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Jul 26, 2014 01:10 PM

How do the French get their food?

We are back from a three week trip to France, one week in Provence and two weeks in Paris.

We are curious about how the French food delivery system works. For instance, there are small market stalls in many neighborhoods in Paris that had absolutely delicious fresh fruit: cherries, raspberries, strawberries. Ripe, tasty, and very inexpensive compared to costs in our neck of the woods (Ohio). And we can't even find such fruit, not in our farmer's markets nor the high end groceries and there is nothing "in the middle".

As we think about it, we suspect it has something to do with the food delivery system. Of course, France is a smaller country than the US, but why can't I get strawberries from neighboring southern states, or cherries from Michigan (they come from Washington state), or local raspberries?

The folks at the small stalls weren't farmers. These are not "farmer's markets". And my memory is that even the local Monoprix had great fruit -- and of course great cheese and miles of yogurt.

So, any thoughts on how the system works?

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  1. Antonia - I think you need to consider both the supply and demand side. On the demand side the typical French consumer will appreciate seasonal food and buy according to the seasons. Compare that to the UK where the standard is to have the same fresh produce available all year with far less seasonality.

    French consumers patronize markets and local shops as well as supermarkets, again compare thus to the UK where the supermarkets are dominant an most people only shop in them (which I think mirrors the US). In the UK and the US many people do the weekly big shop, driving to a big supermarket outside the centre of town, in fact few people now live in town. In France many people live in the centres of towns and cities, they shop more frequently, and walk to the local shops, with supermarket trips in between.

    Because of the differences in the deman side the supply side is structured differently to supply it. Far more individual suppliers means there is more competition, competition means variety, local specialities, freshness etc are differentiators. In the UK/US the food supply is dominated by major brands where competition is about efficiency of supply and standardization so differentiation is less i.e. you tend to buy the brand of supermarket not really the individual produce, so you won't but meat from one place and vegtables from another.

    Sitting behind this will be the distribution network that is designed to drive consistency. For example you may find the milk from your local dairy farm is shipped to a central distribution centre at the other end of the country, then distributed back to your local store. In France there is a more local supply chain that is designed to meet consumer demand. The big players like Carrefour do have scale and national/international distribution but it sits alongside the local shops and specialist so in France you see a blended model with scale for some things, but local for other.

    That said there is a constant commercial pressure to standardize. Take cheese, unpateurised is a more difficult product to manage across the supply chain with more wastage. Better to standardize and pasteurize all cheese so big dairies are constantly trying to eliminate unpasteurized cheese. If they can influence the change in regulations to make unpasteurized more expensive or more difficult to produce they can streamline the market and eliminate the less stable product - if consumers can't exercise choice then they can only but pasteurized which masked life so much easier for a big supplier.

    France does maintain a good artisan standards in much of the food chain but there is no room for complacency as multinational food companies drive more efficiency in the market.

    3 Replies
    1. re: PhilD

      Supply and demand is almost like chicken/egg, which came first?

      It is very clear that the French have much higher expectations of what their food should be like. As others point out, Americans (so far) do not. Hence the demand side.

      But, I sense this is changing. Certainly the larger farmer's markets, like the Union Square Market, are part of this, as are the increasing number of artisanal (spelling?) cheese makers, bourbon makers, maple syrup makers, etc.

      But, access to these special products -- and the cherries from Michigan instead of Oregon -- still seems to be hard to come by. Unlike French consumers, we can't exercise choice, even as we are demanding more and more choice.

      Meeting that demand requires some kind of infrastructure.

      Again, I ask, how do the French ACTUALLY do it? Is having a central market, like Rungis make it possible to supply those delicious raspberries on the streets of Paris? Where actually do those small street sellers get their fruit, vegetables, etc?

      Are there regional markets/middle folk in the countryside and other cities where the street seller can buy excellent fruit/vegetables and then sell them to the French consumer from the smaller shop?

      Without that infrastructure in the middle we here in the US will be limited to the hard, but shiny tomatoes at the supper market, or the cherries from Oregon when they are also grown 300 miles away in Michigan.

      How do I get access to those cherries?

      1. re: antonia2

        "Again, I ask, how do the French ACTUALLY do it?"

        I don't think there is any magic to it. It starts with obtaining varieties of fruit whose chief characteristic is deliciousness. Has to be grown that way in the first place. They get the fruit from whatever source they can. Oranges from Spain, many tropical fruits from Africa, other fruit from France and around the EU. Geographically, it's all pretty close quite frankly.

        In the US this week we bought some peaches from the supermarket and from a market stand about an hour outside the city on the way to the beach. The supermarket peaches were so hard you could hammer nails with them. After about five days, they were finallly soft enought to eat but they had dried up inside. Right in the middle of peach season!

