Shopping at French Markets
When I first arrived in France I had (and have) romantic notions of marchés and artisanal boutiques. They are rampant, certainly, but I didn’t shop at them like I envisaged. I was too shy to go to these places and place my order in French and too intimidated by the Parisian cold to want to venture shop to shop (I've been told that this winter is unusually mild, but it's often still too much for me). For lack of courage I did our shopping at the local supermarket.
Around the world supermarkets are arranged in ways that make perfect sense to locals but can leave a newcomer in a state of dizzy confusion. In France, the arrangement of things seems even more non-sensical: eggs aren’t placed at the back of the store alongside milk but in some obscure corner next to imported tea and gluten-free crisps; cooking chocolate isn’t in the baking section, but is mixed in with all the general chocolate; spices are tucked in next to fresh salads, plonked on low shelves, as if they were an afterthought. Aisles run this way and that. I found that even after numerous visits, this maze-like arrangement made it hard to remember the location of things. I would go from aisle to aisle, aware that I was gaining frustration and losing time.
Though, some things were easy to find. Nutella, for instance, is not only found in the breakfast section but tends to have whole end-caps to itself (this is dangerous but also reassuring: perhaps I'm in the right country). Every second corner is like, boom, Nutella. Cheese is also easy to find (again: perhaps I'm in the right country). Cheese takes up a whole aisle plus a couple of end caps. Since the French are glorious and have invented hundreds of types of cheeses - the Internet tends to say between 350 and 450 - this is highly sensible.
Another time waster is having to weigh your own produce. It involves queuing at one of the scales (many of which will be "out of order") and then trying to remember the French word for leek (poireau), pumpkin (citrouille) and pomegranate (grenades - adorable!) without having to resort to Google Translate. Then, of course, there's the check-out queue, where long lines and unhurried service is a French societal given.
Unhappy, I looked into ordering our groceries online, but I quickly noticed that everything was much more expensive (for instance, salmon was 160% the price of what you'd pay in store!). So, we continued going to the supermarket, but now Rémi and an Autolib - a sort of hourly car hire system - accompanied me on weekends (with no car, during the week I could only buy what I could carry home, so it required subsequent trips. More time wasted.).
Still unsatisfied, we stopped with that routine, too. We disliked the supermarket - especially me - and found that while it seemed convenient, it was tiring and boring and consuming, and therefore not convenient at all. My main qualm was that shopping at the supermarket so blatantly conflicted with my values. Don't I value supporting small business and contributing to our local economy? Don't I value bustling markets lined with pyramids of colour and hustling merchants?
With effort, we're getting used to a routine that has us feel better about our buying (read: voting) choices. It requires a few more stops, shopping this way, and a lot more planning, but we feel better about ourselves and our life by doing things like this, and that matters a whole lot.
We're not perfect. It's an ongoing learning process and shift in habits and mindset. Rémi still often stops at Carrefour on the way home when we’re short of something, but we’re slowly moving in the direction we want. I think what helps is that we aren’t striving for perfection but simply striving for better. Striving for perfection can sometimes mean that if you mess up once, you take it really badly and give up all together. Better just means, “we’re doing better than what we did four months ago”, and I find this motivating in the kindest and gentlest of ways.
Our Initial Shopping Shifts:
- We’ve been hauling ourselves out of the bed on Sunday mornings to get produce, fish, nuts and cheese from the market.
- We bought a bread machine (which we use when its too cold to go to the boulangerie), and a yogurt maker (to reduce our plastic. Unfortunately milk still comes in a plastic bottle and I haven't found a glass alternative).
- After taking note of their limited operating hours I now go to the butcher and bakery. I've also worked pass my fear of speaking French and now order in the most brazen, shitty French imaginable. Unsurprisingly, no one cares.
- I’ve scouted a few organic food shops in our neighbourhood and near Rémi’s work to find that we can get flours, pasta, rice, nuts and even breakfast cereal in bulk. The great news is that they aren't much more expensive than the boxed supermarket variety.
- I'm getting better at planning our meals, and this makes a world of difference in avoiding the supermarket and cutting waste. (I found that it helps to plan only 3 or 4 dinners a week. I use the other nights and our weekend lunches to get creative with all the odd-bits we tend to have left-over from my planned dinners.
Carrot and Ginger Soup
This simple carrot and ginger soup came about because I had half a bunch of carrots that were just about to spoil. It turned into a fuss free, light yet creamy soup with a delicious bite. Plus, it only takes about 30 minutes to make.
- around 7 or so medium-sized carrots* - roughly chop 6.5 of these and finely chop the remaining half for the mirepoix
- 1 tbsp of grated ginger
- 1 tsp of sesame oil
- about 10 - 12cm of medium-thick celery, finely chopped
- 1 small-medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 litre vegetable stock
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- small cube of butter
- 1 tsp of olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Optional garnish with roasted sesame seeds and/or coriander or parsley
- In a non-stick pan, place the butter and olive oil. Once the butter has melted, add the finely chopped carrot, onion, celery (this makes your mirepoix, a basic French cooking fundamental. More about it another time). Cook over low heat until the mix has softened and some juices have released into the pan.
- Throw your carrots and ginger into a pot of hot vegetable broth until the carrots are soft. While the carrots are in their softening process, add the turmeric, cumin and some salt and pepper.
- When the carrots are ready, remove the pot from heat and throw in the mirepoix and sesame oil. Using a stick blender, blend the mix until its smooth.
- Garnish with fresh herbs and roasted sesame seeds.
- Peeling your carrots will allow for a creamier, smoother texture, however, keeping the skin will boost your fibre intake.