Markets

One of the fundamental issues for vegetarians and vegans living in France is where to obtain the ingredients that are essential for their chosen diet. Generally, basic fruit and vegetables will be just as easy, if not easier, to obtain than back ‘home’. The traditional French market is one of those iconic holiday day trips, under the warmth of the southern sun, bowls of glossy olives, crusty artisan baguettes, plump apples from local orchards. Markets are commonplace, even in the suburbs of the larger cities and many towns still have Les Halles – an indoor covered market, open daily.

Follow the lead of the French: buy fresh food in season; buy local

Whilst obtaining fresh fruit and vegetables should not pose too much of a problem, you should bear in mind that the French place great emphasis on seasonal produce. Hence, it will be difficult and/or very expensive to track down, say, fresh strawberries in December. However, in June when the first sun-ripened gariguette arrive from the south it’s not unusual for their arrival to be heralded by a TV news report. The French love fresh strawberries, in season, not surprising perhaps as strawberries were first ‘domesticated’ in Brittany in the 1750s. On market stalls you will often be offered a choice of different varieties and be able to buy direct from the producer. It’s a similar story with Charentaise melons which reach the height of their season on July; over a quarter of French melon production comes from the Poitou-Charente region. As Autumn approaches it is the apple-picking season, followed by, depending on the weather, time to go out foraging for mushrooms.

Fresh figs on a French market

Most towns and villages will have a market at least once a week, often with a larger monthly market that draws crowds from the surrounding rural area. Market days are usually listed in the local newspapers, the Mairie noticeboard and sometimes on signs in the market square or entrance to the village or town. Or, check out the website marchedefrance.org (French language). I’ve seen many a YouTube clip about how easy it is to be vegan in France (yeah, right), usually posted by people holidaying in the south. Their focus is on the availability of fresh, in-season summer produce on the excellent markets, and this is true. But, a word of warning about markets, especially those in rural areas. You will inevitably see a lot of meat. There will be boucherie stalls, fromage stalls, old men selling dried sausages, roasted chicken wagons, and often live animals such as chickens and rabbits for sale, and not as pets! If you are of sensitive disposition, or simply do not want to support animal farming in any way, then you may prefer to stay away.

Supermarkets

The local market, no matter how good, will not be able to fulfil all of your shopping needs. In rural areas many of the smaller individual shops: laitieries (dairy shops), boucheries (butchers), patisseries (cake shops) and epiceries (grocers) have disappeared due to market forces, although in most regions boulangeries (bakers) continue to thrive. They have generally been replaced by a small mini-market, often under the brand one of the major retailers, such as Eco Frais, Carrefour Market, Carrefour City, or the slightly larger Intermarche group. You do need to keep an eye on the quality and price, especially fresh goods, as a low turnover of stock sometimes means fruit and vegetables will not last long once you’ve got your purchases home.

If you’ve been accustomed to shopping in the UK or the US, at large out-of-town centres where you can do a ‘one stop shop’, and you’ve not got the inclination or time to trawl the markets and small retailers, seek out the ‘grande surface’ hypermarkets. The hypermarket actually originated in France; in 1963 Carrefour opened the very first hypermarket in Europe. Older readers may remember the day-trip booze cruise to France was not complete without the obligatory stop at one of the large hypermarkets on the outskirts of Calais.

French supermarkets

The larger supermarkets are usually located on the outskirts of bigger towns, often in a specific Centre Commercial (usually signposted), or at a retail park along with other familiar brands such as MacDonald’s and the Brico stores. The major supermarket chains are:

All the retailers have websites where you can search for your nearest branch. They also all offer a ‘click and collect’ service in most areas, although home delivery is rare outside of cities such as Paris and Lyon. Also, remember that some of these supermarket chains operate on a franchise basis so ordering takes place at a more local level and things you may have seen advertised will not appear on the shelves if the manager judges his clientele to be too conservative.

Discounters

Smaller supermarket chains at the lower end of the market include Leader Price, Simply (a subsidiary of Auchan) and Netto. The discount supermarkets also have a strong presence in France, in particular the German leaders Aldi and Lidl. It’s always worth checking out your local stores. Often the fruit and vegetables are good quality and there is a growing, although not always reliable, range of bio and vegan products including plant milks.

Overstock suppliers Noz and Action have also opened branches in France. You either love ‘em or hate ‘em, but they do from time to time sell interesting food items, especially ‘world food’ products at very low prices.

Specialist shops

Frozen food in France tends to be high quality, and the hypermarkets usually have a good selection. The specialist retailed Picard is a chain dedicated solely to frozen food. The quality is high, as are the prices in comparison to the supermarkets, but it can be a good source for more unusual vegetables and herbs.

