PARIS DAYS : No cheap thrills in a gastronomic nirvana

Within two minutes' walk of our front door, there are five bakeries, three butchers, three specialist cheese shops, one fish- monger, two greengrocers, three general stores and one small supermarket. A little further away is the Poncelet-Bayen food market, reputed to be one of the best in Paris.

There is nothing exceptionally wealthy, or greedy, about our quartier. A similar constellation of specialist, family-run shops exists within strolling distance of most places in Paris.

All of these shops (save the scruffy little supermarket) have beautiful displays of the highest quality food. The daily kaleidoscope of plump fruit and vegetables at the greengrocers on the corner resembles the competition stand at a country fair. The butcher in the next street, who makes his own pates and terrines, will lovingly explain the difference between a saucisson (moist) and a saucisse (dry). There is no finer aesthetic experience in Paris - forget the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay - than to walk into a fromagerie and savour the conflicting aromas of a few of the 400-odd types of French cheese.

But these are not cheap thrills. On arrival in France, like most British people we were paralysed by food price-sticker shock. The disparities are narrowing with the rise in sterling, but shopping for food in France remains cripplingly expensive compared with Britain.

My wife, Margaret, had shopping in London off to a fine, investigative art. In Paris, she was devastated to have to pay 75p for a lettuce after 19p in London. A chicken in Paris might cost pounds 4.50, compared with pounds 2.95 in London. Two baguettes come to just under pounds 1, compared with 27p for a Sainsbury's sliced loaf, equivalent in bulk though no contest in taste. Two litres of milk in Paris cost pounds 1.25, rather than 89p in London. Some vegetables and fruit are comparable in price with Britain. Wine is substantially cheaper.

Convinced that, however good they might be, we were being ripped off by the neighbourhood shops, we tried the market, then the supermarkets in the suburbs, then the vast hypermarkets, as large as airport terminals, in the provinces. The price differences were tiny. In many cases, the figures were suspiciously similar.

There are occasional price promotions but in France, the price of fish is the price of fish. You can shop around for quality but looking for bargains saves only centimes. Overall, Margaret estimates that shopping to feed five people in Paris costs pounds 450 a month - compared with pounds 320 in London.

Part of the difference can be explained by the fact that food is taxed in France - at a minimum of 18 per cent - and not in Britain. But what of the rest? Are we not supposed to be in a single European market with common farm prices? Why is food in France so expensive?

The broad and easy answer is that France is a regulated, producer - and retailer-led, not a market - and consumer-led economy. Although the large hypermarches have undercut the small artisan food shops in some provincial towns, the price of food seems in mysterious ways, and maybe not so mysterious ways, to be pegged within certain limits. Jacques Chirac, when he was mayor of Paris, forbade large supermarkets from entering the city.

The French consumer tolerates this state of affairs because - when it comes to food - France is a quality, not a price- led culture. There must, however, be many working wives on limited incomes in the suburbs who would love to be able occasionally to walk into a Sainsbury's and buy a tin of cheap baked beans. On the other hand, we could ask a different question. Why is food in Britain so cheap? The French gain something from having expensive food. What do we lose from having such cheap food?

On a brief visit to England this week, I was under orders to go to Sainsbury's to buy a lifetime's supply of tea-bags (French love of quality does not extend to tea). Walking around the aisles, I was afflicted by reverse culture shock. Yes, everything was cheap compared with France. But where were the rows of sausages and cooked meats? The banks of vegetables? Instead, there seemed to be an aisle each for biscuits, baked beans and pet food.

By forcing down producer and processor margins, the large UK supermarket chains have cut the price of food shopping in Britain. They have also enormously increased their market share and driven scores of smaller rivals out of business.

A recent survey of UK super-markets by the Epicurean World Master Chef's Society complains that the quality of food offered in supermarkets chains in Britain is atrocious. Good quality foods exists there, the chefs say, but obsession with price and market share has driven it out of supermarkets. Much was the same in America, I recall, where food was even cheaper but the quality even lower.

Here, then, is a great conundrum for the market ideologists and the dirigiste social planners alike. A relatively controlled economy like France produces an alimentary cornucopia; but no easy escape from high prices for poorer families. A "free" economy like the UK or the US produces cheap food of poor quality and limited choice, save 400 kinds of biscuits, or 400 kinds of peanut butter, all of which taste the same.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower