Mmmm, food shopping in France! If I’ve got a bit of time before having to catch the ferry home after a meeting in France, you’ll often find me happily ferreting around the Carrefour supermarket near the port in Calais. Even though nowadays much of the produce can be found in the UK, there are still bits and pieces you can only find in France. A quick survey of my friends and family shows that everybody has their favourite things they like to buy in France: my mother always gets me to bring her some Plizz furniture polish (lavender fragrance), little matchboxes with pictures on the covers and small notebooks with squares rather than lines on the page. My friend Pat is hooked on Noirmoutier sea salt butter, my husband loves the bright orange Mimolette cheese (but it’s got to be the extra-vielle) and I’m always a sucker for tins of choucroute (a throwback to time spent living in eastern France).
Of course, the local markets are always a delight, and so too are the boulangeries and patisseries with their mouth-watering displays of hand-crafted cakes (try the Meert patisserie in Lille if you want a real treat) and heady scent of freshly-baked bread. As much as anything, it’s the personal treatment and many of the staff are more than happy to give specialist advice on their products. I remember spending ages in a wine shop discussing the right choice of wines for a dinner party menu. If you’re a regular visitor to a particular shop, you’ll no doubt strike up a relationship with the staff there. My sister-in-law used to pop over to Calais regularly to do her shopping and even now, I’m often pressed into taking a jar of her homemade jam over to one of the local wine shop owners for her!
If you have the time, it’s a real treat to visit some of the local food producers at their farms and workshops and see them at work. Many of them are passionate about their chosen produce and it’s a delight to discover the enthusiasm and sheer hard craft that goes into the end result. I visited the Escargotiere du Choquel with a group of fairly snail-sceptic friends and to a person, we were won over by Emmanuel Brasseur’s passion for his snails! A tour of his farm included a visit to the hatching shed, where thousands of snail eggs are kept in controlled conditions (to my everlasting shame, I killed a few thousand of them by taking a picture with my camera flash on), and the huge polythene sheeted tunnels where vast quantities of snails munch their way through plants, protected from the local pests by a friendly ferret. The secret is often the quality of work that these people put into their product. Emmanuel explained that the best-tasting snail dishes need to have been cooked in a very specific and time-consuming way to avoid the texture becoming over-rubbery. He has also experimented with some of own recipes and I can honestly say that his snails with goats cheese or Roquefort in a puff pastry wrapper are delicious!
No less enthusiastic is Valérie Magniez, who keeps a herd of goats a 40-minute drive away at La Halte d’Autrefois. Valérie and her husband make the most sublime cheese from the goat’s milk and she also creates delicious pies and pastries in the bread oven of her farm. Again, this isn’t just a day job; it’s a lifestyle for Valerie and her husband, who have also spent a huge amount of time and effort renovating the farm buildings in a beautiful style that wouldn’t appear out of place in an illustration for Grimm’s Fairy Tales. She is keen to share her knowledge and love of her goats with her customers and children are welcome to join in with the goat milking on Saturday afternoons. For visitors who fancy spending some nights in the rustic simplicity you can rent their beautifully restored little cottage, which has no electricity, but plenty of logs for the stove and a food basket full of homemade goodies from Valerie on request.
Just around the corner from Valérie, in the nearby village of Offin, you’ll come across Les Legumes d’Antan, an organic farm run by Francois Delepierre. Francois grows over 3,000 varieties of vegetables and fruit, many of which can be purchased at the farm in season (you can pick them yourself if you like). There’s also a tasty range of fantastically imaginative preserves and jams such as apple, pear and chocolate; strawberry and banana or strawberry and melon. Francois is keen to share his knowledge and passion for organic farming and he runs regular training courses and cookery workshops. If you’re in the area, it’s also worth popping in on Hubert Deloberte’s redcurrant farm, Perlé de Groseille, a five-minute drive away, where he produces a range of sparkling wines and cider that are perfect for long lazy summer days spent in the garden. There are also some scrummy terrines and rillettes flavoured with redcurrants in stock.
If you spend a little time visiting these and other local producers in France, I can guarantee that you’ll not only be taking home some gorgeous tasting, healthy organic produce, you’ll also be imbibing a bit of the passion and knowledge that makes this kind of shopping so fascinating. The memories will stay with you for years to come.