Check out your local specialist shops

Ask for advice about locating more unusual spices or ingredients on any English-speakers’ French social media group or forum and someone is bound to mention Grand Frais. There’s no identical UK equivalent. Grand Frais is essentially a superb market-style shop selling mainly fresh produce, including meat and cheese, plus a wide range of high quality grocery ingredients. Most branches carry a diverse range of herbs and spices, flours, nuts, seeds and pulses, Asian and regional and world goods. However, you should be aware that there will be raw meat and fish on view and promoted. Grand Frais has 191 shops throughout France, mainly located in the larger towns so a visit may involve a road trip.

Another possibility is to check out whether your local large town has a specialist Asian supermarket catering to the needs of the local community and restaurants.  

Bio shops

Inevitably, you won’t be able to find all of the more unusual vegan foodstuffs in everyday supermarkets or at your local market. Time to check out some of the 4000 bio or organic shops. In my experience, the French consider Bio or organic food to be virtually mainstream; the industry is worth some 7 billion euros annually and continues to expand. The prices are higher, as in the UK, but many French always buy certain foods that are produced organically for health motivations or for their children.

In 2016, 15% of the French population ate bio (organic) food every day

AgenceBio

There’s certainly no stigma attached to buying bio food, virtually all supermarkets, even the smallest have a few bio products, whereas admitting that you are a vegetarian or, what’s more, a vegan is likely to have you marked out as an alternative. However, a word of caution: Bio does not necessarily mean vegetarian or vegan. It’s still necessary to check the labels on some products, such as pesto sauce, if you’re seeking a vegan alternative. Also, Bio meat and dairy products are very popular, so you may feel that ethically you’re not supporting the vegetarian or vegan cause if you buy a product from a bio producer who also sells animal products. It’s not uncommon for soya products to be displayed right next to meat, too!

There are a number of chains with branches throughout France, plus smaller regional chains and local individual shops. Some names to look out for are:

•        BioCoop: the largest group with over 430 shops nationwide operating as a cooperative, so each shop is owner-operated. BioCoop describes itself as the premier group of bio shops in France.

•        La Vie Claire: the next largest group, has 265 stores throughout the country.

•        Naturalia: is owned by the Casino/Monoprix group. It has 130+ stores plus franchises throughout France and has recently turned three of its Parisian branches into pure Vegan stores, with a commitment to expand this trend (Imagine, you wouldn’t need to check the labels!).

•        Biomonde : has 190 stores, all partnered or franchises, nationwide.

•        Bio C’Bon: has over 75 shops in France plus stores in neighbouring Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and Spain.

•        Botanic: has 66 stores nationwide, all based in garden centres.

•        Grand Panier Bio: is an expanding chain, currently with ten shops nationwide.

Other regional chains include L’Eau Vive in Grenoble and the east, NaturéO with 48 shops mainly around the Paris area, Bio&Co centred around Provence, and Les Comptoirs de la bio in the south.

Buying online

Buy online

If you’ve explored all the local options and drawn a blank, moved to a remote corner of France, or just simply prefer the convenience of home delivery, explore the options for shopping online. France may lag behind other parts of Europe in respect of the popularity of vegan, but the French have embraced online shopping. Often Amazon.fr can be a good source of dry goods, especially if you can combine your purchases with Panier Plus discounts; ordering from Amazon.de – the German-based site – is also feasible, and that has an English language translation, too. Otherwise, you might want to take a look at some of the specialist vegan online shops. These are particularly useful for tracking down specific vegan products or cruelty-free goods, and they offer chilled goods too using the Chronofood/TNT overnight chilled delivery service.

Shopping delivery services from the UK

Many people who have moved abroad miss something from home. Migrants to France are no exception and a great number of British order online from their favourite UK supermarket, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose, and have their delivery brought over by a specialist shopping service. Generally, the system works like this: book a delivery slot with the transporter; place an order with your favourite supermarket, pay for it as usual, and have the shopping delivered to the transporter’s depot; on the pre-agreed date the transporter will bring over your goods, fresh, chilled and frozen included too, and drop them off at an agreed point, often in a local town. The cost – in addition to the shopping – varies around 20 to 25% of the total shopping bill. This may appear to be expensive, but many users of such services claim the lower cost of food in the UK, plus the ability to obtain their favourite items, outweighs or equals the cost. Of course, this service is available to all, not just the veggie market! If you do decide to try this out, make sure the transporter is ATP registered if you are buying temperature sensitive goods. A few service providers are listed below:

Other possibilities, as an alternative to the UK supermarkets, are the specialist retailers that offer an online shopping facility (and few don’t) with international delivery. Of particular interest to vegetarians and vegans will be the health foods store Holland & Barrett that currently (2019) offers delivery of up to 25 kg for £7.95.