Oddly, when we broke the news to friends and family that we were moving to France, no one said, “You’re nuts.” Instead, we heard riffs on “You’re living the dream” and “I’m so envious.” They were thinking, I imagine, of an evening such as this.
I’m sitting upstairs, a glass of three-euros-a-bottle rosé at my elbow and a window open to catch the breeze—the temperature was in the 30s today. The only sounds—faint ones at that—are a baby in the house opposite, the occasional Renault buzzing past the end of this little dead-end street, and, more loudly, the church bells every half-hour, with the Angelus at noon and at 7, morning and evening.
People’s envy probably also had something to do with what goes on plates and in glasses, and the general qualité de la vie here. They probably weren’t thinking about French bureaucracy (a newspaper recently reported that a train passenger had to buy “small pets” tickets for the live snails that accompanied him) or the quirky hours kept by the local post office, and I doubt very much that they were thinking of supermarket fliers.
The first day we were here, we stocked the pantry and I picked up the current flier at Super U in Mirepoix, roughly a 10-minute drive away. Super U is comparable to Safeway or IGA in terms of price and accessibility, though it knocks them both sideways. Among the specials were entire five-kilo Spanish hams, chunky monkfish tails, and halved quail preseasoned with herbes de Provence. Headed “The Treasures of Cathar Country”, a separate sheet detailed over a dozen local wines that were on sale: Fitou, Corbií¨res, vins de pays.
And this is the major difference I notice in supermarkets in France compared with those in Vancouver. I don’t know how their buying system works—I suspect it’s far less centralized—but here, supermarchés take an obvious and profound pride in their region. It isn’t just lip service—they vigorously support local producers.
(I first became aware of this several years ago while having dinner with French friends. Cooked over an open fire, the leg of lamb was incredible. It came, said our host, from a farm in a nearby village. “You go there?” I asked. “No,” he laughed. “I buy it at Super U.”)
Every Friday, we drive to the market in Lavelanet, 15 minutes in the other direction from Mirepoix, closer to the Pyrenees, where Christophe Delpech sells products made on his pig farm. But while you can buy them direct, you can also pick them up at the Super U in Mirepoix. There, displayed in a space about a metre wide, between presliced and packaged charcuterie and glass jars of foie gras, are Delpech’s pí¢té de tíªte (headcheese), poitrine salée, and wine-coloured, fat-flecked saucisson sec.
I’m not saying that globalization hasn’t touched French supermarkets. The same Super U flier that lists farm-raised chicken also has deals on Special K and Coca-Cola. But at every turn, consumers are encouraged to buy local.
Move a few steps away from Delpech’s products and you see a poster that suggests you demandez chickens from Cathar country. “Rediscover the flavour,” it says, accompanied by images of a lively-looking bird and a 12th-century ruined castle, because (loose translation here) “More than a brand, it’s our history.” If you still need convincing, paragraphs below describe the chickens’ lives, diets, and freedom to roam.
With all the weekly markets and chances to buy direct from farms, it’s unlikely I’ll ever shop exclusively at Super U. But even if I did, I would still have access to the kind of local products that Vancouverites can only dream of.
And talk about accountability. Audeline brand ice-cream packages, for example, show the phone number and e-mail address of Félix and Carine Bossut, who make their sumptuous glaces from milk from the sheep that graze on their land at Mayreville, less than 40 kilometres away.
It’s not cheap. Where a little over two euros ($3.50) buys a litre of mass-produced but still intensely flavoured and not overly sweet blackcurrant sorbet, you pay triple that for the same quantity of Audeline, a justifiable expense given the flavours it comes in—rose petal, red-currant marble, and violet to name a few—and its source. You can also buy cones direct from the small cart that the Bossuts set up at the marché gourmand held in our village on Friday nights during the summer.
Eat your heart out or, rather, eat at this communal event where long tables and benches fill the main street, and there’s duck magret, frites, and local cheese placed over the charcoal till it’s melted enough for dipping into with chunks of baguette.
Meanwhile, the aisle-end displays back at the Super U are more a nod to local geography than those in North American supermarkets, which command a premium and usually showcase multinational names.
One acknowledges this region’s closeness to Spain via anchovy-stuffed olives, calamares en su tinta (squid in their own ink), and saffron. Another provides reminders of home in the form of Marmite, PG Tips tea, and Oxo for the local Brit population. But there are also regional products, including pí¢tés from Delpech and cans of casserole dishes slow-cooked in the town of Revel, about an hour’s drive away.
Something similar may one day happen in Vancouver. Already successful across North America, community-supported agriculture sees consumers paying farmers upfront at the start of the growing season for weekly or monthly baskets. CSA is already a standard term for those committed to food sustainability. RSA could be next.
Herb Barbolet, ardent food-policy activist and cofounder of the Vancouver-based FarmFolk/CityFolk, writes by e-mail: “Retail-supported agriculture is just beginning to form. The most advanced work is being done by Ecotrust Portland Food and Farms program.”
A look at www.ecotrust.org/foodfarms/ shows the organization’s goal is to make sustainability of the mainstream food system “the norm rather than the exception”. Continues Barbolet: “Local Food First [a year-old nonprofit coalition whose mandate is to support market transformation of the B.C. food sector] is exploring its introduction to the Lower Mainland and having conversations with Western Economic Diversification [Canada] and [the B.C.] Investment Agriculture Fund.”
While these are just the preliminary stages, he adds, “What we are expecting is that several blocks of—as an example—Broadway or Commercial Drive will adopt a couple of farms and buy their products for sale in their grocery store, restaurants, and for employees and customers.”
It can’t happen too soon.