Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Time To Eat

So once the stuff was semi-unpacked, the bed constructed, and the kitchen stuff all packed away in my cool new pantry (a very nice touch I never knew I wanted), it was time to start eating at home. I've still got a want-list of restaurants in town I want to visit, but that gets expensive after a while.

Plus, I was anxious to try the local food. Now, there's probably no worse time to arrive in a heavily agricultural part of France than the onset of winter, which is when I got to Montpellier. I dutifully took myself to the markets and stared at carrots and such, and concluded that, for a while, at least, I was going to have to eat out of supermarkets.

Not that there was anything wrong with this. I have two supermarkets within a couple minutes' walk, both of which belong to the Monoprix chain. One is a Monoprix with an okay-sized food section balancing its clothing and housewares and drugstore sections, and the other is a Monoprix Inno, their larger and somewhat more upscale store, and, since it had the larger selection and wider aisles (and fewer people buying single cans of 8% beer in line), that's where I went.

For the first couple of weeks, it was like visiting a museum: too much to take in at once. There was a fishmonger with more kinds of fish than I had any idea what to do with -- and shellfish, too, which I hadn't had available to me for 15 years. There was a two-aisle "world grocery" with stuff from the French Caribbean, Spain, Italy, and Israel: need kosher frozen pizza? After years of having my choice between orange and blood orange juice, I was suddenly confronted with about twenty alternatives. There was, of course, a huge selection of wine, a considerable percentage of which was devoted to local stuff, much of which was quite good and quite inexpensive. There was an entire wall of fresh pasta: ravioli and tortellini with such exotic fillings as green asparagus and grilled vegetables.

I tried to stare at my shopping list and stay focussed so I wouldn't go broke. First stop was the vegetables, which weren't so impressive in the wintertime, and first stop there was a basket of top-quality garlic, hard and unsprouted, big heads with meaty cloves. I went to weigh it and noticed that the code was 1. Right! (Although it struck me later that this might have been alphabetical, garlic being ail). Also: things not in season? Not there, another change from Berlin. Which is not to say that the occasional carbon-gobbling vegetable wasn't around: there was asparagus from Peru around Christmas, and I once bought green beans from Burkina Fasso.

The huge difference from Germany seemed to be that there were multiple options for products. You could buy this kind or you could buy that kind. There was actual acknowledgement that a consumer might prefer one brand over another, because there is a tacit understanding that the French customer has at least a rudimentary connoisseurship. It's heartening to stand on line and see what people are buying: there's less junk food, more fruit and vegetables, more stuff, to put it simply, that I might buy myself. There is an astonishing lack of MSG in the prepared food. It exists, in things like flavored potato chips, but not in canned soups or prepared meat products.

There were, of course, things I didn't want to buy at the supermarket. Cheese, for instance, was going to be better (and, as it turned out when I compared prices, about the same price) at a cheesemonger in the Halles Castellanes, across from the Vert Anglais. This is a covered market where various merchants rent stalls, and there are a couple of cheese stands. The biggest not only has a mind-boggling selection of French cheeses, but, from time to time, high-quality English Cheddar and, always, Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bread, another thing I don't need Inno for, is available on the corner from a baker whose sourdough culture and I see eye-to-eye about the exact degree of sourness bread should have. Things like olives, saucisses secs, which are France's take on salame, capers, salt-cured anchovies, and the like are available from a guy who sets up in a garage across from the Halles, again at prices that beat the supermarkets. And, I've noticed, chickens at the nearby butcher shop are the same price as at Inno -- so why not support an independent merchant?

I'll admit: I still haven't gotten into the routine. I still tend to mooch around the house until 6, then head off to the store. But as the weather improves and more local crops start coming in, I'm hoping to hit the Halles, at least, and, with luck, the Saturday morning market down at the Arceaux, on a more regular basis. Often the stuff at the Arceaux is so ripe that it's sold cheaply because it's going to start rotting soon, and always it comes in from farms within a couple hours' drive. I'm also going to train myself to go to Figuerolles, the Arab quarter, on occasion, because that's where the good spices are, the good parsley and cilantro, and stewing lamb for when I want to make a lamb curry. I've also discovered an "Asian" store in the vicinity, so I've got tofu and green chiles covered (although I hope to grow the latter on my balcony this summer), and am keeping an eye out for an Italian grocery store I saw once while lost -- although I know approximately the area it was in, it has yet to reappar, and it was closed the day I walked past it.

