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
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
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.
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