Rosa Jackson's Edible Adventures

Friday, 6 February, 2009

The future of French shopping?


You might think of Parisiennes as stylish women who take pleasure in shopping at markets and whipping up sumptuous meals with seasonal ingredients.

You would be right about the stylish part. Nearly every Parisienne I know, particularly if she has children, is overworked, perpetually rushed and deeply grateful for the existence of the frozen food chain Picard.

My friend Annie, an advertising executive with a beautiful Haussmann-era apartment in the Marais, rarely sets foot in her kitchen. When she recently invited me for an impromptu dinner, the first time I had seen her cook in eight years, I realized that she had no idea what purpose the knobs on her oven served. The other guest, an American student, was amazed, but for me Annie is a perfect example of the modern Parisienne (incidentally, she has a diploma in oenology from the University of Bordeaux).

There must still be French women who like to cook, I can hear you thinking. To that I would reply, meet my friend Paule. More than ten years ago, before cooking classes were fashionable, she set up the company Promenades Gourmandes to teach French cooking to visitors. Some of the best dinners I have ever eaten have been at her house. She is also the biggest fan of the supermarket Monoprix I know, and proud of it.

"It's almost an addiction," she told me. "I go there at least once a day, often twice. They think about the environment and they think about the customer. They are constantly innovating and there is huge variety at all price levels."

(For the moment Paule doesn't work for Monoprix, but I'm sure she would accept an offer to do their PR.)

Being a foreigner who is in love with French culture, I found this a little hard to swallow. When she visited Nice this week, two American friends and I challenged her over dinner at Bistrot d'Antoine, where the  dishes are made from market produce.

"But what about the small food shops?" we argued.

"Some people don't have time to shop like that," she replied, which is true enough.

When we told her that as North Americans we can't help thinking of supermarkets as at least slightly evil, she suggested giving us a guided tour of her favorite products at Monoprix. I buy only basic ingredients at Monoprix, so I go to the small and unexciting place Garibaldi branch. For the tour we took Paule to the flagship store on avenue Jean Médecin, which is about equivalent to Lafayette Gourmet in Paris. I usually avoid this shop because I find it crowded and stressful; yesterday being a rainy day, it was much quieter than usual.

As soon as she saw the red "M" outside the shop, Paule's eyes lit up as if she had come home. "Let's start in the Daily Monop' section," she said eagerly. Picking up the yogurts and fruit compotes which are sold to the lunchtime crowd along with packaged sandwiches, she looked at the labels to see if they contained additives; many of them didn't.

"But just one yogurt costs €1.20," I pointed out.

"I never said it was cheap," she replied.

Our friend Peter picked up a yogurt to put in his basket.

"These are less expensive," she said, pointing to another brand. "I always look at the price per kilo, not per unit."

Monprix produce

We walked quickly past the lavishly-stocked deli counter - "I never buy anything there," said Paule - to the fresh produce section, where the array was undeniably attractive. Paule was enthusiastic about the romanesco cabbage, small artichokes, striped eggplants and fresh spinach.

"Not much of it is local," I harumphed.

"A lot of it is from France," countered Paule, "and I don't buy much produce at the supermarket anyway."

Peter, meanwhile, was getting excited about Mexican avocadoes for 99 cents, which he said is the same price he would pay in California. There was also an organic produce section with quite a lot of variety, though all of it was heavily packaged.

Monoprix cheese counter

Things picked up at the cheese counter, where even I had to admit there was a large and tempting selection including such oddities as aged British cheddar.

"That goat cheese looks nice," I mused.

"It's not the right season for goat cheese," retorted Paule. She doesn't mind buying pre-packaged cheese, available in a refrigerator next to the cheese counter, but looks carefully at the label to see if it has an AOC label and, in the case of the popular Swiss-type cheese known as comté, if it has been aged for at least a year.

In the refrigerated section, we looked at dozens of different smoked salmons, including one from Alaska, and Paule convinced me to buy some creamy-colored tarama dotted with trouts' eggs.

"It's so good it's a sin," she said.

There were soups aplenty, many of them additive-free and not too pricey, and Paule raved about the prepackaged sliced meat.

Sliced meat

"I've often served the speck to guests, and every time they want to know where it comes from. I never tell them."

Fatema Hal

In the prepared meals section, there were meals from star chefs such as Joël Robuchon and Fatéma Hal, who runs Le Mansouria in Paris. Paule loves the line of sauces from the Costes restaurants in Paris, but these are not sold in Nice.

She laughed when we got to the butter section. "It's tiny and hidden away in a corner," she said. "You can tell we're in olive oil country."

The oil shelves were indeed well stocked, and I picked up 250 ml bottles of walnut and hazelnut oils for about €5.50 each, much less than I normally pay in specialty shops.

Even the fresh meat at Monoprix gets the thumbs-up from Paule. "I buy the meat that's on special offer, because it will be aged more. For my classes I go to my local butcher, because they can prepare the meat the way I want it."

On the way to the check-out I stopped at the impressive dried fruits shelf and picked up some hazelnuts and organic raisins. I had a shock when my total bill came to just over €40 for a single bag of groceries. Looking at the bill, I realized that the hazelnuts alone had cost €7.50, or €30 a kilo. That's €10 more a kilo than at the organic supermarket, and these nuts were not organic.

My conclusion: Monoprix has more to offer than I thought, but like any good supermarket it's filled with temptations which, if you're not careful, can lead to surprises at the till. I probably won't be going there more often, since as a foreigner it's my job to keep small French food shops in business.

I'm curious to know how you feel about supermarkets. Which country in the world do you think has the best supermarkets? If you live in France or have visited, what do you think of the supermarkets? Do you think there is a danger they will put small food shops out of business? Is there a supermarket that makes you as happy as Monoprix does Paule?

Tags: Food shops, Nice, Paris


14 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Friday, 6 February, 2009 3:01pm [ 1 ]

While I don't share Paule's enthusiasm for Monoprix, I was surprised a few weeks ago when they were having some sort of 'promotion' of root vegetables, which are nearly impossible to find in Paris. They had everything from parsnips to fresh horseradish at prices that were very, very reasonable. (Whenever I see parsnips, they're invariably €6-8/kg.)

I don't buy cheese or other things like that there since I don't want the small fromageries and butchers to close up their shops.

But yes, they do a much better job than the other supermarkets, which are pretty dreadful; there really isn't much competition.

Friday, 6 February, 2009 5:10pm [ 2 ]

I live in Paris in 11me. I shop at Monoprix for everyday stuff, but I think that Champion--especially the one in 13me has it over Monoprix every time, for quality and price.

Friday, 6 February, 2009 7:32pm [ 3 ]

When I first moved to Paris from Texas, I was really shocked at how awful most of the supermarkets were. It took me so much time to get used to the often odd and ever-changing layouts of the stores, and of course the rank smell that's characteristic of French supermarkets. But, then I realized I was shopping at the wrong ones and now I really appreciate the clean and well-stocked Monoprix and Inno (same company as Monoprix) in my neighborhood. I try to get my meats, cheese and pasta from the local shops when I can, but for packaged items and things like aged cheddar, tortillas and baked beans I go to Monoprix. I just NEVER go on the weekend.

Thanks for your post on this; it's true it takes some familiarizing and digging around for the good-valued stuff, but it's mostly worth the effort.

Friday, 6 February, 2009 7:36pm [ 4 ]

Wow, Monoprix is going to be calling Paule as soon as they see this story! So fun! I am from New York, living in Zurich now... but I do recall having an apero chez Paule, and I was so excited about a bowl of mini dried sausages - they looked like little candies, each one individually wrapped in plastic. I suppose it was a rare occasion, because she DID in fact tell me that they were from Monoprix! And I proceeded to bring back a few bags to NYC where I was living at the time! ;)

Now in Switzerland - the Coop, and even Migros, supermarkets have truly fantastic quality goods and huge variety. The chocolate aisles could give any top notch chocolate shop a run for their money. I love it!

That said, I go to the farmer's market every Tues & Fri for fruit, veggies, cheese, breads, fish and meat! It's all the extra stuff I get at the Coop.

But back to chocolate... and Monoprix. A Monoprix Gourmet bar worth checking out: chocolat noir petites aux cerises, sesame et eclats de caramel. I grabbed it when I saw it in Paris, hesitated when I saw it was Monoprix, and have gone back for many more since!!

Great story Rosa, thanks !!

Ken Broadhurst
Friday, 6 February, 2009 9:19pm [ 5 ]

French people have been shopping in supermarkets like Monoprix and Inno since at least the early 1970s. It's what you buy, not where you buy it, that matters. If it's better at the outdoor market, get it there. If it's just as good and less expensive at the supermarket, get it there. In Saint-Aignan, SuperU has the highest-quality produce and meats. Intermarché across the river can be a little less expensive for produce, and the quality is good. The Champion market really needs an upgrade. We also have hard-discount supermarkets Ed and Netto, and for many products you find the same quality there are lower prices. It's just a matter of shopping around and finding the best deals.

Friday, 6 February, 2009 9:46pm [ 6 ]

That Monoprix in Nice--no, not the other ones, THAT one--is the nicest grocery store I have ever shopped in. The produce, meat--fresh or preserved, seafood, and bread sections are amazing, and the cheese counter is out-of-this-world!

Tuesday, 10 February, 2009 1:45pm [ 7 ]

David: Yes, Paule was very excited about those root vegetables too!

Gillian: There was an excellent Champion in Nice, too, but I noticed recently that it has been bought by Carrefour, which is a whole other kettle of fish!

Sarah: It's interesting what you say about the smell; I have been in Franprix that tasted so strongly of insecticide that I had to turn around and leave, and even in Monoprix the produce often smells suspect. I do love that Inno though!

Kerrin: Swiss chocolate aisles, now you're talking! One of my favorite pastimes when travelling is visiting the local supermarket; I think it gives great insight into a culture's values.

Ken: Going back many years, I remember I loved Prisunic, which was bought out by Monoprix. These days I go to Ed for organic products, believe it or not - you can't beat four organic yogurts for €1!

Etienne: We did choose the crème de la crème of Monoprix for this story! The place Garibaldi branch is quite different, though in some ways I like it better since it's more down to earth.

Wednesday, 11 February, 2009 3:17am [ 8 ]

I admit to having found some great finds in Monoprixs when visiting Paris, especially wine. And the yogurt ailse makes my eyes lit up, its so unlike here in Canada. I think that Supermarkets have an important place in the busy lives of people, but I do think we need to be careful to support the smaller shops that do what they do well because they need our dollars more and I think we'll miss them more than we think. For me smaller is better as I like to develop a relationship with people, something that makes shopping more enjoyable and simply can't be done in supermarkets. But I do admit that the Real Canadian Superstore (Loblaws in the East) in Canada is my favourite big box store, mostly because they seem smarter than others about the products they create. I always find some sort of treasure when I'm there and their homewares products are amazing. Everything from henkels knives to escargots from Burgundy to organic maple syrup can be found there.

Wednesday, 11 February, 2009 12:21pm [ 9 ]

Tami, it's been years since I set foot in a Superstore, but I do remember them having some fun products. The Monoprix brand maple syrup is surprisingly not bad, though it's not organic.

Thursday, 12 February, 2009 2:37pm [ 10 ]

It's funny because I asked Romain why you can't find a decent variety of root vegetables in Paris and he said, "You have to go to the markets in the bourgeois quartiers."

Odd, that you have to go to the pricey neighborhoods to find root vegetables. Too bad Monoprix only carried them for a short time. Luckily, I have a bunch of the horseradish, grated in vinegar, in my fridge.