        The peaches at the fruit stand were totally ready to eat right then, and exploded in juiciness. They are not the same peach in the first place. It's not magic. A complex infrastructure had to be created to get that supermarket peach into our grubby little hands. I guess because at some point in the past, the US consumer rejected the juicy and seasonally available but imperfect looking peach in preference for the beautiful papier maché version, available year round, grown on purpose to look great first and for most. We were (and still are) willing to pay top dollar - it is not at all about saving money- for this privilege.

        Although it is not fruit, here is what happens with Maryland crabs (which I think is a similar story): supply is inconsistent, so crab houses here have to go further afield. Those suppliers want to sell to them year round, so they insist on purchasing levels 12 months of the year. Voila, they are serving Texas crabs even when Maryland crabs are available. So you are sitting in a restaurant in Maryland, built on a dock overlooking the Chesapeake Bay where crabs are swimming - maybe even right in front of you - and you are eating crabs from Texas and crabcakes made from Vietnamese crab. And you are paying 'market' prices.

        1. re: Steve

          Or as an octogenarian French friend rails when such subject comes up, blame it on the devil incarnate, Monsanto.

    2. I think part of the difference is that too many Americans are content with mediocrity. So they'll accept whatever is offered and even be glad for it, without questioning where it came from, or even how it tastes.

      I shop mostly at the Union Square Greenmarket especially in summer, crossing 14th Street to supplement my purchases at Whole Foods. The strawberries at Whole Foods are all Driscoll from CA! What's up with that is it's okay to most consumers, even those who consider themselves savvy! I only buy strawberries at the market, and only from those farmers who bring the ones I can smell a block away!!! (Just an example)

      4 Replies
      1. re: ChefJune

        and how much is it "content with mediocrity" versus "doesn't know any better"?!

        If you don't know what a really fresh peach is supposed to taste like, you don't realize that the rock-hard, slightly bitter thing you're holding in your hand is bad.

        1. re: sunshine842

          Generations of Americans now expect peaches to be in the in store year round. They have little idea of seasons or that the peaches should taste different in the summer.

        2. re: ChefJune

          June, here in Montréal, I was actually rather peeved at a fellow ahead of me in line in a chain supermarket (no, I wasn't buying fruit) buying a lot of organic stuff: good local milk, but also "organic" strawberries from California! The local ones are in season here now, and some are organic. This fellow, who looked ultra-fit, could have cycled to the Jean-Talon Market in ten minutes from where we were... I don't buy Driscoll, not even the organics, in the wintertime. I'm sure there are smaller organic producers in California, if I should travel there, with fruit one can smell!

          I got used to extreme seasonality when living in Italy. They are even more adamant about it than the French. For years I didn't buy any of those golfball tomatoes; I do occasionally buy the much improved hothouse ones nowadays, in the winter, supplemented with some jarred salsa, etc.

          We do seem to get more cherries from Washington State or British Columbia than from neighbouring Ontario.

        3. The fruit in a US Supermarket is sold rock hard. It looks beautiful. Gorgeous, ruby red tomatoes, perfectly shaped. Prettily shaded peaches. Pears, plums, and strawberries that survive unblemished the rigors of transportation. The US consumer will reach for that tomato in the supermarket that looks beautiful and will pay a premium for that. There is no expectation from the consumer they will be able to eat it anytime soon after purchase. And they expect to have the fruit available throughout the year, no matter the season. These fruit will never ripen properly.

          In all those little neighborhood or village markets in France, the fruit is ready to eat, from my experience, and the French expect it to be ripe.

          In order to satisfy these different expectations, the fruit has to be a different variety from the beginning.

          Just like all those 'food service' tomatoes at a fast food place are a different variety. Nobody cares what they look like unsliced. The consumer dos not see them whole and does not pay extra for them, so they have to be as cheap as possible, are usually pink, and cannot be juicy or will be too messy to slice and serve. They will lose product on the floor.

          1. Why you can't get cherries from Michigan? because the the state produce a small amount where as Washington has groves and groves of cherry orchard geared toward large production. And there is nothing wrong with those cherries; they are some of the sweetest Bing cherries around. Same with strawberries, peaches, avocado and many other produce. Small farmers in American produce a very tiny amount of the food we consume.
            Add to the demand issue, there is less of a seasonality to the American consumer. We expect tomatoes all year round, fruit from the southern hemisphere during the winter, Asparagus from Mexico and Peru, raspberries from Holland. This leads to developing varieties of fruit and vegetable that can stand up to long shipping and storage logistics rather than for taste.
            And there is the worst American shopping habit of handling and squeezing every fruit before buying. This leads stores to stock rock hard fruit. A ripe fruit won't survive two minutes at Whole Foods. Ever try touching a peach at a Paris market, one will be put to shame and sent to purgatory or worse, missing a finger.
            When we travel and if food is of interest, we tend to search for the best. Sometimes, this distorts our perception. I've had flavorless strawberries, less than stellar peaches, hard tomatoes from Morocco and Sicily from the markets in Paris. Most of the time, it is due to my weakness of saving a few cents because they are cheaper than the next vendor. And some of the produce at Monoprix and Franprix are not much above what I find at American supermarkets.

