It’s tempting to do all of your grocery shopping in France the way it’s done in the US, the “one stop shop,” because that’s what many Americans are used to. It is possible to do here in Paris as there are chain supermarkets everywhere you look- Franprix, Monoprix, G20, etc. It’s easy and fairly quick, even if mamie cuts in front of you in line and you have to bag your own groceries while the checkout person sits in their swivel chair and rings up your items. You don’t have to talk to anyone, you can stand in the isle and compare prices and products at your leisure, and you can look at the cash register screen to see the total instead of listening for it in French.
However, I have purchased the “poulet roti” in a bag from Franprix for 7 euros: dry, old and salty. There are boucheries all over the place with their own spits, slow roasting chickens, ducks and the like. You can smell the delicious aroma from down the street. Here you have your selection of size- a couple thighs for one person, a medium size chicken for two, or a large one for a family. You can pick out the bird yourself, and a medium-sized poulet roti costs about 6 euros. So, a poulet roti from a butcher is fresher, tastier, cheaper, and you have access to the butcher’s expertise. He or she can suggest accompaniments, like roasted potatoes (pommes sautés), which they can sell you as well, or can recommend a size if you are uncertain how big of a chicken to buy. If you are curious about other meats, go ahead and ask! You may end up discovering new cuts of meat and ways to cook it that you never thought of before.
Buying a couple salmon filets from Monoprix will cost around 10 euros. They will be small and they certainly won’t be freshly caught. At your local poissonnerie you will have a vast choice of fish (unlike at the supermarket where the selection is very limited) and they too can suggest a quantity based on the number of people, the best way to cook the fish, and what it would go best with. The fish will be fresh, the fishmonger friendly, and two salmon filets will cost around 8 euros instead of 10.
Cheese. Ah, le fromage. The supermarket does no justice to this exquisite dairy product. It is all wrapped in plastic here and you can’t smell it nor see its texture. At a fromagerie, you will be exposed to all sorts of colors, odors and consistencies. You can taste a sample, or ask the fromager to recommend something very runny – coulant or creamy, crémeux. You can also pick how much you want by showing them or by saying un petit bout (a small piece) or un grand morceau (a large piece).
Don’t even think of buying produce from the supermarket. It came from far away, it’s expensive, and it’s going bad. There are fruit and vegetable stands on every corner that carry local, fresh produce for a similar or cheaper price than Franprix. Of course, there are also the covered and open air markets in each neighborhood that offer the best shopping experience (see blog posts “Markets of the 18th” and “Place Charles Bernard”).
Luckily, most foreigners have the natural instinct to go inside a boulangerie and order a baguette or a pain au chocolat, tempted by the mouthwatering objects beckoning through the glass. Needless to say, don’t buy bread from the grocery store’s “boulangerie.” It will not be as good, I promise. You may notice the words “Artisan Boulanger” written on the facade of boulangeries. This means that bread making is an art, and that each bread maker has undergone intensive training to bring you delectable treats comme il faut: the right flour, the exact temperature of the oven, the proper ratio of ingredients, etc. Because in France, there is often only one right way to things.
To sum it up, independent shops propose fresher, cheaper, local products and offer a richer, friendlier, more natural shopping experience. Not only are you getting higher quality food, but you are also developing relationships with neighborhood shopkeepers and enriching your knowledge about French language, culture, and gastronomy. Have you kissed your boulangère today?
© 2011 Pasa’s Paris