Friday, 20 February, 2009 2:01am [ 11 ]

Friends have thought me a bit daft for treating supermarkets like museums, but I find them very revealing. For almost 20 years I've been checking them out on visits to France (and other parts of Europe), along with outdoor markets and local shops. At the Grand Epicerie in Paris I found it quite interesting that you could pick up stuff like peanut butter, Kellogg's Cornflakes and Marmite -- along with your Meursault and celeri remoulade!

I agree that some supermarkets are more enlightened than others; in NYC, for example, Eli's sprawling, pricey emporium has some of the best bread in the city, and that's saying a lot. One-stop shopping at stores such as Whole Foods is pretty irresistible when you can find prepared foods and top-quality imported items, such as oils and cheeses, along with fresh produce, meats, fish and staples.

On the other hand, like other commenters here, I am a strong champion of small grocers, and I try to patronize them whenever I can. However, for optimum results it seems that one must be a shrewd, multitasking shopper (guy on corner has best fish, supermarket is fine for canned goods, etc.). For really busy folks, the Monoprix and its ilk increasingly fits the bill in today's world.

Ms B
Monday, 2 March, 2009 8:39pm [ 12 ]

I second Kathleen's comment. DH and I view supermarkets as cultural experiences. Whenever we shop for our picnics in France, we always are amazed that every supermarket has celeri remoulade in a prominent place. Who knew? We have never seen it here in the States.

We took an hour when we were in Nice and went to the nearby Carrefour. We walked out with jars of tapenade, honey, flavored mustards and cassis jam, bottles of creme de cassis, creme de mur and fraise liqueur, and a couple boxes of assorted tisanes. The prices were good and the tastes were a lovely souvenir of our trip. We also brought back jars of assorted duck products (foie confit, terrine de canard and so on) from a magasin de canard in Cannes and goat cheeses preserved in oil from the outdoor market in Aix.

Of course, the greatest adventure was getting it all through customs. They did not blink at the canard products, but the honey almost caused an international incident until I convinced the agents that there was no honeycomb in it!

Wednesday, 4 March, 2009 7:12am [ 13 ]

I live on the beach in Santa Monica, California, within walking distance of the most revered farmers street market in America. Every Wednesday morning I chat with vendors, getting recipes for ways to cook a vegetable I have never even seen before. Right now heirloom cauliflower is in season, purple ones and green ones with flowerlets that come to a point. When I travel to Paris, I come to savour the best of the best, to frequent the specialty food shops like the boulangeries and fromageries, and of course, the patisseries. I write about the street markets for my Paris website, and every time I walk past a Monoprix, I feel relieved that for me, the days of odorless, tasteless supermarket tomatoes, are over.

Sunday, 29 March, 2009 2:11pm [ 14 ]

As a Parisienne I can happily tell you that your friend is the exception rather than the rule. Yes, Monop is very handy for us working woman who work French office hours - 09h00 - 19h00 (at least if not longer). So if we are missing something and pass a monop on the way home we know we can stop off as they are frequently open later than the smaller boutiques. Monoprix is also great for the basics - a nice environment in which to find your toiletries, pasta etc maybe once or twice a month. But for the whole part almost all of my Parisians friends frequent their local commercants for their meat, their cheeses, their wine, their bread, their fruit and vegetables etc. in the quartier in which Iive we are surrounded by great commercants If they are lucky enough to have a good street market close by (because not all street markets are that great) will shop there.
Your friend lives in the Marais - a quartier known for it's wonderful little boutiques but there are almost NO food stores in the Marais - so in that case Monop is a the almost the ONLY solution. As for the previous comment that one has to go to the bourgeois quartiers for root vegetables - try for example the Marché Aligre in the 12th Arrond - hardly a bourgeois quartier and a market that stocks almost everything (although fresh horseradish is difficult to find anywhere in France apart from the east) If you really need it become friendly with your primeur and ask him to buy some when he goes to Rungis - that's what I do.
Monoprix, however offers a great delivery service and the quality of their products is pretty good. For "les parasseux" it is a blessing. Not every French person was born with the desire to cook.

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