Grocery Store Staples


I don’t really mind waiting in line at the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t choose the slowest cashier on purpose: that usually happens without any special effort on my part. But I do enjoy this idle time, during which I can study the latest chewing-gum innovations (they seem to come up with new ones every other week), mentally review my shopping list (and make the occasional frantic dash for that one capital item I forgot), and more importantly, peek into other people’s baskets and try to picture their life from the mundane little things they’re buying.

It was a particularly long wait the other day (someone hadn’t weighed his apples, or perhaps was applying for a membership card and wanting to hear all the details, I forget), so much so that I ran out of strangers’ baskets to study, and had no choice but to turn to mine. It dawned on me then that I hardly ever mention grocery store products here on C&Z. Suddenly all the little guys in my basket were staring at me with a sour look. “Yeah, why is that?”, they cried accusingly, “Why the injustice? Don’t we deserve a kind word once in a while? A bit of recognition for all the hard work? For heaven’s sake, is that too much to ask?”

A bit flustered, faintly worried that they might start a riot then and there, I had to promise I would write a post and turn the spotlight on those loyal supermarket favorites. That seemed to appease them, and we were able to proceed through the register without further grievance.

So. If you find yourself in line behind me one day and crane your neck, chances are my basket will contain:

[You’ll have to excuse me for the quality of the pictures: I took them with my cell phone for maximum discretion, and considering the quizzical looks I got from the other customers — “Chérie, is that girl really taking pictures of a cereal box?” — I can’t imagine what it would have been with my regular, bulky camera.]

~ Butter with salt flakes inside: excellent for baking, and fabulous on fresh bread for breakfast.

~ Apple and chesnut compotes, a particularly successful combination — the apple-raspberry flavor is quite good too.

~ Little tubs of fromage blanc (a type of thick yogurt), which I use in place of milk in my cereals, or eat for dessert with a spoonful of jam.

~ Kefir (fermented milk): to drink, or to substitute for buttermilk in American recipes.

~ Flour and sugar: with all that recipe testing, I seem to be continually running out of those.

~ I don’t often buy cookies at the grocery store, but when I do it might be Speculoos (see my attempt to reproduce them here) or some of these fine butter cookies made with butter from Isigny in Normandy.

~ In the breakfast cereal department, I am partial to Dark Chocolate Special K, which I mix with a tub of fromage blanc and a diced pear in the winter, or a diced peach in the summer. (To tell you the truth I’d rather be eating Cinnamon Puffins, but they don’t seem to live in these latitudes.)

~ For quick meals, I like these fresh soups made by the British Covent Garden Soup Company. They’re a bit pricey but really good, and the ingredients’ list is just normal stuff you would use in your own kitchen. In addition to their regular flavors (I like Broccoli and Stilton, or Wild Mushrooms), they also have a rotating “Soup of the Month” — a simple but clever marketing scheme, one I seem to fall for unfailingly.

~ These extra-crunchy Swedish crispbreads are perfect for breakfast and snacks, and we eat them with cheese when we run out of bread. My favorite is the multigrain kind in the purple package, with sunflower and flax seeds. As luck would have it my supermarket doesn’t carry that variety, so I have to make special trips to other stores to find it.

~ We seem to make a supernatural consumption of this lightly salted fresh cow’s cheese: it is perfect for spreading on the above-mentioned Swedish crispbreads, and I use a lot of it in my cooking. It works really well to whip up quick dips with herbs or vegetables.

~ Finally, these blackcurrant candies are my favorite to carry around in my purse. I transfer the little oval bites into a pretty pixel art tin box, in which they clink happily when I walk.

And thus ends my roundup of grocery store staples. Of course, there are other things I buy — pasta, grains, canned stuff, condiments — but none with which I have such a faithful relationship. Oh, and if I make it sound like I don’t buy any real food (you know, fish, meat, produce, bread, that kind of thing), that’s because I get those from the smaller specialized shops around me, or at the market on Saturday mornings if I manage to get up.

[If you would like a further tour of my grocery store, here are a few more pictures for you.]

  • Jessie

    Oh! Thank you for the lovely tour of your groceries. I loved food shopping when I stayed in Paris! I love all of the different packages. My host always went shopping and brought back the most delicious breads and other special treats for us to try. I can’t wait to go back. There is something so delightful about shopping in another country… or even going to the store here in America.

  • Virginia

    Me: “Darling! In France, they have dark chocolate Special K!”

    Darling: “Oh.”

    Me: “Look! Look at this picture! Special K! With Dark Chocolate!”

    Darling: “Mm hm…”

    Me: “We’re moving.”

    Darling: “Or, You could just add dark chocolate to your special K.”

    Me: “…”

    Darling: “…”

    Me: “The French are better than us. They’re just better.”

  • E.

    Dark chocolate Special K! Whoaaa.

    I think one of my favorite things at the grocery store in Paris was the coconut yogurt in the little glass jars.

