Franco Files: Grocery Shopping in Paris
I love checking out local grocery stores whenever I travel. It is a cultural education and an adventure that is often rewarded with unique, affordable souvenirs. At first everything may seem the same; produce is generally to the right, near the front, with dry goods at the center and various treats next to the cashiers. But on closer inspection, there is the odd twist that can be delightfully revealing and make grocery shopping in Paris an adventure.
Most striking to first-time visitors is invariably the yogurt aisle. There may be up to six linear meters of yogurt on display, yogurts that vary by flavor, texture and type of milk. One could get lost in the selection… is it a nonfat sheep’s milk from the Basque region that I am craving today or a fruit-flavored cow’s milk from a local farmer? And indeed, when the French head off to live abroad, it is the dairy section that leaves them misty eyed and homesick.
Not far from the yogurt department are the rows and rows of butter. Butter from Normandy or butter from Brittany? Butter that has been hand churned or butter with sea salt crystals? Now that I’ve tasted them all, I can assure you that Bordier (that’s a brand name, not a region) is the very best, especially at Christmas, when they add bits of black truffle! But this butter is not in every grocery store, and it is a waste to use it with anything but the simplest preparations, so I generally choose something artisanal for my daily needs and a more industrial product for cooking.
Milk is something of a mystery to many visitors. There is fresh homogenized milk in the refrigerated section, but not a lot of it, because most French households opt for six-packs of milk treated at ultra-high temperatures (UHT), which do not need to be refrigerated until opened and therefore can be purchased in bulk.
You can find very good wines for next to nothing at the grocery store, and there is also no lack of gourmet supplies: duck confit in a can, buckwheat crêpes, croque monsieurs and at least 60 different cheeses. There are even some excellent souvenirs, like chocolates, cookies and the sea salt crystals called sel de Guérande. But don’t look for Advil or cold medicine, because those are the strict domain of the local pharmacies, and the snack food aisle is a paltry meter or two.
Not only is there a remarkable difference in the products available, but the customs change a bit, too. Your produce is weighed and labeled, either by you or a clerk, before you get to the cash register. Once you’re at the register, you will know you are shopping in Paris when you see that the clerk is seated and you are expected to bag your own purchases. If you are here for a long stay, you’ll be happy to note that most grocery stores will deliver to your door at no extra charge, saving you from lugging those six bottles of milk all the way home.
Because of the city’s historic architecture, the grocery stores are not always easy to spot. Look for signs that read Carrefour City, Monoprix, or Franprix.
Editor’s note: Are you a foodie? Download one of our DIY foodie tours.