Taking the hyper out of the marche: The legendary set-price meal is a fading memory in France. Self-catering can be cheaper and better. Joanna Blythman offers an insider's shopping guide

Unless you are of the endangered, we-take-our-baked-beans-with-us persuasion, one of the greatest pleasures for the thousands of British tourists who set out self-catering to France each summer, is the prospect of shopping and cooking there. Though wage slaves may baulk at the idea of spending the holidays cooking, and look on it as a time of liberation from the tyranny of the weekly supermarket-shop-and-cook routine, the fact is that for most people of average income, eating in is usually a more rewarding solution than eating out.

These days in France, the 75-, 85-, or even 95-franc set menu is generally not up to much. You may have the luck of stumbling into those modest routiers immortalised by Elizabeth David, where, on the zinc-top bar, you will dine on home-made pork rillettes, a rich daube and a still-warm fruit tart. Much more likely, you will encounter bought-in pate, green beans from the jar, creme caramel from the packet, chewy steak and undistinguished broiler chicken. The bill for a family of four is likely to be at least pounds 40 with a moderate amount of drink. You will end up eating three makeweight courses instead of the one special dish you really fancy. If you want quality and freshness, but your budget cannot stand a Michelin star establishment (except for a holiday blow-out), then make a virtue of eating in.

But shopping well in a country you do not know is not always easy. Perhaps you are staying in an isolated gte, where the nearest boulangerie is 5km away and the only other possibility is a dusty corner shop which smells of Persil and rotting bananas. In desperation you track down the nearest hypermarche and, bombarded with sensory overload, you click on to automatic and come out with exactly the same sort of thing you buy in Britain.

What follows, is the Independent's holiday guide to food shopping in France. Whether self-catering or just loading up when passing through, this strategy, with specific suggestions, should keep you eating happily for quite some time. Bonnes vacances]

Take the tea-bags, leave the kitchen sink

Take nothing, except for tea-bags (especially ones like Earl Grey and Lapsang which are always harder to get and much more expensive in France). Do not, however, forget to bring a couple of those little-used cook books that frustrate you throughout the year because of the non-availability of ingredients. How many times have you eyed up that recipe for bouillabaisse before abandoning it because you could not find that rare fish rascasse? Armed with an appropriate book, such as Leslie Forbes's Table in Provence, Richard Olney's Simple French Food, or Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cookery, herby rabbit stews, fresh artichoke salads and wild mushroom gratins all become possible.

Beyond the menu touristique

Les Grandes Surfaces - large supermarkets and hypermarkets-do not, as yet, dominate France as they do Britain. In general, dried goods and dairy products (especially cheese and yoghurt) are good in hypermarkets (Auchan, Cora, Carrefour, Casino, Mammouth) and some stores (particularly Auchan) sell a surprisingly good range of fresh fish and shellfish. Any decent hypermarche can be relied upon to sell a selection of quality poultry, such as Bresse chickens or Barbary duck. Otherwise, the butchery sections, though cheap, are never as good as the average local butcher, and the butchery techniques are slapdash to say the least. Hypermarket fruit and vegetables are best avoided, unless you are in search of something the French consider exotic, such as root ginger. Otherwise, they specialise in bulk packages of cheap fruit and veg. Flavour and quality control of these are often second rate.

Smaller supermarkets (Suma, Match, Co-op, Galleries Gourmandes), are more likely to be found in inner-city or town shopping centres and are where French people shop frequently and often have riper and more seasonal produce. Galleries Gourmandes is the most cosmopolitan (non-French), and Intermarche is rock bottom in quality for everything.

Corner shops (small Casino, Codec, Cali) carry a generally larger range of fresh food than the average small, British chain grocer, but are otherwise the same - mainly for when you run out.

In the dairy section, working your way through the butters is a great holiday treat, The priciest, Beurre d'Echire and Lanquetot d'Isigny, cost around pounds 1.50 a half pound but do taste fantastic with good bread. The best yoghurts are made from whole milk. Look out for the brand name Climont.

