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