A la pesée

A heavy subject is weighing on my mind this week. Let me share some thoughts on fruit and vegetables, or more specifically, the purchase of said foods in French supermarkets.

I do try to buy direct from the producer or at the open-air markets, preferably organic and in season. But the choice of fresh produce is rather less bountiful where we live in the Haute Savoie than in Lyon, for example, or Paris, and the fact is that I often find myself buying fruit and vegetables at the supermarket. Not ideal but ‘pratique’ as we say in French, to be able to get everything in one place. At least in theory.

Items are sold either per unit, ‘à la pièce’, or more often by weight, ‘au poids’. Very few stores do this for you at the checkout so you find yourself jockeying for position in front of one of the few weighing stations in the fruit and veg section.

First, you grab yourself a plastic bag (easier said than done as it is usually on a roll that must be carefully peeled off) or, if you are ecologically inclined, you bring or buy a reusable cotton bag. Fill said bag with chosen product and then approach the scales. If there is no line-up you can be sure that one will form after you immediately, thereby adding to your performance anxiety upon facing the screen.

As a non-native French speaker, albeit one who knows her way around a supermarket (They don’t call them ‘les courses’ for nothing!), I find the touch screen with its instructions challenging. First you must select the category: ‘fruits’ or ‘légumes’. So far so easy. Although sometimes there will be a third category here already lending confusion: ‘éxotiques’.

Being less of a picture person than a word person, the label is essential. But once I get to the next screen, confusion reigns. A new set of categories, grouping the produce by type, has been introduced, often leaving me perplexed. There is no apparent rhyme or reason in the way this is organized.

A few weeks back, after looking blankly at the screen for several seconds as other shoppers shot daggers into my back, I asked the guy stocking produce why there was no item for kiwis. “C’est marqué groupe kiwis,” he replied. Ah. I had missed an entire category.

The problems with this system are many. Starting with the vocabulary. It’s all very well to know the word for citrus fruit – agrumes. But do most people actually think of squash as ‘cucurbitacea’? Or carrots as ‘légume racine’? Do you look for tomatoes under ‘g’ for group or ‘t’ for tomato? And then there is the taxonomy. I mean, seriously. Who ever heard of ‘légumes soleil’ for peppers, zucchini and eggplant? And how confusing is ‘salades crudité’? ‘Salades’ means lettuce in French and ‘crudités’ means any fresh veg eaten raw. Do I look for carrots there or as a root vegetable?

Okay, maybe I am overthinking this a little. There are pictures to clue me in after all. But when I am standing at the scales with a queue forming behind me, my brain freezes. Inevitably a kind (or impatient) person will point me to the right category as I stand before the screen, finger waving stupidly. “Voilà!” she will say sweetly, as I feign thanks while wishing she would go away.

Pity the non-French speaker who attempts to shop for fresh produce. Pity the beleaguered shoppers who must wait while they learn to think in French. Pity the fruit and veg guy who must think up strange new categories in order to fit hundreds of items on a screen.

I can’t help but note that the Swiss have it all figured out with their usual efficiency. Each item in the fresh produce section is numbered. All you have to do is enter the correct number on the scales. It even trains your brain a wee bit to go through the section thinking, “Carrots 101, broccoli 129’.

How do you get your fruit and veg?

37 thoughts on “A la pesée

  1. Thanks for making me smile this morning, Mel! these scales can be so very annoying, especially if you’re the guy who is at the till and didn’t realise that you had to weigh your own stuff, so you dash back to the veg section while everyone in the queue behind you is looking at you daggers!! 🙂

  2. A lot of the French supermarkets also have numbers – but when I get several items bagged up then go to weigh them I can never remember all the numbers and end up going back to the display to check them all.

    1. You guys must be way ahead of us. Hopefully they will introduce the system everywhere, although I must admit having the cashier do it would make much more sense. Agree it’s hard to remember the number, which means I end up scooting to the scales several times before I forget!