Good buys to bring home include tapenades (made variously with green olives and anchovies, black olives, etc) and tins of Marius Bernard Rouille Provencale. Tins of goose and duck fat make for great roast potatoes when home. Expect to pay a lot for rare French virgin olive oil. However pretty the aromatised specialist vinegars may look, for everyday use choose classy mainstay favourites such as Maille Vinaigre de Vin de Bordeaux (also a good label for mustards) and Martin Pouret Vinaigre a l'Ancienne.

Fruits de la rue

Particularly in the south of France, you see temporary roadside stalls selling bargain fruit and vegetables, strings of garlic, shallots, platters of peaches and nectarines and so on. You can't assume that these are necessarily either good or cheap. Many of the fruit and vegetables are 'outgrades', or of a quality that does not meet stricter grading requirements. It might be okay, but taste a little before you buy a lot.

What, no fresh milk?

As you go south, fresh milk as we know it in Britain, can get very hard to come by. Ask for milk and you get sterilised milk (like our UHT) which many people cannot bear. Fresh milk does exist though, and is called (surprise, surprise), lait frais - guaranteed available in hypermarkets and supermarkets. Smaller grocers and cremeries may sell it but only on certain days of the week. It pays to ask and then stock up. If you want to whip up cream, do not expect to do it with ordinary, thickish creme fraiche. You will need creme fraiche liquide, sold in white plastic

bottles.

It's not fish and chips, but . . .

Though French charcuterie-traiteurs stock immaculately turned-out ready-meals, expect a bill to suit - often more than eating in a restaurant. Other good bets include nems (Vietnamese spring rolls) and ready-meals from market stalls or from the new wave of Vietnamese traiteurs springing up in satellite shopping centres (centres commercials). Pizza from travelling vans with wood-fired ovens is a good bet, as is other market-stall food such as Chilean empanadas, chickpea pancakes (socca) in Nice, potato galettes, choucroute (sauerkraut) and so on.

A little brand savvy goes a long way

For ready-ground coffee, one of the best and moderately priced all-Arabica ones (there is still a lot of Robusta in cheaper French coffees and almost certainly in the three-in-a-lot bumper packs) is pure Arabica Fin Sati (an electric blue pack). If your gte, tent or caravan does not stretch to a cafetiere or coffee pot, cheap plastic coffee filters and papers are everywhere.

Other essentials for civilised life include Ducros's poivrieres. These are incredibly useful glass jars of peppercorns which have an in-built grinder and cost less than pounds l. They do a white, green, pink and black peppercorn mix, a white and lemon, and a plain white one. Sel Marin de Guerande, the grey salt from Breton salt marshes will turn you off British table salt for life. You can buy it in crystals or ground. You will also see it under the Bjorg label, which is France's most widely distributed health food label. Pick up some fruit purees for drizzling on fromage frais or yoghurt and fresh tasting fruit juices. Also at the hypochondriac's section look out for the German Rabbenhorst 10-fruit, no-suger drink which tastes deliciously of guava and passionfruit - pricey (pounds 2 plus) but a winner for summer drinking diluted with chilled sparkling water. For staple children's apple juice, Cidou tastes like the rest but has ouverture facile - no faffing around with scissors.

Instant meals of quality can revolve round tubs of goose, duck or pork rillettes, and superior ready sliced packs of smoked duck or goose breast. (The versions with cracked peppercorns are especially good.) Most French ham is as slippery and bad as most of ours; the best ones are usually hand-sliced from the butcher who cooks his own on the bone - jambon a l'os. Dead cheap and easy, the basic Sauce Spaghetti Mireille, made in Provence, is the basis of endless variations of pasta and baked savouries. Francine's buckwheat pancake mix (galettes aux sarrasin) are not as good as the real thing, but okay for instant holiday food.

For those concerned about the recent occurrence of listeriosis: the French government advises people to wash raw vegetables, cook animal products well, not to drink unpasteurised milk and to avoid soft and blue-veined cheeses.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?