The first time I stepped into a French grocery store was in San Francisco, of all places. The small epicerie in Hayes Valley, owned by a French couple, carried an array of products I’d never seen before, from marrons glaces to locally made saucisson a l’ail. They even maintained a well-stocked cheese cave where a very knowledgeable cheese expert was available to give samples and cut big wedges of reasonably-priced Brie and Tomme de Savoie to order. (Sadly, the store was sold and things are a little different in there, so I don’t get to shop there anymore.)
A few years later, my then-fiancé took me to E. LeClerc in the suburbs of Bergerac, the French equivalent to Target or Wal-Mart – electronics, appliances, luggage, groceries, and more, all under one roof. What sets their grocery sections apart from their American counterparts is that these stores – LeClerc, Carrefour, and Intermarché – have meat, deli, and seafood counters that rival Whole Foods, but at incredibly inexpensive prices. ( I get swept away by how much my favorite cheeses cost in France that I buy them by the armload.) Ever since that first trip to LeClerc, I make it a habit to stock up on some of my favorite products that I can’t find in California – totally worth checking a bag for.
Just a note – if you are visiting Paris, people tend to shop at smaller local epiceries or at a more abbreviated version of the bigger chain stores (think Monop’, Carrefour City), so the selection will be different. Regardless, you’ll find some treasures that you simply cannot find in the US (without paying through the nose for them!). Here are some of my favorites below:
Bonne Maman Fraises et Fraises de bois
I can’t ever seem to find this particular flavor at my local grocery store, despite the fact that they carry a pretty decent selection of Bonne Maman jams. This one is strawberry and wild strawberry (fraise de bois), which have a slightly stronger flavor than cultivated berries. Perfect for breakfast tartines, or stirring into plain yogurt.
Duck Confit (en boite)
My husband’s family lives in the Southwest, so there is no shortage of artisanal duck confit there (it’s amazing). But if you step into a grocery in any part of France, you’ll find a large selection of tinned duck confit averaging about 10-12€ for four legs, about half the price of what you’d find here in the US. Plus, since it’s canned, it is perfectly fine to bring back through customs!
In the States, there are a few places to buy a small selection of these syrups (check out Monsieur Marcel in Los Angeles), but they are pretty expensive – about $7-8 a bottle. In France, they are maybe 2€ each! I haven’t tried them all, but my favorite so far is the Pamplemousse Rose (pink grapefruit) and my husband likes the Menthe Glacial (ice mint) – you can just add them to sparkling water to make your own soda.
Before I get hate mail about featuring this product from Nestle, I can’t help it – this one is a great one to have on hand. It’s a blend of coffee and chicory, and you make it by just mixing it with water (or milk), so it’s super convenient when I don’t have time to brew an entire pot of coffee before running out the door. I bought a tiny tin of this from my local French grocer for 8€, then went to France and bought a giant tin for the same price!
Miel de Lavande
I like honey just as much as the next person, but have never been compelled to eat it straight from the jar until now. Lavender honey is a revelation – I slathered this on a piece of buttered baguette for breakfast, and I was in love. It’s like eating a piece of summertime – is that weird? If they sold this in giant buckets at the supermarché, I’d gladly haul them back to the US, but for now I have to ration out the jar I bring back each visit.
Tarbais beans are absolutely crucial to making a real cassoulet. Near impossible to find in the US, I buy several bags at a time and keep them in the freezer. The 500 gram bags usually sell for about 9-10€, but on my last trip to Paris I happened to walk by G. Detou (58 Rue Tiquetonne, 2eme arrondissement) where they have 1-kilo bags for 17€. Since I only make cassoulet once a year, they will usually last me until my next visit – thank goodness.
Creme de Marrons de L’Àrdeche
Chestnuts are everywhere in France, so it makes sense that the French have an affinity for this sweet chestnut puree. My husband told me he used to eat this straight out of the tin, and I may or may not have witnessed him doing that to this day. You can use this to top a Mont Blanc, or fill the inside of a bûche de Noël, or simply stir it into plain yogurt.
Mere Poulard Palets Breton
I do have a great recipe for making my own palets breton at home, but this brand comes in a variety of flavors (including chocolate chip!) and the tins are pretty nice keepsakes too. These are one of my favorite cookies to have around for tea time, and they also make great gifts to bring back to the US for friends, family, or your team of office mates.
Pate de Fruits
This is another great gift to bring back for friends – gummy-type bites bursting with fresh fruit flavor. You can often find them displayed proudly in high end confiseries, but the ones I’ve bought from the likes of Carrefour and LeClerc are perfectly delicious. You’ll probably want to bring back a box or two for yourself too.
Kitchenware and Bakeware
If you are a home cook or baker, or even someone who just loves kitchenware, you will lose your mind in these French supermarchés homewares section. You can find silicone baking molds, tarte tatin pans, placemats, barware…and so very much more. I wanted a tart mold without a removable bottom and have never been able to find one in the US, but I found at least a dozen types and sizes in France. I also brought back copper-cannele molds for a friend, and a ceramic terrine mold for myself.
Got any must-buys to share? Leave me your suggestions in the comments below!