Keeping trade local Wednesday, Jul 31 2013 

A friend of mine recently alerted me to the Keep Trade Local Challenge, which technically started two days ago and runs until August 4th. However, I reckon it would work well at any time of year. It’s actually something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, as I’ve been following the A Year Without Supermarkets blog virtually since its inception. Since the beginning of 2013, Ian and Becksie have pledged to avoid the UK’s supermarket chains and shop only from local retailers, mainly due to not liking the supermarkets’ aggressive promotional tactics. However, it’s become so much more than that for them and made me (and many of their other readers, I am sure) examine their own priorities.

I often find myself thinking up excuses not to follow Becksie and Ian’s example. I’m too tired to go traipsing round the shops. The local retailers aren’t open, and the supermarkets are. The supermarkets are cheaper. I don’t like to carry large amounts of cash and don’t want to be embarrassed by not having enough in a local retailer. And so on, and so forth.

However, as I’m on holiday at the moment (one of the perks of being a teacher!), I decided yesterday to eschew my local supermarket and use the local market, which runs two or three times a week. Every time I have the chance to visit my local retailers I feel the same: it is a joy. Service is friendly, most of the produce on offer is high-quality and surprisingly cheap, and you get exercise from all the traipsing around. You feel good for doing something productive with your morning and for putting your money back into the community. Living abroad means it’s also a chance to practise my French with people who love their produce, as opposed to monosyllabic supermarket staff. (Supermarket staff in France are, on the whole, REALLY surly. Employment law makes it very difficult for anyone to get fired, so the bare minimum is the norm.)

So yesterday I had a lovely time going around the market, and then to the fishmonger (followed by an emergency dash to the Italian deli for some pasta). Today I visited my greengrocer and butcher (who are literally just over the road from my flat, so no excuses there!). Unfortunately, my lovely cheesemonger is closed for the holidays (boo hiss) and I did have to pop into the supermarket for some washing-up liquid. This, however, gave me a good opportunity to contrast my experiences. Supermarket staff were characteristically don’t-careish, there was packaging everywhere (even though it was mid-morning; early morning and late night shifts don’t exist in France so that these jobs can be done out of customers’ way), and a small child started screaming when its mother denied it some conveniently-at-child-eye-height sweets. Come on, people: we all know what’s more enjoyable.

Becksie and Ian have also cited health reasons as a welcome perk of ditching the supermarkets, with them both losing weight without trying thanks to being away from the supermarkets’ copious amounts of junk food and generally devious advertising ploys. Being free of these saves them money too. And case in point: I was lured in by an offer practically as soon as I entered the supermarket. Yes, I kicked myself upon leaving. I must walk around with a big ‘sucker’ sign in lights on my forehead. Or perhaps it says ‘please, rape my wallet – I don’t care’.

It’s clear that opening hours are the bane of the average worker (especially in France, where no supermarket opens before 9.00 in the morning), and that unlike Ian and Becksie, many of us don’t have gardens in which to keep chickens or kindly relatives who grow their own vegetables. Heck, I don’t even have room for a chest freezer in my apartment, which makes batch cooking – and thus using our local retailers and produce to the fullest – very much a limited activity. However, as mentioned, I do plan on rethinking my habits. I frankly don’t like the surly service I receive from French supermarkets 99% of the time. There is no reason why I can’t support the local corner shop when I need washing-up liquid. There is no reason why I can’t buy my pasta from the Italian deli (apart from possibly it being €6 a bag – ouch!). There is no reason why I can’t use my local purveyors of fresh produce for my fish, dairy products, meat and vegetables, and the knowledge and supplies of experts for my wine and international foodstuffs. Like those behind the scenes of A Year Without Supermarkets, I may even find that I lose weight and save money as a result. Thanks to the Keep Trade Local Challenge, we should all be trying it (even if like me you cave and end up visiting Waitrose when you visit the UK – a totally different experience to French supermarkets, I can assure you!). Now currently looking forward to visiting the market in Les Vans, near where my parents-in-law live, and strategising as to how I can make local retailers more a part of my life, and the supermarkets less.

Cereal, French-style Sunday, Nov 11 2012 

One of the things we always stock up on when visiting the UK is cereal. With muesli in France typically costing a minimum of €3.75 for a large box of around 750g, and other cereals not coming in at much better (the lower-priced ones, even the supermarket own brands, tend to be either heavily commercialised or based on brand-name products, and are often full of sugar), the offers we see on cereal in the UK are very welcome (2kg of Jordans cereal for £4? YES PLEASE.).