    Grocery shopping in another country is one of my favorite things. My first two days in London I went to four grocery stores. It lets you know what the country’s priorities are. For example, France values yogurt and England values crisps!

    Thanks for this posting, Clotilde. I really enjoyed it.

  • allow me to echo… CHOCOLAT NOIR SPECIAL K!!!

    sounds good…although i’m not big on corn cereals.. i prefer oat flakes or a mixture. but chocolat noir is CHOCOLAT NOIR!

    i love marks and spencer’s triple chocolate crunch breakfast cereal!

  • Let me just echo the last few commenters and say that the words “Dark Chocolate Special K” made me completely weak in the knees. And here I thought we Americans were the kings of breakfast cereals!

  • Funny thing is that the Delacre speculoos don’t really taste like the traditional speculoos to me ;-) I’m more fond of the original Lotus speculoos.

    Luckily, I can get my weekly dose, being Belgian, even here in the States, because they are being distributed by Biscoff in the local Food Lions (the local Delhaize).

  • ElegantSniff

    Forget the dark chocolate Special K… I am gasping from the ENGLISH SOUP!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Covent Garden Co soups, no less – my own favourite… and row upon row in a French supermarket… makes me proud to be British ;)

  • Today is the 100th anniversary of Kellogg’s founding and they are having big celebrations. I live only a couple of hours away. Maybe I should go there to lead a protest demanding Dark Chocolate Special K in the US… :^)

  • If there’s anything I love about grocery shopping here in Paris, it’s the yoghurt aisle. But I honestly find it so overwhelming that I always buy the same thing: plain Bio yoghurt. I do love the stuff, but I also love fromage blanc, what kind do you recommend?

  • Like others, I was absolutely galvanized by the idea of Dark Chocolate Special K–why have I never heard about this before?

  • Hey, I’m with everyone else – I want to try that dark chocolate special K too!

    I love going to grocery stores when I travel – its hugely fun in Europe, especially.

  • Is there a Special K Chocolat Noir in America (and Canada) petition that we can sign???

    Clothilde, I suppose someone who cares so much about eating well also buys organic products as often as possible?

  • About the Dark Chocolate Special K: I’m redundant. See, half that stuff you posted about would require going from specialty shop to specialty shop to find. I wonder, what sorts of things are common in the States that you’d have to search for in France. As for buttermilk, you can also substitute plain yogurt or add a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice per cup to milk. Let it stand for 5 minutes before using.

  • Super marche browsing in France is always a terrific treat-the endless choices. I asked some foodie friends enroute to SF to please, please bring me some super market chocolate bars. They are darn good & usually cost like 1.50 euros…Of course they brought me a fancy tin of truffles…go figure

  • This makes me want to move back to Paris….I love the grocery choices.

    And I’d kill for some of that special k

  • victoria

    I agree with everyone else — this entry made me want to live in France. Butter with flakes of salt in it? That alone is reason enough to move.

    I have to say though, I think I’ve had the dark chocolate Special K or something like it. We were in Switzerland over Christmas and our hotel had something like this at the breakfst buffet every morning. It looked like dark chocolate Special K, but I am not sure, since it was set out in a large bowl and was not in its package. It tasted sort of like Count Chocula — you know, those very sweet, very sugary cereals they produce for kids in the U.S.?

  • Isahrai

    I had just gotten over my own fascination with my new grocery store in Mexico when friends started visiting me and humiliating me with their glee and with their picture taking. I promise to be nicer to the next visitor who does that as I remember you taking photographs in your own grocery.

    Your photo of the “teeny” ethnic food aisle especially cracked me up. When they finally started carrying tofu and a few other “ethnic” items in our Mexican town a few months back, they created a special International Gourmet section – a steel shelf contraption in the middle of the deli section. The funniest/most annoying thing about this new addition to the Comercial Mexicana is that some items they have been carrying for over a year were now designated as “gourmet” to fill out the shelf and thus cost more!

  • Joan

    the photo looks like a grocery-store quilt! a whole lot of fun…love the staples stories…The blackcurrant candies are particularly happy methinks:-)

  • thank you for sharing!!! yummy. i enjoyed it all. i would love to try all those yogurts and cheeses. and dark choc special K? (also, i have a yogurt maker, do you make yogurt? have any tips?)

  • Becca

    Clothilde, merci for the lovely post, comme d’habitude. I do think it’s true that “you are what you eat” or, as you point out, “you are what you buy in the grocery store.”
    However, for all of you jealous of those of us getting to shop in Parisian grocery stores, I must tell you that Clothilde forgot to add that the actual process of bagging/paying for one’s selection, can be very stressful. Learning how to bag all of my groceries while, at the same time, finding the exact amount of change in my wallet, all the while being glared at from the impatient customers behind me is a skill that has taken me years to master! I still find myself hurling my danone yogurts and jambon de pays into tiny plastic bags as I desperately try to recover that 5-Euro note that I swear was at the bottom of my bag three minutes before … Yet the French women somehow seem to do all of this so gracefully! Clothilde, what’s your secret? I think Monoprix should offer shopping lessons! =)

  • vera

    Clothilde,do you buy crapes in the grocery store?

