Food aid (finally) arrives for hungry homesick Britons

In Foreign Parts
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Food aid is on the way for the thousands of British expatriates and French Anglophiles in Paris who have been deprived of traditional British fare since Marks & Spencer closed on 22 December.

Paris may be the world's food capital, but what use is a croissant to a man (or woman) craving a buttered crumpet? Without M&S, the French capital has had no reliable source of lemon curd, baked beans, sausage rolls and other essentials of civilised existence.

Today an English grocery will open on the ground floor of the old, flagship M&S store on the Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris.

It will sell everything from marmalade and jam to Marmite; from sliced, white loaves to Cadbury's Crunchies; from oatcakes to shortbread – and, yes, it will also have lemon curd and crumpets.

The Épicerie Anglaise will be operated by an entirely French staff and run by a French retail group – the Galeries Lafayette – which is convinced a profitable niche exists for a typiquement British grocery deep in the heart of the French capital.

"I don't know anything about the economics of the rest of the Marks & Spencer business in France, but I can tell you that their food department, on this same site, was an extraordinary success," said Sylvain Gaudu, the director of the gourmet food hall at the Galeries Lafayette store on the other side of the boulevard.

"French food may be the reference all over the world, but there are many British specialities which French people admire and many expatriates in Paris who crave the food they were brought up on," Mr Gaudu said.

Galeries Lafayette has bought all the Marks & Spencer stores in France, but this will be the only épicerie anglaise. The other shops will be redeveloped under the Galeries Lafayette name or one of the group's other high-street names, such as Monoprix.

There has been little publicity about the shop's opening because the Galeries Lafayette group already has the maximum share of the Paris retail food market allowed under French competition law.

The French government granted permission for the English grocery – on the grounds that it was an ethnic speciality shop, rather than a general food store – only a few days ago.

Galeries Lafayette have taken over two of the old suppliers to the Paris M&S store. The new English grocery will therefore sell the same ready-made, triangular, packaged sandwiches, which were hugely popular with office workers in central Paris, and the same pre-cut and pre-washed, fresh vegetables, from the only company in France prepared to supply vegetables in this way.

The new grocery will also place a heavy emphasis on organic foods, including another French first – organic frozen pizzas from a London supplier.

In part, this is intended to overcome a prejudice, built up among some French consumers by BSE and the foot-and-mouth epidemic, that British food is over-processed and over- industrialised.

Although Galeries Lafayette will not have the purchasing power of Marks & Spencer on the British grocery market, Mr Gaudu promises the prices in the new store will be roughly the same as the old one.

"They were taking a relatively large mark-up by French standards but we will be taking our usual mark-up and the prices for most things should not be very different," he said.

After eight months, the store will close briefly for refurbishment (le relooking) as a typically, English grocery. Did this imply that, if the new grocery failed to attract enough Parisians and expatriates, it might reopen as something else?

"Mais non," said Mr Gaudu. "We know it will be a success. There is a proven market for British-type food in Paris and, south of Dover, we will be the only place people can go to buy the whole range."