When In Doubt...

10/10/2012

 

When In Doubt - Finding quality in Paris

     The French have a tendency to take the otherwise mundane or normal and raise it to the level of an art form.  Whether you are shopping for groceries, wine, bread, pastries, meat, fish, cheese or even chocolate, there are specialty stores all over France where you can get basic products or the creme de la creme available today.  There are even special days to buy certain products.  Fish mongers get their freshest catch, the cheese sellers get farm fresh cheese and even the butchers get lamb or wild game on specific days.  It's always available, but the locals know exactly which day to expect the fresh products to reach each shop.   Of course the large grocery stores (think neighborhood grocery, not the giant groceries we have in the USA) have a range of all the products which are available in specialty shops.  Buying them from the grocery store is fine if you find a good price and need the product quickly or when the specialty shops are closed, but the products are mass produced and not as fresh.  Being a card carrying American, I will often grab fruit or cheese at the common grocery because it's convenient and quick.  Plenty of locals buy these products, but when they need a larger amount or are planning a party, they would never consider the grocery store.  They go directly to the specialty shops.  Believe me when I tell you that the quality and the taste is beyond compare.  There is quite a difference.
     I'm not sure how it began, but the division in french retail is stark and ingrained.  If you wish to buy frozen foods such as vegetables, meats, fruits and newly-available tv dinners, you would go to stores which sell nothing but packaged, frozen foods.  If you want the best vegetables, you go to the fresh markets.  Naturally you visit a boulangerie for daily-baked bread, and you see your neighborhood patisserie for desserts.  To buy a dessert at the boulangerie is possible, but most older frenchmen would cast a disapproving eye if it appeared that you were buying more than an indulgent, spur of the moment snack.  Who would EVER consider taking home enough to share with family or friends.  Especially when there are patisseries in every neighborhood as well.  Why not go a few doors down and buy your pastries or cakes from the baker who specializes in desserts?  I can attest from first hand experience that the product may look the same, but the taste is not.  There is no question that the patisserie makes far superior desserts and the boulangerie offers the best bread.  It's the same with the chocolates, candies, wines and cheeses.  Go to the specialist and you will get the best prices and the best products.  There is no comparison. 
     Whereas Americans love competition and the convenience of having everything available at the first store we visit, it's only slightly true in France.  Perhaps the competition has spawned lower prices in the USA, but it has done little to increase quality.  In fact, it has caused a wider range of quality and we have to be careful that we are getting the same item at a cheaper price.   In France, the specialization has led to competition between the specialists.  It forces the bakers to compete for the title of best baguette in Paris, or the best creme brulee in Ile de France.   It seems to have worked.  I can't be positive yet, but after I eat ten baguettes from every bread store in Paris, and have a creme brulee at each patisserie, I'll get back with you. (I bet you think i'm joking).  
      Although it takes some acclimation, it's not long before you join the French in their attention to nuance and you expect each product to have that extra little something.   Thank goodness for the French tenacity.
 


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