I was in the Parisian supermarket Monoprix the other day and I noticed a timid looking girl trying to figure out which type of canned tuna fish, wheat bread and maxi pads to buy. Clearly, she was from somewhere other than France and confused about which brands were the most like those she knew and trusted back home. I felt for her. I really did. I remember so well my first months living here and looking for what seemed like hours at the rows of products I either couldn’t understand or couldn’t decipher, searching for something that would resemble what I was accustomed. Afraid to ask, afraid to stumble the question and embarrass myself, it took me years to figure this all out.
I wanted to help the girl in the supermarket as she rambled through the aisles seemingly deflated and confused. But I hesitated as I didn’t want to confront her and make her feel even more uncomfortable. In the end, I pulled out my itouch pretending it was a cell phone and began speaking in English to an imaginary someone on the other end of the line. Standing right beside her, I picked up the American style sandwich bread and chose the tuna in spring water hoping she would follow suit. A few minutes later at the checkout she smiled at me, so I felt that maybe I had been able to help a little in the end.
For any of you who might be coming to Paris or to France for a vacation this summer (or any other time, really), here are a few hints, and a little French grocery store wisdom, I hope might help you when you’re trying to choose between brands you don’t recognize and might not be able to translate:
Milk: In France, milk is pretty simple. The choice is between BIO (this means organic in French) and regular. In some of the bigger stores, you can find lait frais, which is cold and stocked in the cooler section. Otherwise, milk is stored at room temperature. You have the choice between 2% milk (lait entier), 1% (demi-écrémé), whole milk (lait écrémé). The brand we drink at home is Candia demi-écrémé; it’s pretty much your regular old milk for coffee and cereal back home.
Eggs: Like milk, eggs are stored at room temperature in France. You will find a selection of regular and BIO somewhere near the milk. Don’t be surprised when you notice they are all brown. Eggs in France are brown. You can purchase them in a box of 4, 6 or 12.
Mayo: Mayo in France is not perfectly white like at home. It’s off white, yellowish white. The French add a touch of mustard in their mayo, hence the color. You can find Hellman’s sometimes, but it will cost you as it’s considered ‘imported’. I suggest Bénédicta as a good alternative; it even works well for deviled eggs. (Although my mother-in-law would tell you to make your own! )
Butter: Normandy is where all the butter comes from in France. The French have a wonderful chunky sea salt butter from the region. I like these brands a lot: Paysan Breton demi-sel (half salted), Grand Fermage aux cristaux de sel de mer (with large sea salt crystals).
Sliced Bread: Sandwich bread is an American phenomenon that many French families have adopted. They even call it ‘American Sandwich Bread’. You will find whole wheat (complet), multi-grain (aux céréales) and plain white bread (nature). A few brands offer just about what we have back home: Harry’s and Jacquet are the two we buy. I’d stay away from the urge to try their bagels, though. The French do so much right in the bakery department, bagels just isn’t one of them. Both of the abovementioned brands make decent hamburger buns. More traditional French families still buy pain de campagne at the bakery and have them slice it (I do this when my in-laws are in town). But for North Americans, this more classic French choice is not the same as our relatively soft, lightly crusted sandwich bread. Once you get a taste for the French stuff, though, it’s a heck of a lot better.
Tuna: Tuna in spring water as opposed to the thick oil into which you regularly find it submerged in France is called thon au naturel. With a hankering for a simple tuna sandwich when I first came to France, I made the mistake of picking any old can of tuna of the shelf randomly and it almost ruined me on tuna forever. In France, we like either of these brands: Saupiquet or Petit Navire au natural.
Sour cream/crème fraîche: Sour cream is not exactly the same as crème fraiche but it will do for whatever recipe you’d like to make where the former is called for. The one I find most resembles sour cream is Bridélice Epaisse 15%.
Yogurt: The French eat a lot of yogurt. At my house, we eat it every evening after dinner in place of the cheese course. My husband likes Activia nature (no sugar, no flavoring) and I prefer Perle de Lait nature (very creamy, yummy! also with no artificial flavoring). Both of these brands exist in a variety of fruit flavors as well as vanilla. The French tradition, however, is to eat plain yogurt either with a teaspoon full of sugar or homemade fruit preserves.
Soft drinks/ bottled water: The French have the same brands as we do in North America, just less of them. You’ll find Coke and Pepsi, their diet substitutes as well as Ginger Ale and Sprite but that’s about it. If you only want to buy one can or bottle of coke, you can open a pack of 6 and just take one out. Same goes for packs of water. It seems very strange at the beginning, you even feel like you are stealing, but it’s the custom here. Everyone does it. In fact, you will probably notice a few packs already ripped into when you approach the shelf. Due to a general lack of storage in city apartments and the French culture of buying for only a few days at a time, the large packs of 12 is just too much!
Grounded Coffee: I’m not a coffee drinker but my husband always buys L’Or (translates to ‘the gold’) at the store and seems to like it. He goes for Arabica 100%. It’s about as close to Folgers in your cup as you’re gonna get over here.
Maxipads: Ladies, if you are an Always with wings gal, be careful not to grab too hastily. In many of the French supermarkets the only Always they stock are with the new chemical odor control ones. (If you are like me, then you may be allergic to all those chemicals). The best alternatives of pads with wings (avec ailes) are: Nana and Siempre. Both have a selection of sizes and they work just as well as Always (but without the harsh chemicals).
That’s all I can think of for right now. But I’ll update this list from time to time when other products come to mind.