Sunday, October 13, 2013

Groceries in Paris

Most Parisians go to supermarkets to buy groceries, and I'm no exception. There are plenty of open markets in the city with fresh foods, but they are expensive, and you need to have time to visit them, as they typically run from the early morning until just after noon. If you have to work for a living, there's no time to shop in the open markets. So the supermarket steps in.

Supermarkets in Paris and France are better than those in the U.S., though, in terms of the foods they have on sale. A typical supermarket in Paris would have relatively upscale merchandise by American standards. But there are still many similarities, and French supermarkets have less sophisticated display techniques, even though the foods on the shelves are better.

The Carrefour supermarket I regularly visit is typical of the breed in France. (Carrefour is the second-largest retailer in the world, after Walmart, even though you probably haven't heard of them.) The prices are reasonable, no doubt because the employees are underpaid, the expiration dates on food are not always respected, and for other reasons—just like American chains. Carrefour means “crossroads,” incidentally.

The supermarket is open until 11 PM on weekdays and Saturday, and until … well, until a certain hour on Sunday. See, French law requires that supermarkets close at 1 PM on Sundays, but many take a really, really long time to close, not actually closing the doors until around, say, 8 PM. The official hours posted for supermarkets often say "from 9 AM" for the Sunday hours, conveniently omitting the closing time. Since essentially everyone wants to be able to get groceries on Sunday, nothing is said. That's part of the body of French legislation putting artificial restrictions on when businesses can operate, but that's the subject of another post.

When you walk into the supermarket, you hit the fresh produce and sandwich aisle, with fruits and veggies, prepackage sandwiches of excellent quality, and so on. Then there are refrigerator aisles with microwave meals, a huge selection of dairy-based desserts (yogurt and pudding) and cheeses, milk and cream, butter, etc. And there are cereals, snack foods, lunchmeats, frozen meat, fish, and veggies, and so on. Other aisles provide basic household goods like soap and paper plates. It's pretty much what you'd expect to see in any supermarket, but the overall quality of the foods on offer is higher than what you'd get on average in the U.S. While the French are not averse to cheap foods and packaged, industrially-made foods, they still have a higher standard than Americans do, and really crummy food does not survive in the French market.

There are different sizes of supermarkets. The Carrefour I go to most of the time is mid-sized. Across the street from this supermarket is La Grande Épicerie, a huge, famous, upscale supermarket with a fabulous selection of foods, rather like the food halls you see in fancy department stores. The prices aren't much different at La Grande Épicerie, but they are a little bit higher, and they carry a lot more high-ticket items that you don't find elsewhere, such as freshly prepared foods like egg rolls or curried chicken or thin-sliced ham or whatever you want.

Larger supermarkets like La Grande Épicerie (regardless of their price range) have fresh fish departments and butcher departments. There's a Monoprix not far from where I live that's like this, a tiny bit more expensive than Carrefour but somewhat cheaper than La Grande Épicerie.

There are also hypermarkets, which are essentially department stores with a large food section. And there are tiny convenience markets, usually run by families, that have very high prices but carry all the essentials and never seem to close. Within a very short walk from my apartment there are at least a dozen supermarkets in all these categories except the hypermarket; hypermarkets are very large, so you don't see them much in central Paris, but they are common in the suburbs and on the periphery of the capital.

Some of the specific differences about French supermarkets are interesting. The selection of cheeses and alcoholic beverages is always huge. Even a tiny family-run market will have a dozen types of cheese on sale, and maybe ten different wines. Dairy products like yogurts and shakes are also well represented. There's always a little bit of fresh produce, even if it's only a few shelves near the entrance. And in French supermarkets, you put your own stuff in bags at the checkout, which tends to be rather awkward and time-consuming.

I'm not a big fan of grocery-shopping, but at least it's more pleasant in France than in the U.S., simply because there's such a nice selection of stuff to eat. I usually buy a lot of microwave meals, gallons of whole milk, and snack foods. I concentrate on stuff that's easy to chew because most of my teeth are in bad shape these days (due to poverty).

There's another advantage to French supermarkets: they accept tickets restaurants, which are meal vouchers that employers provide to employees if a business is too small to have an on-site restaurant. They are mostly intended to help employees buy a lunch cheaply if they have to eat outside the office, but they are also accepted for groceries, and that's how I normally use them, saving substantial money in the process.

I have to buy some food almost every day, and most of it goes into the fridge. Sometimes I get two big bags and do some major grocery shopping and that holds me for several days—I often do this on a Friday so that I don't have to go out over the weekend. For most French people, Saturday is grocery day, as in much of the U.S. For me, either I stay home on Saturday, or I go out in the evening to do the laundry, if necessary.

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