Les Marchés

There’s an idea which is fashionable in the UK, especially among lefties who, if they are not cash-rich are certainly time-wealthy, that supermarkets are bad and farmers’ markets are good.  Among this crowd there seems to persist the idea that France does things better with each town or suburb having a thriving farmers’ market where local folk can go and buy healthy, organic produce from jolly artisans who aren’t connected to evil supermarket chains.  And it’s true, you can.  But there are a few things people should know about these markets before advocating that they replace Tesco in the UK.

Firstly, the idea that the French eat only healthy food and shun ready-made meals is nonsense.  At the end of my street is a shop – Thiriet – which sells nothing other than frozen, ready-made food including the microwave meals which are apparently causing Brits to become fat.  The French eat this stuff as much as we do.

Secondly, French supermarkets aren’t a patch on the British ones.  Sure, you can buy everything a French person could want but the beauty of British supermarkets is they sell stuff a British person might want, plus what a plethora of foreigners might too.  Hence you can easily find egg noodles in a Tesco Metro.  Try finding them in a Carrefour City.  Or chilli powder.  Also, the French supermarkets aren’t very well run.  The queues at the checkouts are usually a mile long and there aren’t enough staff.  They restock the shelves during the day when they’re open, probably because employing people to work a nightshift is too expensive in France.  They close on Sundays, and a lot of them are dirty.  The Auchun near me is filthy, I haven’t seen baskets and trolleys with such grime on them since I lived in Lagos.

Thirdly, the quality and price of the vegetables in my local market is no different from that of my local supermarket.  I generally find it easier to use the supermarket because it’s closer, and see no advantage in buying vegetables from the market.  In all likelihood, it comes from the same place.

Finally, there is a hygiene factor.  I use the market to buy meat, the quality of which is superb and probably better than what you’d find in a British supermarket without knowing what you were doing.  The selection of fish is also brilliant, as is the cheese.  For this kind of stuff, the market is great which is why I go there.  But I did notice that this morning the chap handling my chicken breasts did so without gloves, nor did he wear a hat or hairnet.  He then handled the money with the same bare hands, picked up one of the coins he’d dropped on the floor, and then moved onto the next customer and handled a nice lump of pork without so much as wiping them on his filthy apron.  I don’t really care about this sort of stuff – so long as the chicken isn’t dry when I cook it, I won’t even remember when I bought it – but when I contrast this with the impeccable standards one sees on display at the deli countet in Tescos or Sainsburys – with everyone wearing hats, hairnets, and gloves – I wonder what the tofu-chomping Guardian readers would think if they were replaced one day by the rather rough looking bunch who man the meat counter at my local market?  Squeal for government intervention, I expect.

France is good and I like it a lot, but it’s often not as advertised.

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12 thoughts on “Les Marchés

  1. Aha. That will be the French approach to law: “Everything is allowed, including that which is specifically forbidden”.

    As opposed to approaches used by the British (“Everything is allowed, except that which is specifically forbidden”), German (“Everything is forbidden, except that which is specifically allowed”) or Russian (“Everything is forbidden, including that which is specifically allowed”)

  2. A brave chap has opened a small chain of greengrocers near us. His stuff is really good: better than the supermarkets. Our best local butcher sells us meat, particularly bacon and lamb, of a quality unknown in supermarkets. We buy almost all our cheese in two different local markets. And so on; horses for courses. Sainsbury’s is best for bog rolls, Tesco for mackerel pate and for jars of roasted peppers, M&S for easy-spread butter, Co-op for bread (since our much-loved local bakery closed when the old boy retired and the daughters didn’t want to carry on the business), Waitrose for fennel salami, and Aldi for jars of artichoke hearts. We are also about to try their Clare Valley Riesling.

  3. In Romania there is quite an “industry” exploiting the eco-bio-organic farming trend: people buying vegetables from supermarkets, spraying them with a bit of water to look fresh and then selling them at farmers’ markets like they are… from a farm. Most buyers would swear they are much better-tasting than the produce in large retail chains, as confirmation bias makes them believe that. 🙂

  4. Stop Press: The aforesaid above-mentioned Clare Valley Riesling is pretty good, and remarkable at the price. We drank it with Sea Bream from Waitrose.

  5. Today’s visit to the village market yielded a chicken and lemon thyme pie, two Italian cheeses and one British, and bread. Plus garlic, and a tray of pansies to brighten our long, grey winter. Sob!

  6. I am very jealous of one (and maybe just one!) aspect of living in Paris: You have access to Marks and Spencer. In fact, their success (For example, their bakery in La Défense is the highest grossing in the group, according to their annual report) proves your point about how willing the French are to eat ready-made food, especially if the quality is better than the usual French offerings, as is the case at M&S (IMHO). Also, they offer much more variety (Unarguably) than French shops, which backs you up again, about the relatively poor performance of French supermarkets. I look forward to their arrival down south…

    For Asian stuff, try the confusingly-named “Paris Store”, who have branches around France (though I guess there are plenty of specialty Asian food shops in Paris anyway).

  7. Talking of markets, but in the abstract, I hope your company hasn’t been investing in lots of hydrocrackers, Tim.

  8. A brave chap has opened a small chain of greengrocers near us. His stuff is really good: better than the supermarkets. Our best local butcher sells us meat, particularly bacon and lamb, of a quality unknown in supermarkets. We buy almost all our cheese in two different local markets.

    The difference between France and the UK is that in France the markets still supply a good chunk of the population with meat, fish, and cheese. In the UK, the supermarkets provide most of it and the markets serve a rather niche demographic who are both time and cash rich. Little wonder, then, that their fare is superior to that of the supermarkets. If they were expected to cater to as many people as the French markets, I suspect you’d see the quality nose-dive.

  9. Aha. That will be the French approach to law: “Everything is allowed, including that which is specifically forbidden”.

    I get the impression their restaurants are a bit like that. It appears to be perfectly possible for dozens of single-owner restaurants to flourish in French towns, suggesting that they are either not very tightly regulated, or if they are, the regulations largely ignored. In the UK, most restaurants appear to be chains these days.

  10. I am very jealous of one (and maybe just one!) aspect of living in Paris: You have access to Marks and Spencer.

    Ah, my French colleagues go nuts about it too! Me, I don’t go there. The English food I miss is the low-grade, student fare: tinned rice pudding, Jaffa Cakes, corned beef, etc. I stock up on this during regular trips with the car to the UK. But the French, as you say, can’t get enough of M&S. Strange, when you think about it.

  11. Talking of markets, but in the abstract, I hope your company hasn’t been investing in lots of hydrocrackers, Tim.

    I don’t think we’ve been investing in anything recently! Divestment seems to be the way we’re heading, trying to improve our cash position.

  12. Most buyers would swear they are much better-tasting than the produce in large retail chains, as confirmation bias makes them believe that.

    Heh! That I can believe.

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