It sounds trite to say it, but it must be said. The French are really into their food and wine.
Whereas Americans can be characterized, and not altogether unfairly caricatured, by the speed with which they eat and the vast quantities that they consume at each sitting, the French actually care about quality – the quality of ingredients, the quality of preparation, the quality of presentation, the quality of time spent at table. You would think that given the opportunity, Americans would appreciate this different attitude toward mealtime. You would be wrong.
Americans complain that they can't get a decent cheeseburger. Americans fret that the service is slow.
Americans are jerks.
Not that I'm some sort of unreconstructed Francophile. I appreciate the opportunities available to me growing up in America. America is a great country.
But Americans are jerks.
Americans have adapted their mid-day meal regimen to accommodate their working life. They shovel in the calories and gobble them down within a half-hour time window and are back at work before the last mouthful has completed its journey down the esophagus. France, on the other hand, is a country where business ceases at noon and everyone takes a couple of hours to have a hearty meal with friends, lingering over three courses, letting the digestive juices do their work as they were meant to do. And if the French are becoming the least bit Americanized, if more and more urban – and even some rural – supermarkets and big box stores stay open over lunch and even (gasp) open on Sundays, is that not the saddest of intrusions of modern life into a culture that celebrates its rich history of decadence?
Let's begin our examination of the French food supply chain with a discussion of grocery shopping.
Every village of even modest size has at least one market day in the town square, sometimes two or three. Local produce, meats, seafood, and cheeses abound. Fresh, fresh, fresh. There's a local lady with a small table selling a few dozen eggs. Next to her a guy has six or seven tables covered with produce that tastes as good as it looks...and it looks pretty darn good. There's the 30 foot-long meat counter, just like a small supermarket's meat counter except that there's no self service. And they take plastic. A smaller trailer sells Chinese food and I'd swear that other guy is advertizing horse meat. During Thursday market, the one closest to the weekend, you might find the spice lady or the olive man as well. Shoppers may not be able to eat the whole week through from market day purchases, but they know the good stuff when they see it, they buy the good stuff, and they use it while it's fresh.
Supplementing the markets are the alimentaires, the little grocery stores, often themselves in the town squares, presided over by a woman of indeterminate age who knows your business better than you do. There's just enough of everything on the shelves to tide you over in case of emergency – a few bars of hand soap, a couple of packages of disposable diapers, two or three boxes of laundry detergent...France hasn't completed the conversion to liquid by half. And there's always butter and cheese, a small selection of local produce, and a free floor show...like the American guy who comes in at odd hours for odd things. He lives across the square and down the alley and he rents out his house to people from all over the world. C'est vrai!
I'm not ashamed to say that we do the bulk of our grocery shopping at Carrefour, the supermarket outside of Cazouls and the hypermarket on the outskirts or Narbonne. (For the uninitiated, a hypermarket is a combination supermarket and department store, often the anchor of a large shopping center. Think K Mart with a kickin' seafood section.) You can't beat the price and selection. Take a quick tour.
As is typically the case in the States, the entrance to a Carrefour supermarket brings you to the produce section. I never understood the logic of that, by the way. It means that your delicate fruits and veggies are at the bottom of the cart, at the mercy of being squished by that two liter bottle of Coke that you throw in at the other end of the store. Anyway, that's where the similarity ends. Nothing is wrapped in plastic and everything is clearly marked for price and country of origin. And since we're talking the Mediterranean marketplace here, including north Africa, just about everything is in season all of the time.
Lovely leeks, fat and snow white with crisp greens. Lettuce heads, untrimmed, straight from the fields, tasting like butter.
Seafood is displayed on deep beds of ice and the whole corner smells of the Med. The salmon and the shrimp will be familiar, but there are a whole range of Mediterranean species to choose, from various whole fish and filets to the exotic 'what-the-heck-is-that' swimmer. Look but don't touch; there are attendants. And be careful, the floor is always wet.
Although by American standards the meat counter is lacking in the beef department, the variety is stunning – chicken, duck rabbit, lamb, mutton, a dizzying choice of sausages, and more. If you've never barbecued a boneless duck breast with a thick, untrimmed layer of fat over a grapevine wood fire, the flavor is impossible to describe.
My favorite place in our local Carrefour is the deli counter. Such an understatement: deli counter. There's boiled ham and Serrano ham and salami and pepper salami and four different kinds of country pate and three different kinds of foies gras and big round chunks of sweet chorizo and chorizo and you can ask for a couple of slices of this and 100 grams of that and before you know it, you've got sufficient pickings to keep you happy for several days – assuming you've also visited the cheese counter, as exciting for the discriminating cheesehead as the deli is for me.
As for the rest, much is familiar but with subtle shifts in emphasis. There is a lot less breakfast cereal and a lot more chocolate. There's a huge aisle of milk, unrefrigerated and in cartons as well as plastic bottles. Irradiated? Don't know. Hard to get used to. Lots of wine. Beer, too. Shelves and shelves of alcoholic beverage.
Next up, we'll talk about how all of this translates into a typical day's menu and a few restaurant tips.