  3. Super/Hypers only buy the sundries items, food meats cold cuts, fruits/veggies cheese etc on the market or direct from producer since I live in the most agro region of France Bretagne! Simply the best. Salut

    1. They are trying to get the self-service thing going here but there are so many restrictions that I don’t bother. You can’t have more than a certain number of items, for example, and certain things are automatically disqualified. Thanks for chiming in!

  4. Hilarious! Yet another thing I’ve never thought about. Those little stickers with the 4-digit codes on all our produce are pretty handy…

    1. When I’m lazy or in a hurry I will often choose a bunch of things pre-packed together (ie 6 kiwis) rather than weigh stuff. It’s not something I’m proud of but they sure don’t make it easy! 😕

  5. In all this hassle the only point that always blocks me for good is “grabbing the plastic bag” . As I am superhumanly intelligent the rest is a maze I cross easily but catching ONE plastic bag from this sticking roll is beyond my nature . So I found a solution (see I’m very smart) : I wait for an old or at least mature lady to come around, and then I try very ostentatiously, but vainly of course, to catch one bloody thing, with a different physical attitude and face expression according to how I feel the person and then …Plop ! unfailingly the mother’s heart recognize the little boy that I am and she comes to my help, miraculously grabs only one bag for me and we both end happy . How to change an ordeal in pleasure .

    1. Ha, ha! What a great equalizer is the plastic roll with its impossible-to-peel bags! It is somehow satisfying to imagine even those of great intellectual and cultural resources struggling over this small nuisance. Yet how typically male and pathetic to rely upon ‘maman’ to save you!!! 🙄

  6. Unbelievably incompetent, don’t the French believe in service in a competitive market.I have never seen a check out in North America where the clerk does not have a weigh scal.

  7. This level of self-serve makes me a little crazy. What are the powers-to-be thinking? … ‘let’s make buying from us as difficult as possible’?

    Thankfully our self-serve ‘cashiers’ have weigh scales and will calculate the cost so it doesn’t need to be done in the produce department. Most fruit and vegetables have a sticker with a numeric code on it. For those items that don’t, I rarely rely on the categories I’m offered. I use the search feature and key in the name of the item. Mind you, that wouldn’t help me much in France if I don’t know the name of the item 😉

    1. Your comment makes me realize that I have never, ever felt like a supermarket in France was trying very hard to get my business. At least not through service. Customer loyalty cards (I think I just found the subject for my next post!), quality of products and price promotions seem to their only strategy. Your system sounds so wonderful. It is time for a change!

      1. While I agree that those 3 things are very important, it’s sad that service is no longer part of the secret sauce to customer satisfaction. Anyone who has tried to find assistance in a retail store knows the truth of that.

  8. If I have a lot of veggies, as I usually do, I go to the regular checkout and let the cashier, who has memorized all the numbers, do it for me. I have seen one those little self marking machines in the produce dept of one of my local stores but haven’t tried it yet. The self-check-out kiosks always have an attendent to help you of you get stuck, but they are easier to use, with none of those botanic groupings.

    1. Sounds like you get good service, and that is how it should be! Our cashiers could do so much more and I’m sure their jobs would benefit from it. How boring to simply push the items past the scanner. The rare times I’ve tried the self-checkout inevitably something goes wrong and I feel like the class dunce!

  9. I remember the first time I bought vegetables in a supermarket in France, I didn’t know that you had to weight it yourself so brought it to the cashier as we do in Canada but was sent back to find the scale and the appropriate name to get the price… and I even speak French. It was all very time consuming and challenging. I do like the number system and in some stores here they provide a little label where you can write the number on so you will remember when you get to the self-checkout desk. I do understand your confusion… (Suzanne)

    1. That’s funny, Suzanne, I guess I just assumed that my frustration came from not knowing the right words in French but it seems it’s also cultural. I’ve been in France so long I’ve almost forgotten how hard it is compared to Canada. Change is slow to come especially outside the bigger cities. Until the early 2000’s, many stores like Carrefour made you line up in the fruit and veg section to have someone else weigh your produce before you lined up again to pay for it!