One thing I might also do is to subscribe to a service that delivers fresh weekly baskets of vegetables to a nearby health-food store for you to pick up. That would be a great way to explore the region. And finally, I'm anxious to get out to the local wineries. They actually came to me, in the form of a Montpellier Agglomeration Vintners' Fair in the Comédie, just before Christmas, but I'd given myself a financial panic by expecting a check which, it developed, had already arrived and been spent. For five euros I could have bought a tasting glass, but...I didn't have five euros. I did, however, pick up some pamphlets, and discovered that one of my favorite local wineries, Domaine de la Prose, claims to have shipped wine to Thomas Jefferson! Cruising the wine wall at Inno has sharpened my ability to discern variations in local reds (and a couple of local rosés, about which I suspect I'll be writing as the weather warms up), and now I want to get out to the producers and see what's what.

Make no mistake: food's a lot more expensive in Montpellier than it was in Berlin, or at least it has been so far. I'm hoping that when the influx of local stuff starts, some of the prices will go down, but in the meanwhile, I do remind myself that you get what you pay for, and even at these prices, I'm getting a bargain.


  1. It sounds look you're doing much better in Montpellier. Your stories bring back my Monoprix experiences in Paris last year. Have you noticed an absurdly unhealthy love affair with Joghurt? In Paris, Monoprix would have an entire isle set up for such product. Prices are more expensive and they'll probably stay that way, if you ask me. My best tip if you get the chance, buy some butter from Bretagne next time you go to Monoprix. The salted kind, with huge junks of sea salt. It's the best butter in the world.

  2. French supermarkets have a great selection of products from all over - well, er, all over France. There is a more international choice just over the border in Spain.

    Finding a decent selection of Californian wine, Spanish ham, etc requires much trekking around the back streets. Pinto has some interesting stuff, but is not cheap.

    Things are improving - many supermarkets now have a rather small "foreign" section. It needs translation US=Mexican, UK=Indian, Chinese=Indonesian/Vietnamese etc.

    The best supermarkets ? Try those around Brussels. They canvas foreigners on what they miss most which results in a choice of most national favourites from EU countries being on a complete "EU" aisle. The rest of the supermarket also has great choice. You want ham ? Belgian Ardennes, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Danish ? Smoked, boiled or cured ?

    And the Belgian supermarket wine choice is amazing. Check it out here : http://www.delhaizewineworld.com/_fr/index.aspx . This weeks wine article is "wines of Luxemburg" !


  3. Ha! I've got the Breton butter situation under control, no worries about that. I do buy the Monoprix house brand, though, since it seems identical to the one with the cute pix of the peasants on the label.

    And yes, I should have been more diligent in mpprh's observation that the vast majority of food avaiable everywhere is French. I'm actually in the position of trying to find a decent Italian grocery, which doesn't seem right, somehow.

    Although the "translation" of UK to Indian isn't quite accurate: they have that vile substance Heinz Salad Cream down at the Inno, as well as one of my country's vile substances, Skippy peanut butter.

  4. >Ed
    I am writing this on your Mont Pellier blog since I wasn't sure if you would read the discarded ex-blog from Berlin anymore. I met you probably at the very beginning of your Berlin days at the BID, Berlin Independence Days (weird title I know) probably around 1995? Anyway, I was a student doing a sort of work experience (being paid a t-shirt) and you were trying to get the crowd and journalists excited about discussing independent music. How you must have suffered at the cultural stone wall of people 'thinking before speaking' :-)
    I am sad you feel disappointed in the German culture but I can assure you that Berlin is not Germany and Germany is not Berlin (similar to Paris vs France I would venture to say without having lived there). The level of experimentation and free-spiritedness as well as depression and senseless aggression I have experienced in my 8 years of Berlin was not like any other part of Germany.
    As an expat in Australia I now long for my family and friends, also sometimes for the deep thoughts and seriousness. But I also feel odd (living in the land of 'no worries') to see how my country is not able to have a more optimistic outlook. But again, Berlin is very special in that regard and has made me leave (like your friends you mentioned in the second to last post in elsewhere cyberspace).


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