Shopping: Across the channel there's a real experience in store

A shopping trip to France can save you money if you pick the right stores and the products the French really do best

Tout frais, tout frais": two women, one very old, the other not quite so, both dressed in the countrywoman's uniform of cotton-print dress, grey hair roughly cut, cheeks red, hands strong and marked with callouses. Before them lays a small selection of vegetables and herbs, dirt covered, varied in shape and size and obviously grown in their own garden. Around them are other stalls selling everything from fresh chickens to cheese, saucisson to sweets.

The crowded Saturday morning market in St Omer is evocative of what we like to think of as the real France - traditional, romantic, earthy. For the British, who live in a country where even so-called farm shops are stocked with Argentinian oranges, French apples and Dutch tomatoes, it is an exotic experience to be able to buy a chicken from the person whose yard it was probably foraging around in just the day before.

But this, of course, is only half the truth. All over France, the outskirts of even modest towns are dotted with huge - and ugly - centres commerciales where vast hypermarkets draw swarms of shoppers every day of the week. And despite France's reputation for small farms and big traditional markets, it is these monoliths of modern retailing which dominate French shopping. In fact, more than 50 percent of all food in France is sold in these multiples.

As in the UK, alarm bells periodically sound about the dominance of mass retailers. Last year, French bakers launched a national campaign to stop the growth of industrial production of bread from frozen dough by supermarkets. Other shops, including pharmacies, variety stores, butchers and fishmongers also feel threatened.

And yet, compared to the UK, small French towns remain characterised by an abundance of small shops, and French people still support local markets and local producers far more than the British do.

Sarah La Touche, who runs a small hotel in the Languedoc, identifies one unique aspect: "People don't do one big shop a week. They prefer to go several times to the supermarket, usually for what I call dry goods - toilet paper, water, preserved and canned vegetables and so on. For meat and fish and vegetables, they have their favourite shop, or they go to the market, usually - especially older people - on a daily basis."

Although France is changing slowly, it is unlikely that the country will ever go the way of modern British or American retail, with small towns strangled completely by rapacious retailers and shopping habits almost completely dictated by supermarket chains. In fact, the French seem to be comfortable with both startling modernity and tradition. It's a tension - maintained by both culture and government regulation - that ensures there is a place for both les halles and les hypermarches.

For those to whom this way of shopping appeals, autumn is a good season to make a shopping trip to France, especially if you have a car. Both Le Shuttle (0990 35 35 35) and P & O Stena (0990 980 980) currently have special offers which can get you over the Channel for around pounds 30 per vehicle for a day trip.

But don't do the obvious and simply hang around the channel towns. I headed for the E Leclerc in Dainville, just outside Arras, but there are plenty more stores around this area where you can avoid the daytripper atmosphere and shop as the French do. You'll find that one shop will replace many trips to British specialty stores, where these staples are far more expensive, and you may find some things that are just not available here at all.

For the kitchen and household, best buys include Duralex glasses, which sell for 14 francs for 4 (pounds 1.60), cast-iron casseroles for 260 francs (pounds 29) and, perhaps the best bargain of all, batteries: while well known brands are a little cheaper, Leclerc's own-brand, Clartec alkaline batteries, are great value. AA size work out at less than 20p each, and they are very good quality.

Food is, of course, an excellent buy. For fruit and vegetables, markets are still best for these items, but most supermarkets have a range and quality that is impossible to find in Britain. Most of the produce on sale is grown in France, and sometimes in the local area. If you are a fan of salad, lettuces (frisee, batavia, laitue, feuille de chene) are always superb.

On the meat counter, saucisson sec (small salami) are definitely worth buying. The Arras Leclerc had more than 20 varieties - costing between 14 and 27 francs per sausage - and the charcuterie counter had all the pork-rich delicacies you would expect. But, for fresh meat, you're better off visiting a butcher - many supermarkets are moving towards pre-packaged meat, and this store was no exception. As well as the usual wide range of cheeses - including local ones like mimolette - the thing to look out for are yoghurts and desserts, and don't forget butter, which is often locally produced.

Aside from food, a visit to a French supermarket is also a good opportunity to stock up on Clarins, Garnier, L'Oreal, Nivea and other well-known brands of toiletries, since the supermarkets' desire to compete with pharmacies - together with the French pre-eminence in the cosmetic industry - means that many well known brands are for sale at, by British standards, very low prices. Also, look out for for olive-oil soaps, perfumed with almond, lavender, apricot and other traditional fragrances.

For wine, you are always better advised to go to a wine shop. Prices for good wines are so reasonable in France, compared to Britain, that it is worth spending a little more for something good or unusual.

With some exceptions, supermarket wines are only of average quality, though they are cheap. On the other hand, the supermarket is a good place to experiment with French aperitifs - Dubonnet, Gentiane, Pastis, Suze, Grenache, Byrhh etc - which rarely cost more than 50 francs a bottle.

And, on your way out, filling up your tank could cut quite a bit off your driving costs. More than 50 per cent of all motor fuel is sold by supermarkets in France (compared to 25 per cent in Britain), and if you have a diesel car, you will pay only two thirds the cost of diesel in this country. Add that to the savings you make at the supermarket, and a shopping trip to France could work out as good value, as well as a good day out.

French Supermarkets worth exploring:

Leclerc: 00 33 1 46 625200 Attac: 00 33 1 39 242500 Prisunic: 00 33 1 41 278500 Carrefour: 00 33 1 69 366200 Intermarche: 00 33 1 43 468768 Auchan: 00 33 3 28 376700

E Leclerc is on the net at http://www.e-leclerc.com

Sport
world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Sport
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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 General

    Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

    £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

    £75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice