a video game or while watching TV.
Shopping in small shops and at open-air markets is still a very enjoyable experience. That’s where you find good food products.
In Saint-Hippolyte, there was only one Boucherie-Charcuterie (butcher and deli shop). But it was a good one. Very clean, with refrigerated counters and a good selection of good quality products. A far cry from the butcher were my mother, sometimes but rarely because there was not much of it available and it was very expensive, bought meat in 1946, where it was laying in the sun, with flies all around. The butcher, a very cheerful man , and his very pleasant wife, was cutting all his steaks, beef stews, veal scaloppinis, lamb chops and leg of lamb himself, as well as duck breasts. Most of the pork and blood sausages he sold where home-made. And the chickens had been locally raised and slaughtered. Besides, he was selling a very good ‘’ pâté en croûte’’, some very good liver, duck, and country pâté, as well as a very tasty and unctuous duck mousse. He also had freshly roasted chickens twice a day, and that was very convenient.
I bought 6 ‘’faux-filet’’ steaks (like a small New-York strip) weighing about 7 ounces each, for about 35 euros (48 dollars) and even though they were very tender and tasty, I thought that it was a bit expensive.
Its is cheaper to buy fresh steaks in supermarkets, but the quality is not the same as in a butcher shop.
There were 3 boulangeries-pâtisseries (bakery-pastry shop), but only one had very good artisan breads and croissants (1 euro per baguette and croissant).
But the best store was a charming shop called ‘’ Entre Thym et Châtaigne’’ (between thyme and chestnuts) that was owned and managed by local foodstuff producers . There you could find beautiful fruits, vegetables, hams, honey and preserves, olive oil, cheeses, condiments, produced by farmers from the area. I bought some marvelous ‘’ Pelardon’’, a very tasty air-dried goat cheese from the nearby Cévennes mountains, and a smooth ‘’tomme’’ made from ewe milk. The Pelardon was the best cheese I ate during that vacation, and I regret that I was not able to bring some back with me. The Pelardon exists in 3 styles: Fresh, semi-creamy, and dry. I like the dry one best, not only because it has more pungency and personality than the fresh one, but also because it reminds me of the one we used to eat, along with raw ham and good country bread that we sliced with our ‘’Opinel’’ knives, when my godfather and I went hunting in the Cévennes, in the late fifties.
But we also found good regional cheeses, home-made ‘’quiche Lorraine’’, and fresh pork sausage that we grilled on the barbecue, at the very lively open-air markets of Saint-Hippolyte and Ganges, where we also found some tasty locally-grown lettuce and tomatoes. These open-air markets usually take place once a week on the main square of the town, under the plane-trees. They have stands from regional farmers, grocers, spice and olives vendors, butchers, cheese and fresh fish mongers as well as people selling clothes, jewelry, mattresses, linens, cooking utensils, etc.
The prices are usually a tiny bit more expensive than in supermarkets, but the variety and quality of the products is more authentic and better.
At the Saint-Hippolyte’s market I bough half a litter of a great olive oil produced near Montpellier and distributed by a company called l’Olivette, for 10 euros, but it was one of the best I had in years, very fruity.
I noted with an amused smile that in small shops and markets in the South of France, some merchants still print the amount of the products they sell in French francs on the price tags under the price in euros, since lots of French people still mentally translate the price of their purchase into francs to get a real idea of how much it actually cost them...