Saturday, 12 January 2008

Shop until you drop

Saturday is shopping day. Not just this Saturday, the first of the French sales, but every Saturday. And not shopping for clothes or stationary or shoes or iPods, which might be interesting and which I could do all day every day, but for the comestibles and household goods that will keep our little family going until we shop again the next Saturday.

Recently I was asked by a French woman what is the biggest difference between living in Paris and in London. "Here we go again," I thought. It is one of those whimsical "what's your favourite colour?" questions children like so much that has no right or wrong answer (except perhaps, "none") and whatever you say usually just reinforces a preference. "Blue? Oh me too," or "Blue? That's interesting, I prefer red myself." I could have said anything: "politics", "art", "culture", "everything". I said: "Food shopping." She said: "Really? How interesting," with a look that conveyed the opposite. OK, so how many ways are there to buy an egg? But it is true; shopping for food has always seemed to me to be a huge cultural difference between the French and British.

When I lived in London I drove to the supermarket and stocked up for a month. I had the shop down to 30 minutes maximum if I was not waylaid by kitchen utensils or knickers. True, I was always amazed to come back after a fortnight working abroad to find the tomatoes as perfect and free of rotten pockmarks as the day I left. I expect I did think: "I wonder what has gone into or on them", but in those days it was not top of my list of life-threatening worries.

In France, very few people, and usually only those who have no local shops, do all their shopping in the supermarket. As a result shopping for food takes time and legwork. In our case it takes almost an entire day.

Today was a typical Saturday. First it was Monoprix for the boring stuff: kitchen roll, toilet paper and toothpaste; basics like sugar and coffee and bottles of fizzy water. I can still get round in 30 minutes, if not waylaid by kitchen utensils or children's clothes (OK, priorities have changed), but I usually leave it to the Frenchman. This task is currently complicated because the nearest Monoprix has been closed down because of a structural problem with the building next door, and the second nearest has been closed down because the roof fell in a month after it opened. To lose one supermarket in the same High Street is unfortunate, to lose two...

Then it was off to the butcher who hachéd us some steak, cut up three legs from corn-fed free-range farm chickens (birth and death dates, social habits and diet stated on the label), sold us a bigger filet mignon than we wanted and gave us two lamb steaks from a filetted leg. The total came to the euro equivalent of £30 as it does most times over the last few years. This has not earned us a smile or a particularly welcoming "Bonjour", let alone better cuts of meat.

They are friendlier at the cheese shop. The staff that is. The owner, a woman whose face has been chiseled out of granite, gave a young assistant a reprimand once for inappropriate gossiping after I had asked about her pregnancy. The shop sells fresh butter and cream as well as hams and whisky. Recently it began stocking British cheeses. "This is Stilton. It's made in England but even so it is really very good," I caught one of the servers telling a sceptical French customer.

Fruit and veg are a problem. Do we buy from the fabulously friendly reasonably-priced Moroccan greengrocer who takes the credit card and often throws in a chocolate cake, biscuit or punnet of out-of-season unnaturally perfect strawberries for La Fille, but does not have a huge choice? Or do we defect to the huge greengrocers just a few yards away that has every fruit and vegetable found on the planet but is unfriendly, demands cash and offers no freebies? The third option is the greengrocer in the local market who has plenty to offer, takes credit cards and offers La Fille a clementine but is as expensive as he is jovial. This is the subject of a pavement debate every week.

We used to buy fish from the poissoniere near the cheese chop, but since the grumpy fat owner and his jolly wife who used to tickle the Fille under the chin every week - whether we stopped to buy or not - sold up we have preferred the fishmongers in the market, another schlep unless we are getting the fruit and veg there too. Then we visit the boulangerie for pain aux céréales and sometimes cakes, the organic shop for eco-friendly cleaning stuff as well as La Fille's favourite fruit purée and organic raisins and finally the wine shop. In the last six years, the Frenchman has spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds here. He should be not only on first name terms with the owner and his wife, but inviting them for dinner. Instead he returns miffed every week that he has not been offered so much as a free tasting or a corkscrew. Sometimes I also make a detour to the Indian shop to pick up some baked beans, mint sauce, tandoori paste and - if I am expecting visiting Brits - some English tea.

All these shops are dotted about the 'quartier' and some are closed for three hours at lunchtime, even on Saturdays, so what used to take me 30 minutes with no organisation, now takes several hours and requires the planning of a military exercise.

When, just before Christmas, I told the Frenchman I had done the entire seasonal shop (except for turkey and ham) in the supermarket at 11.45pm he was amazed. "Are you sure you have everything?" he wanted to know. "I have everything, but you won't like the bread," I told him. "Never mind, I'll go to the boulangerie," he said when he arrived. "Where do you think you are?" I asked.

There is certainly something missing from - or not added to - the food we buy in Paris. I would not dare leave the tomatoes in the fridge for more than two days. The last time I did the salad tray resembled a biology project. This begs the question: is putrefaction more or less of a health hazard than pesticide?

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