  10. I always get caught out when I go to a French supermarket after a long break and forget to weigh’n’price before going to the check-out. I used to admire the veggie section of French supermarkets because there was often actual mud on the floor – not everything was washed and scraped and waxed. I think that’s changed now… We try to buy organic and without needless packaging if we can. My problem in Australian supermarkets is going blank when searching the right name for the vegetable – courgettes are zucchini, aubergines are eggplant, shallots are eshallots, etc, etc. Cue queue behind me…

    1. I will probably have a similar experience when next in Canada! That reverse culture shock really does get you, eh? But I agree, a little dirt and a few feathers are the signs of freshness, and they are disappearing more and more from our supermarkets as things become more uniformly sterile and ‘perfect’. Sigh…

  11. I fear I would give up fresh and go to canned if faced with such a system. The stress of buying produce would surely trigger my irritable bowel. Thank god the ONLY shopping my husband likes is grocery shopping.

    1. Ha, ha…canned? That would probably be your best option as the frozen sections here are better stocked with fancy prepared foods that good basic veggies. You are lucky with your hubs — the only shopping mine does is online!

  12. I don’t think I can survive doing groceries in France haha! I get my fruits and produce from the supermarket. Singapore is land scarce and we import most of all we consume. There are some smallish farms in Kranji area but not viable for supplying commercially in huge tons. Most of the produce in supermarket are packed. Apples and oranges are for selection but I see how badly shoppers treat fruits, pressing and tossing it. I see a lot of food waste from dents and bruising and so, I am glad fruits and veggies are bagged.

    1. You do need strong survival skills and a bit of French to shop here for sure! But at least we do have the good fortune of plenty of land that produces wonderful food. I see your point about the packaged fruit and veg, especially as it must travel far and is certainly costly.

  13. Which supermarket is this? At the Carrefour, Géant, Intermarché, Leclerc and SuperU here, there are either boxes for each item, sometimes on screens separated by fruits/vegetables, or a number above the produce that you enter on the scale. I would have a hard time with the system you show.

    1. This was at our ‘U’, which is generally one of the better of the lot around here. But the weigh scales are awful! And they only have two for a fairly big fresh produce section, so inevitably people line up for them. Numbers are definitely a better option!

  14. This business of weighing and labeling sounds like a complicated nightmare — and also a leap of trust on the merchants’ part that their customers will be both honest and accurate. I’m counting my lucky stars that I haven’t run into this. But if I do, at least I’ll know how to proceed, thanks to you! 🙂

    1. They do keep a pretty close eye on the weighing stations, and I know you are supposed to use a bag and tie it closed before weighing to avoid you adding more to the bag after the scales. You may manage to avoid this depending on where you stay in France, but you will probably run into the situation at some point if you spend time here. Hopefully forewarned is forearmed! 😅

  15. I’ve recently swopped supermarkets to one that sems calm and empty(ish) whatever time of day I go…But the fruit/veg dept is a nightmare! The touch screen scales require either a heavy handed jab OR a gentle stroke of the forefinger – but you never know quite which one. I write the produce numbers down, get to the scale jab in 101 and end up with 1110000000000000001 This product does not exist. So I stroke it gently 01 (the first 1 didn’t register) This product doesnot exist. Aargh!
    There is the choice of typing in the word (if yor French ios good enough) but there’s the problem there of the glare of the lights on the screen, my vari-focal glasses and my inability to find a letter on an alphabetically arranged keyboard! Hey ho. I think the shop assistants have learned some new Anglo Saxon phrases from me!
    AND there’s always at least 25% of the weighing machines “en panne” or “Hors service”!!!

    Goodness me! You touched a raw nerve there!

    1. Ha, ha…it seems that it’s an emotional topic! I’ve never seen a screen that allows you to type the name and search. And although my fat fingers generally have difficulty with touch screens, ie on smart phones, I must stab with the appropriate level of viciousness when in store as that part usually works fine (if I can find the item!). But of course, machines ‘en panne’ and out of stickers, rolls with no plastic bags…bien sûr, on est en France!!! 😏

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