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.comReuse content