[written 2009 July 31 Co-posted on the 02138.com blog]
What is strange about produce shopping in France were all the apples available throughout the summer.
I don't know where they were coming from, as I didn't buy anyway.
My cling fruit juices were flowing as is appropriate.
The pears were only barely beginning to appear and will be in very full swing in the autumn.
I'm still trying to get over the shock and depression of shopping for the first time since back in Cambridge, and walking through the local Whole Foods. When we were in Nice, just before we left, I took Jody into Monoprix, actually a low to middle middle class chain across France, known for discount pricing. They only sell midline brands on most things (so, although there's no equivalent as our department stores, like theirs, are much more comprehensive, so it isn't a department store, and they also sell OTC products, like CVS, and now have begun installing very ambitious food departments. Anyway, Whole Foods makes Monoprix (where not too many very very serious foodies would not shop; spiritually equivalent to eating at Appleby's) look like the food halls at Harrod's in London, or the Galleries Lafayette in Paris.
If anything confirms that the French are serious about food, it's the food departments at Monoprix, which is otherwise a place to get cheap underwear and your favorite toothpaste at a better price. I should mention that in the Monoprix outlets in Paris, at least, they also sell, in their personal care products departments, brands for items that require going to carriage trade toiletry and pharmaceutical stores, things like Klorane and ROC.
We saw a dozen different kinds of pâté en croûte, and an equal number without croûte. Produce better than the French supermarkets (but worse than daily outdoor market stalls). Cheese department(s) that put any place here to shame, including Il Formaggio right here in Cambridge, with its cheese cave, and pretentious airs and astronomical prices. I say department in the plural because it would appear they have at least three places to buy cheese, I think according to your needs and budget.
Monoprix even has an affordable cheese section, where the cheeses are already apportioned and wrapped in plastic with a weight and price. You can buy a whole Reblochon at the attended counter (or any number of other cheeses from every region of France, never mind just the South), or you could buy a half a small round (250gm, or a scant ounce more than half a pound) for 3,12 euros (about $4.40). Aged crottin (goat cheese) were under 1,50 euro each. I checked at WFM yesterday; a particularly desiccated plate of specimens were seven bucks each. One further rung below this department is the one that is familiar-looking to us: the branded cheeses (think Kraft or a grade or two above) in thermoplastic, vacuum-sealed packaging.
Their wine section, with wines from every region of France represented in depth, and in price (from ~ 2,50 euro to over 30 euro a bottle, for wines, in the latter instance, that would be astronomical here), was at least as big as the largest outlets here that have to sit on the highway here to find a building with the room.
The butcher, charcuterie, bakery, cheese departments are all staffed with knowledgeable people who work scrupulously (I've watched them, re: cleanliness, precision, manners, attentiveness, friendliness) to serve you from really overwhelming choices of items.
And everything is way cheaper (and this is a Monoprix on the main shopping street, also lined with fast food outlets, chain stores, cafés, and a shopping mall (with underground garage) that takes up a city block in mid-size coastal city, not particularly wealthy except in the suburbs up in the hills, and which depends entirely on tourism, and the tourists do NOT shop at Monoprix... it's strictly a venue the locals know about and prefer) than in the U.S.--take your pick of chains, and skip WFM, which is stacking the deck.
The lack of variety in our stores, the dearth of real choices, the degree to which food is processed and packaged, the distance you are from true artisanal products, from the sources of the food, and certainly the profound difference in quality (in terms of appetite appeal, actual taste, and concern with nutritional value) is going to be hard to prevent from being profoundly depressing.
Any assertion that food is expensive there, which I’ve heard from people who should know better, and not of extreme value, compared to the abundance and price here, is total horse manure. The comparison is odious, and the truth lies elsewhere.
And don't get me wrong. You can buy dry breakfast cereals and sweetened soft drinks over there (of course they use beet and cane sugars to much greater degree than we do, which is hardly at all, though, ominously, high-fructose corn syrup is making inroads), it's just who would want to?