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.