One thing I’ve noticed since living in France (it’s now been nearly three and a half years) is that it’s not (wholly) a myth that the French take their food more seriously.
French women do get fat, it’s true (as evidenced by the trolleyloads of crap we see people loading onto the conveyor belts at the supermarket each week). But it’s far less likely to happen here than in Britain or America, because here the children have a far stricter eating regime from day one, with emphasis on proper meals. They have three square meals a day even when in school (none of this sandwiches in your lunchbox business) with many schoolchildren even still going home for lunch when at primary school. They have regimented snack times (just one a day – in the afternoon) and eat with their parents in the evening, rather than being fed at will (although it’s not untrue, either, that vending machines and fast food outlets certainly exist here). French children are therefore often at a level of skinniness that would warrant a trip to the doctor in Britain – but this means they turn into slim adults with good metabolisms. There are fat French adults – but trust me, they’ve had to try pretty hard to make themselves this way thanks to the good habits most of them have started out with.
The organic revolution is capitalising on this to a significant degree in France, with supermarkets selling only organic food having taken off here in a way that just hasn’t happened in the UK. Sure, Britain has the Co-op, but it focuses more on Fairtrade food, and to my knowledge, does not exclusively sell only Fairtrade or only organic items. In France, you will find national chains Biocoop, Botanic and Naturalia (to name just three) selling only organic foodstuffs, along with eco-friendly toilet cleaners, makeup removers, and so on.
There are some organic supermarkets in Britain, but these are independent outlets rather than national chains. On the flip side, though, British e-shoppers are spoilt for choice when it comes to the purchase of organic products online (even if this doesn’t cover fresh foods), whereas in France, online shopping is perhaps not as big (although at least e-tailing is a concept that has caught on here – unlike other brilliant British initiatives, such as shift working and cashback).
So what’s my take on the array of organic outlets here in France? I first discovered them when my not-then-husband took me shopping to a branch of Botanic near his parents’ home. This is not just an organic superstore but also a pet store and garden centre, selling a vast range of products to help everyone lead a more ‘natural’ life. Once we’d ascertained that this was a chain, we found out that there was a branch nearer to us in Suresnes. This one also has a café and fresh fruit and veg section, as well as selling organic alcohol, and products for children. We do enjoy visiting (especially to say hi to the ferrets that are for sale), but it’s a trip in the car rather than just being round the corner.
The Biocoop is also another car journey. I had spotted a branch of this from the outdoor rails of the metro on my way to work one morning, and again had found there was one nearer to us outside of Paris – this time in Chambourcy (which is not conveniently served by public transport). This outlet is rather smaller than the Botanics we know, and while the range of different produce seemed promising, we were confronted by another problem: there are not significant numbers of any particular fresh item, such as joints of meat. Maybe we’d just caught them on a day when they were waiting for a delivery, or maybe, perhaps like several other independent retailers, they only order in the amount they know they can sell, no matter how small the amount (especially as a] the Biocoop is run on a franchise basis and b] for the reason mentioned above, their levels of passing trade are probably not that high).
There are two more organic supermarkets that I’ve encountered in France: La Vie Claire (which I have only ever gone past while on public transport), and Naturalia. This latter I have more immediate access to, as there is a branch located on the same street I have to walk along to get to work. While opening hours are not convenient (mostly just opening at 9.30 or 10.00 in the morning…not great when you want to pop in on your way to work), most French opening hours aren’t :p and when you do get a chance to pop in (after all, they are open until 7.30 or 8.00pm) the service is friendlier than in the majority of French retail establishments. There is a place to recycle your used Brita cartridges, and sell new cartridges at a far cheaper price than our regular supermarket (€30 for 6, rather than €40). Furthermore, when you get to the counter you’re not in any way rushed, and asked as well if you need any bread today (there’s stacks of the organic stuff behind the cashiers, just waiting to be wrapped and taken home with you).
It’s all therefore a very positive experience – which, for once, leaves me wondering: when are the Brits going to catch on to this?