The French love their food. From casual, neighborhood bistrots to world-renowned restaurants of haute cuisine to a homemade dinner prepared with ingredients from one of the city’s sublime markets, gastronomy underlines the lives of Parisians. Whole conversations can rotate around where to find the city’s best baguette, which cheese store has the most thorough selection, or which brasserie serves the freshest steak tartare. Exploring this delectable aspect of Paris is one of the great advantages of living in the French capital.
France is the home of one of the world’s greatest cuisines, and has a rich and deservedly venerated culinary tradition. French dishes, ingredients and techniques are world famous and constitute some of the most sought-after food in the world. Yet it is not only in their Michelin-starred restaurants that the French excel in the kitchen, and one does not need reservations to eat well – even gloriously – in Paris. French home cooking, simple but refined, is the mainstay of many excellent restaurants. In fact, some of the most lauded French dishes – boeuf bourgignon, coq au vin, bouillabaisse – are originally slow-cooked peasant dishes made with what was locally at hand.
French cooking traditions are based on the very freshest ingredients – preferably local – which have been precisely prepared. French stocks, sauces and seasonings are time consuming but well worth the effort. Even the concept of ‘fast’ is different; a French mother pressed for time will feed her children with ‘steak frites’ rather than on frozen food. Sunday lunches are still lengthy, languid affairs and – while things are certainly changing – people still do pause for a proper lunch. It may no longer be a two hour long, four course meal but it is not often a sandwich at one’s desk.
Above all, French food is enjoyed. It is not scarfed or gulped but savored and discussed – often with friends or family. Even when eating at home alone, it is quite common in France to set – and eat at – the table, the better to appreciate the food. In fact, when eating out with French friends you may notice that if some food comes to the table before other dishes, there is no waiting for the dishes of others to arrive before beginning to eat – this is not a slight to one’s companions but, on the contrary, respect for the food!
With such respect for food in France, sanitation in restaurants is a serious business. Hygiene is usually of a very high level and complaints are taken seriously. Likewise, in grocery stores you will often see thermal bags for sale alongside frozen or chilled food, as the French are very concerned with maintaining the correct temperature of food. There is very little street food in France – Parisians, especially, prefer to sit down to eat – but what is for sale “to go” (often, sandwiches or pastries) is maintained in glass cases, refrigerated if needed. Parisian drinking water is perfectly potable and indeed the beverage of choice in most restaurants (‘une carafe d’eau’), perhaps alongside a glass or two of wine!
International food aisles are found in almost any grocery store of any size; the usual products are from Italy, the UK, the USA, Mexico, China, Thailand and India. More specialized markets can be found in certain areas of the city, such as the 13th arrondisement for southeast Asian foods. There are several specialized grocery stores in Paris that cater to the UK and USA expatriate communities and neighborhoods with high numbers of foreign residents will often stock more unusual items.
Of course, supermarkets generally offer high-quality foods and many have international sections for those ingredients that you miss from home. Neighborhood shops can be general (l’epicerie) or specialize. These specialty shops are a bit more expensive, but add a personal touch. Look for la boucherie (the butcher), la poissonnerie (fish shop), la fromagerie (cheese shop), the all-important boulangerie (bakery selling bread, cookies, pastries, sandwiches, cakes and tarts), and le traiteur (a shop with prepared dishes and catering services). There are also shops that offer frozen foods (surgeles) and a wide variety of good-quality prepared meals. Most supermarkets will deliver to your home and many have online shopping sites.