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Jan 14, 2008 11:48 AM

Can one live on CHEESE? Need advice on budget cooking in France

My brother arrived a week ago in France (Montpellier) to study for the semester and he is completely blown away by how expensive things are there, especially a lot of the food. Apparently cheese is the only affordable protein source.

He's been asking me for cheese-intensive recipes but I'm out of ideas. I've told him to try mac 'n' cheese, potatoes or cauliflower au gratin, grilled cheese and mini-pizzas, cheese blintzes.

Any other recipes that use lots and lots of cheese? He says that emmental and camembert are what he buys most.

Also, he bemoans the lack of spices available to him. I had this same problem when I was in France. Are there North African (or other) spices available in Montpellier? If so, where?

Merci beaucoup for any advice you can offer!

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  1. My husband lived in France with no/little money. Of course he ate cheese, but also eggs and lentils/beans. He grew up a beef eating Texan and after a couple years in France he was eating mostly vegetarian. He also ate a lot of cous cous which is very cheap (not protein, but filling) and he still laments how much Americans pay for it. Also yogurt is a good source of protein. Finally, adding a bit of sausage or lardons can give a different flavor but a little goes a long way.

    1. When I was in that neck of the woods (Montpelier, Sete, Bezier), the local seafood was the cheap protein of choice. Is he shopping in the markets or at the supermarkets? As far as the spices go, again look to the local markets, we bought small quantities from the stalls.

      You didn't say how accomplished a chef he is or how equipped a kitchen, but I'd be leaning towards soups and stews to live cheaply.

      I have to admit I find this discouraging for my Europe vacation plans, the dollar is worth about as much as a used kleenex against the Euro.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Scrapironchef

        He definitely knows his way around a kitchen, having come from a cooking-obsessed family, but is still learning a lot of fundamentals. I would say he`s up for any kind of culinary challenge because what he doesn`t know he`s willing to learn.

        His kitchen, OTOH is probably not well equipped. He mentioned not having any large pots, which makes large batches of soup a problem. Hopefully he can find a bigger pot--are there used goods stores there?

        Yeah...this is definitely not a good time to visit Europe if you`re on a budget. I wish you luck!

        1. re: tasmonia

          I'm sure there are used goods stores, but there are also flea markets to be found. I think he'll have good luck in the Arab market, usually cheap cookware as well as foodstuffs. Of course you could subsidise him for better cookware with the agreement that he ships it home to you at the end of his stint.

          I might make it worth his while to ship me a bottle of Noilly Pratt Ambre.

          1. re: tasmonia

            I'd first suggest borrowing/bartering pots from other students, then trying flea markets/brocantes. Not sure this is up to date:
  , but the Espace Mosson looks to be active:

            There is always IKEA for a relatively inexpensive pot.

            If he gets a big pot, the next issue may be storage and the size of the fridge/freezer ... I've had to get very creative with ziplocs in smaller french fridges. I've also had the experience that the fridge didn't keep things as cold as I'd like, and so couldn't keep much perishable in the fridge for very long.

        2. Once upon a time I was a poor American student in France(Bordeaux in my case). While this was a long time and before the very weak dollar I remember life being expensive on my poor student budget. I ate a lot of eggs and lentils. Lots of corn flakes of all things(for some reason big boxes of cornflakes were really cheap). Like mentioned above couscous(France was where I learned to love couscous and tagine). A very small piece of chicken or meat with some fresh veggies can make a nice stew over couscous for a warm and filling meal. Baguettes are cheap and were a regular staple. Montpellier likely has a public market of some sort...buying fresh fruit and veggies at the market...keeping in mind what's in season. This is also the best place to find spices.

          Fish should be relatively inexpensive in Montpelier - and very fresh.

          We rarely ate out but had some very memorable picnics - a loaf of bread, a piece of cheese, maybe some sausage, some fruit and what was then an inexpensive bottle of wine....there's some wonderful public spaces in France for enjoying these types of feasts...

          Even back then I loved to cook and enjoyed getting out and exploring the markets and shops and getting to know the shopkeepers...this went a lot way to finding the less expensive items.

          hope he has a great experience!

          1. Here's a list of local markets:

            I second the couscous and beans/legumes ideas. I'd also suggest pastas, risottos, paellas, noodle soups, omelettes, crepes, salads.

            Checking out the price difference of the roasted chickens at the supermarches and boucheries is also a good idea. You can find quite a bit of price difference in different neighborhoods. Part or all of a roasted chicken along with the potatoes that have been cooked in the dripping roasting juices, along with a baguette is just wonderful fast food.

            And just want to doublecheck- the dollar is horrendously weak, but it's even worse if you aren't taking into account that things are listed in their price by the kilo rather than by the pound...

            On a completely different note- has he been to a Picard? I love to try out various things there (sort of a guilty pleasure). Some fabulous, some really bad. But mostly inexpensive.

            2 Replies
            1. re: souvenir

              I linked my brother to your responses and here's what he had to say:

              Ack!!! is the most useful link I have ever been given.

              Lots of good ideas from you and the message board people. They basically nailed it; the last big thing I made was chicken roasted with bunches of onion and garlic, and while somewhat straightforward it was at least delicious and pretty cheap. Oddly, I have been trying to follow the couscous suggestion, but cannot find it in any sort of larger bulk-ish quantity (i.e. a bag and not a little prepared meal-style box) in any of the supermarkets. I was going to check out one of those local markets soon which is in the Arab district, so hopefully that will do something for my spice situation.

              Gros bises
              So thank you very much for the advice! He'll be checking this thread if anyone has more ideas.

              1. re: tasmonia

                Chowhound to the rescue....that's great stuff.
                After visiting small town France and staying with people that just fed us cheese because they appeared to smoke instead of cook, I can recommend that your brother start eating vegetables and other sources of fiber asap.
                We returned from the trip desperate for salads and veg.

            2. I spent 3 months in Paris followed by some time in the south of France (near Perpignan) and was appropriately shocked by the prices. I sympathize with your brother. I did, however, find a supermarket that doesn't satisfy all needs, but has bargains you can't believe. Name of the chain is Lidl. Here's the link to find the locations (there are many in Montpellier). Please post a reply after he's gone there. It's a bargain-hunter's paradise. I remember buying wonderful beer (albeit in cans) for 20 and 24 euro cents that really hit the spot! My ONLY complaint was that I hadn't known about the chain until near the end of my 100+ day trip. Argh. There's always "next time" however!

              1 Reply
              1. re: kodothedrum

                Lidl is a good bargain basement supermarket right across Europe. You won't have heard of the brands (mostly) but it's usually good stuff.

                For the spices the OP's relative is after, a bigger supermarket is probably going to be required. Carrefour is France's major chain and there are several branches around town. Otherwise the Auchan chain (not as good, IMO).