            3 Replies
            1. re: PBSF

              Oregon cherry acreage: 13,150 (650 for tart cherries)

              Michigan cherry acreage: 30,000
              Michigan produces 80% of the tart cherry crop grown in the US, which puts it in first place for production.

              You were saying?

              1. re: sunshine842

                Thanks for the facts on cherry production. Isn't much of Michigan cherry crop is the tart variety, mostly use for processing such as pie filling, jam, juice, dried, frozen. The sweet variety is used to make maraschino cherries.
                Washington, Oregon and California produce more than 90 percent of the sweet cherries in America, much of it sold fresh.
                My bad for not being specific on the types of cherries; also instead of Washington, should be the Pacific Northwest.

                1. re: PBSF

                  but I'll offer up that maraschino cherries is a tiny, tiny corner of the market for cherries.

            2. The French system might offer slightly better food than what is available in US supermarkets but it comes at a much higher price. They spend more than twice as much on their food, by percentage of income, (see attachment) than we do. I don't want to pay twice as much for my food and I'd bet an overwhelming percentage of the US population wouldn't either.

              8 Replies
              1. re: zackly

                Very true. I can buy extraordinary meat, fish and produce but it isn't cheap. I took a visiting hound to my local market and he agreed that the stuff looked great but that it was horribly expensive.

                In the US, those with income for good food eat well. Those struggling can't even afford supermarket produce. In the country, I frequently see older shoppers pick up a package of meat (at home, I wouldn't touch packaged meat!), glance at the price, shake their head and put it back. No way would or could these people pay more for top quality. I don't think that fresh produce is in their vocabulary.

                1. re: mangeur

                  Agreed, we need to find ways to produce CHEAPER food in the US because there are so many needy people who can't pay current prices and I think it's only going to get worse.

                  1. re: mangeur

                    In the past few years, I been shocked by the produce prices at the supermarkets such as Safeway and Lucky in the San Francisco Bay Area. I don't know if it is my faulty memory but until about 10 years ago, prices used to be very reasonable and not much more than most ethnic markets. Now, unless they are on the 'weekly sales', I see zucchini and broccoli at $2 a pound regardless of the season, peaches and nectarine at $3, run of the mill onions at $1. Many ethnic markets sell them at less than half of their prices. I think supermarkets changed their produce pricing structure/policy some years ago. No wonder, low income people can't afford to buy fresh produce.

                    1. re: PBSF

                      We buy much produce at a weekly flea market. Purchased by the seller at the end of the business week, we find ready-to-eat fruit, often organic, at very reasonable prices. Many shoppers are ethnic and indeed eagerly shop here. In fact, I would propose that immigrants bring with them a much higher familiarity with and desire for fresh produce than do natives here. Somewhere in the middle of the last century, America became a processed food junky, only compounded by the length of their work week and commute.

                      1. re: mangeur

                        I'll agree with that -- Other than the 3x-weekly market in my town, the best source for fresh produce was very, very often the ethnic groceries, particularly the Portuguese grocery at the edge of town. Always excellent produce, usually at prices better than the supermarkets. (and lots of immigrant-centric stuff that the French don't/won't eat -- sweet corn, okra, greens, sweet potatoes, etc -- and hot chiles for salsa!)

                        1. re: mangeur

                          There are bargains if one shop near the end of the shift at most farmers markets in the SF Bay Area. I go the Alemany on Saturday afternoon before vendors pack up or around 12:30pm Saturday at the San Mateo market, lots of discount for bulk buying. The SF Ferry Plaza might be the few exceptions. Most can't afford fruits at $4.80/lb at Fog Hollow who has become a big business.

                      2. re: mangeur

                        My frame of reference is fairly recent (just a year of first-hand shopping experience) -- and I still get sale notices from the supermarket chains by email, so I'm still able to compare weekly specials.

                        Produce prices in the US are now higher than they are in France for the same items, sometimes shockingly so, and the quality comparison is a non-question.

                        Much as I love Publix, they drive me bonkers. I cannot buy Georgia peaches at Publix --- California windowbreakers only -- and the stupid truck has to come THROUGH Georgia! I live near the capital of salad-vegetable production in Florida -- and where do the tomatoes come from? CALIFORNIA.

                        This is stupid and wasteful (of time, money, and resources) and is counterproductive to supporting local economies.

                        I rebel and buy local produce whenever possible, including u-picks.

                      3. re: zackly

                        I'm surprised to see a "progressive" publication like Mother Jones refer to the USA as "America".

                        I live in Québec, and while we spend less on solid food than our cousins in France, we spend a hell of a lot more on wine! Moreover, cheese is cheaper in France than here, and they have a longer season for fresh produce. Don't know how all this compares to our friendly neighbours in the USA...