In her introduction to Home Cooking Laurie Colwin writes, “In foreign countries I am drawn into grocery shops, supermarkets and kitchen supply houses…” (p.3).
One of my most pleasurable activities when on holiday in a foreign land, is also to wander around a supermarket. This may strike you as an incredibly strange undertaking, surely you want to go to the beach? Or an historical site? Or sit in the sunshine? True, I want to do all those things but sometimes, taking time out and having a supermarket wander is a simple joy.
The supermarket is a fascinating and illuminating revelation of a place’s cultural food habits. Supermarkets reveal all kinds of things about the place where you are. It shows you what local people purchase, how much things cost, the variety (or not) of fresh produce, the types of preserves they eat, the baked goods, the cheese and so on. Truly great supermarkets have people on hand to advise on things you are purchasing too. Supermarkets can be divine places. They are entry points to a new food culture.
Laurie Colwin (again): “I found myself wandering happily in the local shops and supermarkets where everything was so pleasingly different from what I saw at home” (p.123).
We spent an inordinate amount of our time in France recently wandering around the supermarche. (Supermarche is a delightful word to say out loud by the way, if said with relish and enthusiasm. You should put the emphasis on the ‘ay’ sound at the end, and pronounce it in your best French. Try it, it will make you smile). The one closest to our house was a ‘hiper’ marche which is basically a place where you can buy everything, including a barbecue or outdoor furniture, books for reading, clothing, wine, food (obviously) and many other things you never knew you needed (like pool noodles). Another we sampled (a small supermarche in Avignon by the Carrefour giant) had a whole wall of refillable dry goods – a bring your own container situation – which I was delighted by.
Here are some of the reasons I love supermarches so much:
They stock excellent wine, often for as little as €2 a bottle. The selection is amazing and often focused on local producers, or wines made in the area.
They have freshly podded peas. Like peas still in their pods, so you can have the pleasure of podding them at home. They sell radishes with leaves still attached (without any packaging), and have fresh herbs for sale (also without plastic).
Their honey selection is extraordinary, and often features local varieties. Bonne Maman makes jams and preserves with every conceivable fruit.
They have far more options for saucisson than you could ever possibly eat.
Cart d’Or makes ice cream flavours like pistachio and framboise – we never see these delights in British supermarkets. Why oh why?
The cheese counter has all the cheeses you could possibly want to sample (including infinite varieties of cheese of the goat), and an informed assistant who will sell you the cheeses at perfect ripeness for when you want to eat them.
The variety of Milka flavours.
Bread buying is an unspoken taboo in the supermarche. You should never buy bread there. Rather, find your local boulangerie and stock up daily from them.
So the next time you find yourself in a foreign clime, head for the supermarket. It’ll tell you more about where you have ended up than you would expect!