Pet à porter

Pet à porterI snapped this shot of a petite pooch at the market on Sunday. It is for me a typical scene of French life.

Little dogs go just about everywhere with their owners in France, and well-behaved pets are welcome in most restaurants and many shops. This miniature Pinscher breed is a popular choice, along with the poodle, the Yorkshire and the Jack Russell. French bulldogs are slowly gaining ground in France now that they’ve become so popular in the U.S.

I suppose this very French version of the ‘doggy bag’ makes a lot of sense in crowded public places. Little dogs like this can easily get stepped on, and crowds must be terrifying for them.

‘Aller au marché’, to go shopping at the open-air market, is a regular Sunday morning pilgrimage for many French people, who often go together as families, taking their time and strolling along the crowded stalls. This is frustrating for type-A people like myself. I just want to zip-in and zip-out with as much fresh produce as I can carry and in as short a time as possible. My husband only goes on pain of starvation and we are both way too impatient in crowds.

I can think of nothing more stressful than bringing our two French bulldogs to the market. Unfortunately they are too big for a shopping bag – although I’m sure they’d be delighted to take away a doggy bag with some of this cheese.

thumb_IMG_5096_1024How about you? Do you like open-air markets, with or without pet or partner?

How to ace les courses

Shopping carts at French supermarketNot for nothing do the French use the same word for shopping les courses as for the races. ‘Faire les courses,’ means to buy groceries or run errands. Run being the operative word. While service tends to be slow, shoppers are both dense (literally and sometimes figuratively) and in a hurry. Possibly because most stores close early in the evenings and on Sundays.

The French tend to shop differently than we North Americans. While we load up on specials and stock our freezers for a snowy day, it’s traditional in France to go shopping daily for bread, meat, fruit and veg. Many people go to open-air markets and directly to the farm for fresh foods.

I would love to shop that way, but who has time? I will make the effort for special meals and on weekends but by the time you go to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker, half the morning is gone. And you still have to go to a supermarket for staples like toilet paper. (Which, oddly, the French prefer in pink.)

Most of my shopping odysseys take place in the superstore. And I’m not alone. La grande surface as they call it here is a pillar of modern French life, selling everything from booze to baby gear. Carrefour, Casino, Géant, Leclerc, Intermarché, Auchan, Super U….the choice of enseignes (major retailers) is vast. But this type of shopping is not for the faint of heart. The fact is, the bigger the store, the longer it takes.

But there are perks, starting with the fact that you can find the most amazing goods. All those fancy oils and vinegars I used to search out in gourmet shops in Toronto are right there on the supermarket shelf. Along with organic foods, imported snacks, fine wine and alcohols, every imaginable kind of chocolate and cheese. You can pick up towels and sheets, books and DVDs, an ironing board or a pair of sandals. All under one roof.

It is seductive for people like me who don’t really like shopping. I believe I may have inherited a male gene here. I just want to get in and get out. Mission accomplished.

Window shopping, the kind of casual, strolling-around that may or may not lead to a purchase – which the French call ‘lèche vitrines’ or literally ‘window licking’ – is my idea of torture.

I’m always fascinated by the fact that the French retain the notion of a marketplace in their grandes surfaces. Sales people set up stands in the dairy aisle, encouraging you to try a new kind of cheese. Hucksters at the prepared-foods counter shout out their wares. Entire families with kids stroll aimlessly as if at a carnival. People chat in the aisles, oblivious to the fact that they are blocking traffic in two directions.

Over the years I’ve perfected my get-in, get-out strategy:

  • Go early. Avoid Saturday afternoons at your peril!
  • Bring a coin for the cart and shopping bags for your stuff.
  • Don’t carry a handbag – stay hands-free and pickpocket-proof by slipping your essentials into inner pockets
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • “Fill your stomach and empty your bladder!” as my father used to instruct us kids before car trips
  • Park strategically near the entrance, right next to the shopping carts
  • Pick a cart that doesn’t have a wonky wheel (more art than science)
  • Know the store and organize your list accordingly
  • Start with the heavy stuff: water and other beverages like wine, proceed to packaged goods, fresh and frozen last.
  • Avoid the seasonal section at all costs – this is where the most people are and where you’ll waste time and money buying crap you don’t need.
  • When your cart runneth over, proceed to the lineup reserved for pregnant women and handicapped – unlike the parking spots, it is also open to other shoppers and generally goes faster
  • Get your bag-packing strategy right. Don’t count on the cashier to do anything more than to push (read: viciously shove) your goods across the bar code reader.
  • Breathe deeply and ignore the people behind you (other than handicapped and pregnant) who have half the amount of stuff and are shooting daggers at your back. Take a sick pleasure in teaching them patience and courtesy (good luck with that).
  • Pay by card and get the hell outta there
  • Unload everything into your trunk
  • Return shopping cart for coin
  • Drive home, honk horn for helpers to unload
  • Plop on sofa and crack open a cold one

So there you have it, my survival guide to the French superstore. Must dash – the cupboard is bare so it’s off to the races!

Where’s the beef?

For the French, most kinds of meat are fair game.

France is at the center of a fraudulent beef scandal. It came from abattoirs in Romania to a meat plant in the south of France, which sold it to a French-owned frozen food plant in Luxembourg, which then distributed it in ready meals to 15 different countries.  Labeled ‘100% beef,’ it was in fact horsemeat. Gulp.

To the best of my knowledge I have never eaten horse. But I have consumed creatures that many more sensitive souls would eschew: rabbit, lamb, ostrich, wild boar and other game, along with tripe and various organ meats. The fact is that from the cru to the rosé, eating our furry friends is central to French culture.

One of the first dishes I was served on arriving in Paris some years ago was the Easter bunny –  all dressed up in a mustard sauce and including a tiny head, which my mother-in-law devoured with relish (pleasure, not the condiment.)  I closed my eyes and focused on the wonderful taste of the sauce while reminding myself that it really was a lot like chicken.

That early test of culinary sang-froid taught me to be a broad-minded carnivore. I’m now accustomed to shopping at the market and seeing poultry with head and feathers still attached, suckling pig roasted whole, fish so fresh it’s still flopping. And although I do avoid it nowadays, I must confess to having consumed my share of pâté de foie-gras (apologies to the geese and my vegetarian friends).

Cruel, did I hear you say? Well, yes, but in defense of my fellow countrymen it should be noted that the French revere their food and all of this is carried out with a healthy degree of respect for the animal. The idea of feeding hormones to livestock, for example, is abhorrent to the French. Agriculture in general is less industrialized and more sustainable. Portions are also smaller, and less food goes to waste than in North America. Did you know that every single part of the pig is edible?

As the affaire de la viande de cheval (horsemeat scandal) rages in Europe, I must conclude that meat is really a matter of culture. While the French, Swiss and others who traditionally eat horsemeat complain about traceability, pity the poor Brits who unwittingly consumed Mr. Ed in their lasagna. Equivalent to eating a family pet.

But no matter how you look at it, someone is guilty of fraud, and that is a beef we can all share.