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When in France, don't grocery shop at lunch

I recently returned from two weeks in France. Being that this is the historical Mecca of indulgent food, I thought it pertinent to write about some of my observations while there and offer some thoughts on a few Parisian eating habits.

So let's start with the obvious – what do the French like? Wine, cheese, sauces, espresso based coffees, pastries and bread…or more specifically baguettes.  Lots and lots of baguettes.

I was struck by how many people carried baguettes. No self-respecting French person would have supper without one. It's an essential carb that's the exclamation point on the evening meal in the same way Asians include rice, or the Irish, potatoes.

This is a representation of how much of the French diet is rooted in tradition. You can almost sense the history of the country in the food as you “break bread.”

This sense of tradition is not only rooted in the foods, but also in broader mealtime habits – specifically, lunch.  From noon to 2 p.m., France shuts down as the country takes time to enjoy their biggest meal of the day.  While the restaurants are full, the grocery stores are not.

The importance of lunch hit home when we were entering a grocery store just after noon, at which point we were politely told that they were closed until 2 p.m.  At no other point was I so starkly reminded of the cultural differences between Canada and France, as this would be unfathomable this side of the Atlantic.

Given the differing store hours, I thought about what this meant for their HMR programs.  While this is a big area of focus in Canada, I did not get this sense in France.  In my opinion, prepared offerings at grocery stores seemed rather paltry by comparison relegated primarily to sandwiches and other smaller food items.

One gets the sense that grocery stores are less relied upon in France, but rather they work in combination with local patisseries (bakeries) and boucheries (butchers), which are found in every small village, and in the narrow side streets of Paris.  In short, France is an amalgam of the deep routed tradition of the daily shop and modern grocery sensibilities around pantry loading.

Some other observation points and fun facts:

  • - Coffee machines dispense at least 10 difference variations of coffee (I.e. espressos, lattes, cappuccinos, etc.)

  • - Cereals in grocery stores appear to have more of a kid focus with more SKUs including chocolate

  • - Breakfasts are typically lighter

  • - Dinner is often eaten later at 8 p.m.

  • - The food may be rich, but the portions are smaller and the population is thinner (correspondingly, Canada ranks 25th on the BBC global fat index and France 99th )

  • - The legal drinking age for wine is 16

The bottom line is eating habits in France do differ substantially from those in Canada (or at least English Canada).  Quebec may have some closer ties to this European style of eating (a greater lunch focus for example), but differences certainly remain.

So if you find yourself in France be prepared to eat plenty of bread, enjoy nice long lunches with a glass of wine.  Just be sure not to grocery shop between noon and two.

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