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
News
news
Voices
voicesThe Ukip leader on why he's done nothing illegal
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Sport
video
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
News
Supermarkets are running out of Easter Eggs
Deals make eggs cheaper than normal chocolate
Arts & Entertainment
artYouth club owner says mural is 'gift from the sky' so he can prevent closure of venue
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?