So when I saw this cereal on buy-one-get-one-free on offer in our local supermarket recently, I jumped at it:

This is a form of Quaker Life cereal which doesn’t appear to be sold in Britain or the US. I normally like those cereals with the freeze-dried strawberries in, so felt hopeful. However, when I opened it this morning I was disappointed to find that it was just unbearably sweet: the cereal flakes on their own might be alright, but the strawberries seemed overly sugary and artificially flavoured, while the chunks of oats are probably fused together with sugar as well. Not what you would expect for a brand that is most famous for its oat cereals and which promotes a healthy lifestyle with a good start to the day (this cereal in particular also promises to lower cholesterol – but with the amount of sugar it must contain, I seriously doubt it would). I’ll be keeping this one to apportion into snack boxes to have when the 4pm munchies hit me, I suspect.

Worryingly this all makes sense given that the website for our local supermarket lists cereals and other breakfast foodstuffs under “épicerie sucrée”: namely, “sweet groceries”. That probably explains why the French think the concept of sausage sandwiches for breakfast is so weird.

So what do we usually have for our breakfast cereal here in France and what does it cost us? Here are the ones we most often go for:

MONOPRIX CORNFLAKES – €1,61/375g

Probably the cheapest option, this is the supermarket own brand version of Kelloggs cornflakes. My parents aren’t big brand-name buyers, but Kelloggs cornflakes is one of the few things they do always have in – and when they tasted these, their reaction was highly favourable. Definitely a good basic to have around – but sadly, the amount of air in any packet of cornflakes means a box doesn’t last as long as, say, muesli (of which there is usually more anyway, with muesli being sold here in boxes of at least 500g).

 

 

KELLOGGS CORNFLAKES – €2,02/375g

Basically the same as the Monoprix version, but 41 cents more. We only buy this if it’s on offer or the Monoprix own brand isn’t available.

 

 

MONOPRIX ORGANIC MUESLI – €2,22/375g

We should actually really get this one more often. With 25% fruit and 4 different grain types, it’s really quite filling and is possibly one of the most affordable mueslis out there (although at €5,92 a kilo, it’s actually more expensive than Jordans muesli kilo for kilo). It also comes in a handy pouring pouch that’s properly resealable, so is great for breakfasts on the go, and it’s probably this that you pay the extra money for.

 

 

JORDANS ORGANIC MUESLI – €3,45/500g

As with Quaker, Jordans’ range varies between countries, with a much wider offering being available in the UK (I went to their website to see if the organic muesli was available, and found that it wasn’t, but am still there drooling over their other choices). To my mind this is one of the best supermarket mueslis going, as it remains uncorrupted by those evil banana pieces.

 

 

JORDANS SPECIAL MUESLI – €3,75/750g

Yes, we are Jordans addicts in this house – and that’s even without the full range offered in Britain. This box obviously lasts us longer but enables us taking more of a hit at the checkout (as well us giving us a heavier box to carry home). Plus, even though it’s 33% fruit and nuts (definitely an advantage), it does contain the evil banana pieces for me to pick out.

 

 

JORDANS COUNTRY CRISP – €3,95/550g

The grandaddy of them all price-wise, it’s probably also the most sugary and the worst value for money, seeing as you only get 550g in the box. This box would probably last us about five days, meaning a last-minute dash to the supermarket on Friday night (NICE). While the pecan and maple syrup flavours are amazing, I’m not sure if it’s worth nearly €4 a box – especially as there’s also no dried fruit in this one, only nuts. And in the UK, this is priced at a mere £2 a box! How is that fair?!

Having surveyed our supermarket website to find our regular cereals for you, I’ve definitely learned a few things. Bigger branded boxes, or any own-brand box, is going to be better than the smaller offerings from the big names. A no-brainer really. Plus, some of the other supermarket own-brand cereals that I haven’t tried before now are definitely worth me checking out next time I’m there. I’ll be steering clear of Quaker Life for sure – but as I tell my husband every time I bring home something new and suspicious-looking, if we don’t like it, we don’t have to buy it again. Simples.

Supermarket sweep Saturday, Jan 21 2012 

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.

Yeeeeeich

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?