Before moving there, one of the highlights of all of my trips to France was the ritual visit to a French supermarket. Over the years my focus modulated from the stationery department (for agendas and notepads ruled exotically with multiple lines a millimetre apart) through the chocolate biscuit aisle (for petit écolier biscuits and Mikado chocolate sticks), and the summer fruit section (fresh apricots) before coming to rest in the wine department. If only I lived in France, I was heard to sigh, I could buy this stuff every week.
It came as something of a shock, therefore, when, after a mere six months of French residency, my enthusiasm started to wane and I experienced pangs for English supermarkets. I wasn’t quite sure what it was that I was missing: could it be that I was more attached to Bisto gravy, Heinz baked beans and butterscotch angel delight than I had anticipated? I began to prowl the aisles of Auchan, restlessly seeking whatever it was that was absent from my French culinary life.
Whatever it was did not immediately reveal itself. Our local Auchan is what is known as a grande surface, which means that, unless you are ruthlessly efficient, you might find that you have only got halfway round the store two days after beginning the weekly shop. In such a place it is difficult to imagine that there could possibly be anything missing amidst the Aladdin’s cave of available treats. There is, for example, half an aisle dedicated entirely to cornichons (the selection available is bewildering to anyone of British extraction used to finding lone jars of unappetising piccalilli in amongst the other conserved goods). Cheese has, as you would expect, two whole aisles; and in the meat department you will find an astonishing array of cuts and preparations, including several varieties of smoked duck; various parts of rabbits; an entire fridge for the beef selection; and, if you don’t avert your gaze quickly enough, even a modest horse meat department. At Christmas I was astonished to discover that the entire fish aisle had been hijacked by oysters of every conceivable size and shape, and that there were no fewer than four helpers on hand to advise you on your oyster selection.
So, what was it that I was missing? The answer came to me one day in amongst the bottles of sauvignon blanc. The wine department in all French supermarkets is vast, containing bottles upon bottles of wine of excellent quality, catalogued with minute attention to precise geographical origin and grape variety. The bottles are bewilderingly inexpensive, too: you can drink a bottle of really quite good wine for less than 5 Euros, and if you are willing to pay 15 Euros, you could end up drinking something that would set you back more than double that on UK soil if you could even find it anywhere as ordinary as a supermarket. And yet, and yet…
Finally I worked it out. The bottles were all French. Don’t misunderstand me: I love French wine, and would defend it to the hilt against the glorified Ribena from elsewhere available in all good English corner shops. It is possible, though, to adore French wine, but also to appreciate a good bottle of wine from New Zealand, say, or Lebanon, or even Sussex. Yet, on the odd occasion when a French supermarket will stock foreign wines at all, they are invariably of poor quality, and jammed into a tiny segment of a dusty forgotten corner, given less prominence than the cans of Coca Cola in the neighbouring aisle. Was this, I asked myself, simply because the French were dismissive about the vinicultural achievements of others, or was it because they feared that their own wines would lose some of their appeal if the French public were allowed to compare and contrast them with wines from elsewhere?
In the light of this revelation I revisited other sections of the supermarket, looking for exotic influences. I discovered that the cheese aisle, for example, was positively jingoistic and was unable to muster a single block of actual mature cheddar in amongst its hundreds of French hard cheese varieties. Some space had grudgingly been given over to mozzarella and its Italian sibling, parmeggiano, and there was plenty of uninspiring Dutch Gouda, but English cheeses, even excellent ones such as Cropwell Bishop or Cornish Yarg, were firmly barred. Disappointed, I moved on to the jar aisle, where a familiar story unrolled itself: I found endless riffs on the theme of tomato sauce but not a single jar of jalfrezi, or even korma, in sight. I could buy some soy sauce, but only in one very pedestrian variety, and it was hopeless to even begin to seek out a tin of water chestnuts for a stir fry. If I wanted to bake I could buy several different brands of white caster sugar but there were none of the varietals of brown sugar that I was used to (demerara, muscovado, soft, light, dark), and instead I would have to make do with something of completely the wrong texture called cassonade. As for icing and decorative goods: well, how often had I seen a French cake with icing on it? In the tea aisle there was thé minceur, tea to make you sleep and tea to aid your digestion, but I was looking for a good cup of builders’ and was stuck with dismal Lipton. Finally I searched for a good few hours without ever coming across a single sunflower seed, let alone a goji berry.
So it was that I started daydreaming about Waitrose. In some respects this is unsurprising: after all I was born into the British middle classes, for whom daydreams about Waitrose are but a natural state. However, before moving house, I was fervid in my belief that the vast array of culinary delights available in French supermarkets would provide the only known cure to my acute case of John-Lewis-itis. When I first became aware that the remedy might not have worked I took the precaution of avoiding all Waitrose outlets in a desperate last attempt to stop the re-infection setting in for good. On my current visit to the UK, though, my resolve finally gave way, and I decided to go on a special mission to acquire indispensable culinary supplies. If you are going to give in at all to temptation, you might as well do it thoroughly, and so it was that I ended up in the Cirencester branch of Waitrose, along with various early retirees in their Cotswold uniform of mustard cord and sailing shoes (in the Cotswolds, gender equality has reached such a pitch that supermarket shopping is as much of a male activity as a female one).
Once inside Waitrose, I wandered the aisles trying not to drool whilst gaping in awe at the sheer variety and quality of middle-class foodstuffs available in such a tiny amount of space. Gone were the forty six types of fois gras, but in their place was a veritable United Nations of ingredients. Within minutes my trolley was stuffed to the brim with tamarind paste, miso paste, tamari sauce, jerk seasoning and mango chutney. I went quietly berzerk in the health food section, loading up as if for Armageddon with chia seeds, ghee, coconut oil, red quinoa and other “store cupboard essentials” listed by my enticing new healthy recipe book that had hitherto been entirely redundant, none of the basic ingredients having ever been countenanced by a French supermarket. The baking section was raided too, and I came away with silver cake shimmer, chocolate beans and bicarbonate of soda, the ready availability of which I had entirely taken for granted in pre-Auchan days. I noted with some smugness that, had I wanted to, I could also have purchased most of my French favourites, including sirop de grendadine, right there in Cirencester.
Then came my final act of treason. Not only did I buy a bottle of gin and some cans of tonic, but I also loaded into my trolley four bottles of English sparkling wine. I am sick of having the very existence of this drink doubted by French acquaintances. My plan is to serve it up as champagne and watch their jaws drop when I reveal what they have been drinking after it has all gone. And it will provide me with no small degree of amusement to return to Lyon with vital supplies of… wine.
If you would like to know what French people living in England miss about their French supermarkets, you could look at the France in London blog.