05 February 2011

Je vais au marché!

Mon primeur: “If I’d known you were taking pictures,
I’d have worn clean trousers,” he said.

Foolishly, perhaps, I still consider the United States a civilized country — or at least “semi-barbaric,” in the celebrated locution of Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?” However, I am forced to question that opinion when I comparison shop for groceries.

Certain staples are not only available in France, they’re much cheaper than what finds in the States. First among these is, of course, cheese. Even the low-end stuff in France is superior to most of the cheese in America, and it’s at least as good as the imports that one finds in Manhattan’s markets, such as Fairway, Gourmet Garage, and Whole Foods. However, the price of cheese in New York is so high that I swear off the stuff when I’m there.* The only affordable stuff has no flavor and appears to have been crafted from leftover plastic.

One advantage of the G20 supermarket is its bargain bin.
Nearing their expiration dates, cheeses are even cheaper —
and better aged, therefore tastier.
Total cost of the (house-brand) cheeses here: 9.47 Euros.

Shopping in France also means a marked rise in the probability of finding carrots that taste like carrots (as opposed to American carrots, which taste like nothing), and even a convenience store carries French food, including some pretty exotic stuff. The Coccimarket in Beynes stocks canned gésiers de canard confits (duck gizzards preserved in fat), for about 4 Euros; they’re not homemade by a farmer’s wife in Gascony, but they’re correct, as the French say, and on my budget, I couldn’t afford them, or anything like them, in the States.

Since I’ve got no car in Beynes, I do most of my shopping at the nearby supermarket, G20 (pronounced zhay-van); occasionally I take the train to nearby Plaisir, where there’s an Auchan hypermarket that stocks everything you ever heard of. In addition to name-brand products, these stores carry house brands, and sometimes bargain brands, too (“EP” at G20, “La marque pouce” at Auchan), helpful to those on a budget.

The fishmonger's stall in Beynes:
The marché is the only option in town for fresh fish.

In a way, this kind of shopping is cheating, because in France you’re supposed to go to the marché and move from stall to stall, each of which has a specialty: fruits and vegetables; bread; poultry; fish; pork and charcuterie; and beef and lamb, to name the standards. Prices tend to be higher, but the quality is hard to beat, when you know what you’re doing.

However, like many immigrants, I find it easier to shop in a supermarket, and the following vignette will help you to understand why. Back when Beynes still had a butcher shop, I was still trying to figure out metric weights; the butcher asked how many kilos of pork chop I wanted, and I blanked. Even in pounds, I had no answer: I just wanted two crummy pork chops. At G20 or Auchan, I can pick up a pre-packaged barquette without answering any questions at all.**

La volaille chez mon primeur

Nevertheless, I am a disciple of Henri Boutrit, and so, on market days (Thursdays and Sundays), I venture forth. My most faithful patronage is reserved for the vegetable vendor, who drives the long road from his family farm in Chartainvilliers, in order to bring us fresh produce. It’s excellent stuff, which accounts for the long lines of dedicated customers; and the care with which he selects each piece doesn’t make those lines move very quickly.

But it’s worth it. My primeur stocks foods I can’t find elsewhere, and in some cases, food I’d never seen before. Over the years, we’ve fallen into a friendly rapport, though we still don’t know each other’s names. We share translations and kitchen tips, and we search for the right descriptions, from either culture, to help me get the food I want: for example, do I want the beetroot that’s the size of a baseball (my suggestion) or a boule de pétanque (his)?

Carrots that taste like carrots, with Brussels sprouts from Chartainvilliers

This week, when I wanted red cabbage, he warned me that there had been frost on the farm, and he wasn’t sure the cabbages were any good. He sliced them open, one by one, found them all wanting, and threw them out. I got green cabbage instead (and it’s excellent). I defy you to find this kind of personalized attention (to say nothing of self-sacrifice) at Piggly Wiggly.

In summer, when he carries yellow squash — which I grew up on and adore, but which most French people are unfamiliar with — he looks to me to share my grandmother’s recipe for Goliad squash. He’s learned not to remove the greens from beets and turnips, because I like to sautée them; and he tries to choose topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes) that will be comparatively easy to clean and prepare.

Légumes oubliés: navets jaunes (yellow turnips), topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes)
Yes, that’s real dirt.

Topinambours are légumes oubliés, “forgotten vegetables,” mostly roots, which prior generations of French people stopped eating after 1945, because under German occupation, they had nothing else to eat. Younger French people are rediscovering them, but they’re still a hard sell among older customers — and in Beynes, especially on Thursdays, I’m one of the youngest customers in the market.

I try to set a good example for my neighbors, experimenting with all sorts of vegetables, and whenever I have particular success with something I’ve purchased, I make a point of telling my primeur — so that my neighbors will hear, and want to try for themselves.

Personalized attention: Mon primeur avec une cliente.

I have a better sense of what I’m eating, when I’ve seen it arrayed in crates, direct from the Grand’Ferme; and even when it comes from G20 or Auchan. I’ve come to take a greater pleasure in my senses, too, in the colors, shapes, textures, and fragrances of my vegetables — so long as they have any (and in France, they do). My food is not something that just happens, it’s real, and I’m engaged with it.

As I think about it, I’m not sure whether communing with vegetables (and farm animals) makes me more or less civilized, actually: I may be the semi-barbaric one in this story. But I’m not about to change my ways now.

New turnips (with their greens!), carrots (that taste like carrots!), with onions in the background

*NOTE: On a recent stay in New York, my cheese-free diet led to a loss of about 5 pounds. At last, I resorted to throwing a party for a number of friends — because I could justify purchasing cheese for others, even if I couldn’t justify purchasing it for myself. Naturally, I ate most of the stuff.

**Since my traumatic encounter with the butcher, I have learned to punt. I’ll say, for example, “Well, there will be two of us at dinner, and we’re not big eaters.” The butcher will recommend a weight, I'll ask for something smaller (and therefore cheaper), and everybody is compromised but happy.


Tamboura Gaskins said...

You've described the kind of grocery shopping that I love to do. I like having the option to shop at an open market versus the grocery store. I too am stumped by how much, by weight, is enough; only if the recipe spells out a weight requirement, can I call it out to a butcher or fishmonger. I once bought two pounds of cod and was stuck eating fish soup all week. The fish soup was delicious the first few days, and then boy was I done with it.

I love vegetables from a farmer's market. When gardeners that I know give me produce from their gardens, I feel truly blessed. I especially love tomatoes, red and green, squash and zuchini hand-picked from the garden. Whenever I score garden veggies, I like making vegetable lasagna. It's the best when the vegetables are right off the farm.

Thank you for sharing your marketing experiences in France. I can live vicariously through you.

William V. Madison said...

I believe a lot of my trouble stems from growing up in supermarkets, where there's so little direct contact with the staff. In France, the butcher, fishmonger, primeur, and the rest actually want you to tell them what you intend to do with the food, how many people you're serving, etc. -- all the information that most American grocers don't want. In exchange for your candor, French vendors really will try to give you better service, plus cooking tips. But it is, as I say, a different way of doing things.

Wuthering Lows said...

I have improved in my estimations of weight from online supermarket shopping. Much as I would love to be au marché in France, I buy most of my stuff from the supermarket (or our really excellent greengrocer, who will order things like chervil for sauce béarnaise). We were in Bretagne for our holidays last summer and I'm wishing I were back there...