Buying and cooking French food

How and where to shop, eat and cook in France

Shopping, cooking and eating French!

The whole world knows about the superiority of French cuisine. In fact, ask almost any ex-pat living in France why they wanted to move here, and the chances are the reply will mention the food and wine. The fresh produce, the highest quality, the best restaurants, the markets, the supermarkets… all are frequently cited as reasons for moving. Then why I wonder, do new French residents seem so bewildered by their gastronomic choices in the first few months of their brave new lives? Let's look at a few examples and see if you recognise any…

Is this you?

- Wandering aimlessly around the markets, clutching empty baskets, gazing longingly at the stalls but never straying too near…
- Sitting in restaurants, toying with the food on your plates, looking anything but ecstatic…
- In the supermarkets searching desperately for familiar brands, buying expensive packaged goods from the Étrangère section…
- At home, in the kitchen, either sweating over something hideously complicated from a French recipe, or trying to recreate a well loved British dish with the wrong ingredients….

Culture shock

I'll let you into a secret… they were all me… at some point! Moving to France, with all its wonderful advantages not least of them gastronomic and culinary, is a culture shock at first and you may as well be prepared.

The weekly market

The market, a weekly event in many French towns, is a great place to buy your fresh fruit and veg among many other things. However, contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily cheaper than the supermarket, and it can be a time consuming way of shopping if you are in a hurry! If you don't speak French the market can be a daunting experience, as it is not self service, and having to take the 'Point and grunt' approach can become embarrassing after a while! I now look on the market as a way of shopping for pleasure, when I have the time and the inclination. When I'm in the usual hurry to get the weekly shopping done, I head for the supermarket just as I did in the UK. It's nice to have the option though… on a warm, sunny day (of which there are many, fortunately, in our part of France) the market is a very pleasant place to be.

French supermarkets

And although confusingly different at first, I find I now love the French supermarkets. There will always be the odd item that I miss from England, but I now ask visitors to bring these with them when they come to stay, rather than buying from the overpriced foreign foods sections. You can however, should you need to, buy such goods as Heinz beans, peanut butter and bitter marmalade from these shelves, and the range of products available depends on how big a British community there is in your area. The fresh fish counters are wonderful, and the fruit and vegetables on offer are simply fabulous quality. That said, you will need to appreciate and work with the seasonal availability of fresh goods. France imports as little as possible, and as much as possible is locally grown. The seasonal principle is applied far more rigidly than in Britain, where it seems possible to buy almost anything at any time of year. In France you will find that fruits and vegetables simply disappear from the shelves when not in season… just get used to making the most of them when they are as they will be plentiful, cheap and better tasting than you have ever known!

The restaurants

The restaurants… oh, the restaurants! This is France, whose gastronomy has been celebrated since time immemorial, how can you possibly go wrong in a restaurant? Well, it takes a while to get used to the different dishes on offer, and British tastes frequently seem to need time to adjust. A popular local salad here for instance, is made with duck gizzards… yes, that's right, duck gizzards. There are so many differences; at first I really felt that I would never enjoy eating out in France as much as I had in England. Strangely enough, however, I do… it has taken eighteen months, but my tastes have adapted and I find I really rather like duck gizzard salad, and am no longer fazed by a spaghetti carbonara served with a raw egg on top…!

Neighbourly love

Getting to know your neighbours can be helpful too, as many of the older residents are keen gardeners and it is not at all unusual to come home to find huge baskets of cherries, walnuts, figs or tomatoes on your doorstep when there is a glut!

The ex-pat kitchen

Finally… the ex-pat kitchen. An alien environment at first, as you find yourself wanting to do justice to the fabulous 'Frenchness' which surrounds you, but you don't really know how. Relax, take your time. Cook old family favourites at first, you will find your approach gradually and naturally evolves into more of a French style as you get used to the markets, the supermarkets and the restaurants. I find I now happily recreate meals we have enjoyed in restaurants and at friends' houses, and my cooking has happily become creatively different, if not authentically French! Writer Joanne (Chocolat) Harris has published some very approachable cookery books to help British cooks produce French-style meals without the stress of translation!

Life's pleasures

In short, the key to food and drink in France is much the same as the attitude to life altogether here. Relax, take time and enjoy. Above all, enjoy!

Simple ways to eat 'French'

Salad: Instead of the usual British salad of limp lettuce, cucumber and tomato, try this… use several different varieties of lettuce (if you are in France, the curly Frisée type is a lovely visual addition), chop cucumber, tomatoes and spring onions into it in the usual way. Meanwhile, fry some lardons (small cubes of bacon), and boil and peel a couple of eggs. Chop or slice the eggs, add to the salad along with the lardons. Top with some chopped figs and walnuts, or pine nuts… add olive oil and serve with lots and lots of good crusty bread… delicious. Makes a perfect starter, or light lunch.

Vegetables: Try the French way of making vegetables interesting… add lardons and shallots to a dish of petits pois, or chop a chorizo sausage into a serving of green beans… and for the vegetarians amongst you, add cubes of cheese, or nuts and fresh herbs. Eat your heart out, Jamie Oliver… even the kids like vegetables served like this!

About the author

Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.

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