How shopping in French markets has helped me to mend my fancy London ways

One thing I do know about market day is that, however early I arrive, however few things I buy, I never get home before noon. Time stretches, narrows. Sometimes among the potatoes, endives and sardines, I stop at a stall and consider whether I could be a person who wears a cardigan with sequined appliqué, or a nightie with teddy bears on it; whether I want bamboo dusters or a wipe-clean table cloth, or some glow-in-the-dark collars for the dogs; whether I need my knives sharpening or my chairs re-caned. And I step into the cool of the church to light a candle and just sit for a few moments, always.

So by the time I have indulged myself in all that displacement activity, I have no energy to cook. I always buy lunch, usually one of those delicious rotisserie chickens with roast potatoes cooked in the chicken fat, and a green salad, for health, or a tagine and some sticky, sweet pastries from the Moroccan ladies who have a stall in the halles.

Of course, it’s not all wicker baskets and cobbled streets. Out-of-town shopping is as big a feature of modern French life as it is in Britain, with encampments of HyperUs, Carrefours, Aldis, Auchans, E Leclercs, Picards (frozen foods of dreams), Bricoman (DIY) and Jardiland (garden centre) halo-ing every town of any size. I know – just as in Britain – the existence of these retail behemoths has gutted the centres of many French towns, but I confess I love a supermarket in a foreign country. I cannot resist them. Trailing the aisles is like some sort of social anthropology field trip, from which you can learn much. Ours proudly displays products du région alongside less gourmet offerings: fat net bags of local mussels as well as fish fingers (bâtonnets de poisson panés), Roquefort by the cheese string (fromage à effilocher), foie gras and chicken nuggets (nuggets de poulet).

But the supermarket looks a little different this year from last. Since New Year’s Day, plastic packaging for 30 fruits and vegetables, including carrots, bananas, apples, peppers and aubergines has been banned in France, in an attempt to cut down on the 37 per cent of French food that is sold wrapped in single-use plastics. Since 2016, it has also been illegal for supermarkets to throw away food, or to damage it in any way so it cannot be redistributed (pouring bleach on to perfectly good food, as some supermarkets have done in the past to prevent people “foraging” for it, must be one of the most mundane acts of wickedness of our times). The food goes to charities or food banks, who must distribute it “with dignity”.

For very good reason, the no-waste mantra is one of the driving principles of our time. Like many of you, I suspect, I try not to waste a scrap of food. But old habits don’t go gently, do they? After the past couple of years of caution and reticence when we seized the only grand adventure open to us – moving to another country – I long for visitors, for loud dinners around the table, for ebullience, abundance, a full chariot once again – and a #marketdayhaul worthy of a Dutch Old Master.


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