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Paris Periodical: Grocery Shopping à la française

When you think about food in Paris, the things that come to mind range from baguettes and croissants to wine and cheese to crêpes and crème brûlée to foie gras and escargots. What you don’t think of is the tedious activity of grocery shopping. However, if you’re coming to Paris to stay for any extended period of time, you’ll quickly find that it’s much more cost-efficient to buy ingredients and cook for yourself than to eat out every meal – as is usually the case.

Upon entering my neighbourhood supermarket (which shall remain unnamed) for the first time after moving into my apartment, I was terribly disappointed. While there was no problem with packaged products like cereal, grains, or yogurt, it was difficult to find any fresh fruits and vegetables. In the weeks following, the quality did not improve and my appetite diminished with each trip to the market. At another supermarket near me, the produce was usually – but not always – fresher, but I was dismayed at how limited the variety was and how costly it was on top of that; it was basically impossible for me to find any greens that didn’t come prepackaged and cost a fortune. As the weeks passed and my grocery trips revealed themselves to be repeatedly unfruitful, I grew increasingly frustrated. It wasn’t until my sister came to visit that I finally had my Eureka! moment.

What I didn’t realize was that I was using a rather North American mentality of grocery shopping that didn't quite transfer to France, where the mentality is completely different, even regarding something as mundane as running errands. In Montreal, and in the rest of Canada as well as the US, when you go grocery shopping, you can often get away with going to the grocery store once every two weeks or so and just stocking up on everything in one trip. I know in Montreal, during the midst of exams, I’ve been so lazy as to only go grocery shopping once in one month.

My neighbourhood grocery alley.

On the other hand, here in France, if you want good food to cook with, you can’t rely entirely on just one store to supply all of your ingredients. Although there are French equivalents of our Provigo and Metro supermarkets, as I said before, their limited produce is not always fresh and their prices are mediocre at best. Once I made this discovery, I decided to venture out into the world of the French "specialized" markets.

The first stop along the way was the fromagerie, or the cheese store. While I’m no cheese connoisseur, I do know I like brie cheese, which was where I started. From there, I just asked the fromager (literally, the cheese-maker) for advice and he did not disappoint! I’m still discovering, but since frequenting this shop, I’ve discovered that I’m a pretty big fan of goat cheese and soft cheeses in general.

This was my first time ever seeing cheese that was actually blue.

The next store was my personal heaven: the fruiterie. On this small alley-road near my apartment, I found a total of four fruiteries (fruit and vegetable shops) that sell fresh, local produce for reasonable prices! You can imagine my excitement. I had a feast of zucchini, cabbage, broccoli, orange peppers, and tomatoes of all colours after my first trip to the fruiterie. I've also since discovered a plethora of vegetables that were previously unknown to me, such as romanesco broccoli, or what my sister calls, "the incestuous offspring of cauliflower and broccoli."

Last but not least, I went to the boulangerie – the bakery. One of the nuances of the French language is the difference between the two words for “bakery.” In English, as far as I know, we only have the word "bakery." In French, a boulangerie is a bakery that specifically makes bread, baguettes, and the like, while the pâtisserie is where you’ll find pastries like pain au chocolat (chocolatines in Quebec). Today, most French bakeries sell both pastries and baguettes, so they’ll usually have both titles attached. In terms of la cuisine française, a meal is never complete without a baguette on the side.

The corner boulangerie/pâtisserie.

In the end, though it took me quite a while to figure out how to grocery shop for myself here, I’m glad that I learned my lesson this way. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like my eyes have been opened to a new world! And now I know why the French term for grocery shopping is “faire des courses” (in the singular form, course means running) – when you grocery shop à la française, you’re literally running from store to store.

Check back in two weeks for the next Paris Periodical!

Note: Being vegetarian, I skipped the boucherie (butcher shop), but that is where most French people buy their meat!

Photos are the author’s own.

After spending a wonderful fall 2015 term in Paris, France, Regina is in her final semester at McGill University, studying Economics and French. She loves reading and writing in her spare time, travelling to foreign places, and baking anything she has the ingredients for. She also occasionally plays the oboe. Some of Regina's favourites include the colour blue, the season of fall, and the movie You've Got Mail. You can follow her on Instagram under the handle @reginawung.
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