  • melissa

    my oh my — dark chocolate special K — another magical thing to add to the long list of “great things france has that the US doesn’t”…clotilde, i am planning a trip to paris in july and i’ll bring you some cinnamon puffins! i love going to the parisian grocery stores where i find all those daily items that i pay (at least) twice as much for here…epoisses, president butter in the little tub, great honey, tinned haricots verts, vacuum-packed cooked beets, so begins my shopping list!

  • oh rats! I cannot believe I was just in Paris and I did not buy out the entire city’s stock of dark chocolate Special K! Dark chocolate! and Special K! Can life get better? No, I don’t think so!

  • I am obsessed with what other people eat. This was a great post! It makes me nostalgic for the little grocery stores from when I lived in Italy. Everything looks so delicious! …I have to agree with the others, that dark chocolate special K sounds to die for.

  • jer

    Great report… I love the little story about how you prevented a riot!

    I also remember all the great cereals with added dark chocolate when I was in France! I would often find myself snacking on them!

    And my first experience of shopping by myself and discovering I was suppose to “Weigh” my produce/fruit!! haha… That doesn’t happen in North America (not often at least!)

  • I was so pleased to read this post because I am also an extremely nosy shopper and am happy to know that I am not the only one. I often peer into fellow shoppers’ baskets and see if the groceries correspond to his or her image, for example: “single, mid-30’s, male bachelor” = wonder bread, steaks, potatoes, chips, milk or “older Italian lady” = olive oil, diced tomatoes, good pasta, rapini, fresh fruit, etc, etc–I’ve learned they don’t always match expectations!

    On the topic of chocolate breakfast cereals–in my first year of university, I used to eat one from the health food store, I think with oats and dark chocolate pieces. Talk about a decadent start to the day.

    Thanks for allowing us a voyeristic peek into your own grocery cart… I love the butter with flecks of salt, the little candies for your purse and the soft cheeses! I discovered a particular soft cheese in Italy called Stracchino, which is a creamy cheese fermented like yogurt…I wonder if you have it in France as well?

  • I live in Italy and the little grocery stores (“alimentari”) have almost no variety…and not as much for the big ones either. The “international” section is mostly Uncle Ben’s everything.

    You really learn to make your own stuff when variety you’re used to is missing! You can go to certain parts of town, but there’s no Fresh Fields/Whole Foods (USA readers) that makes it easy. Every time guests come, they bring an extra bag full of all the stuff (mostly baking) that I can’t get here…same when I come back. Pecans, macadamia nuts, molasses (for the brown sugar that you can find in some places at the price of gold), pure vanilla extract, chocolate extract, vanilla beans, etc. and you also learn about substitutions (greek yogurt for sour cream in cakes, or kefir in Clotilde’s case, which here you’d never find in the grocery store!). I think I was the only person buying seitan (gluten) and that’s been discontinued…no tofu anymore either… oh well. That’s what travelling is for!

  • Marie-Elise

    Gosh…all this reminds me of the supermarket products that, living in England, I miss so much. palets bretons, savora mustard, instant tabouleh by Tipiak, ebly… and of course things in tins, which the French are so much better at than the British. Although I remember missing worcester sauce and proper cheddar while living in Paris!

  • This post was a nostagia trip for me. Having moved back to NY from Paris six months ago, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve yearned for that butter with the “cristaux de sel.” I also miss the yogurt aisle, the cookies, and all the puddings–I love the Danone pistachio pots de creme. My kids especially miss Marron Suis, and made me promise to bring some back on my next trip.

  • omg, shopping in france is so amazing. the butter w/ the salt flakes and the yogurt. YUM! thx for the great post clotilde :)

  • Amy

    Truly funny that so many of us saw the Dark Chocolate Special K and wondered…’how come I don’t have that where I live?!?!?”…..this was definitely the first thought that popped into my head when I first read this post….
    Clotilde, thank you for sharing your grocery list with us…whenever I get a chance to travel I always try to make a point to go into the local supermarket/grocery store to see what fascinating items I can find…and try to bring back with me…now the problem with this is that once I get them home…I have a hard time opening them because I want to save them….looking forward to more grocery lists!!!

  • steph

    Oh how I miss shopping in Paris. It has been close to 15 years since I lived in Paris and I miss it…….. These pics, make it even worse. I am homesick for my old home. Merci!!!!

  • When I read posts like these I wish my local grocery had such nice things. I know that we can get many, many “specialty” items in the US but it is a full time job to go from store to store to store. Good yogurt is a particular challenge here. I am beginning to think I should just learn to make my own. I live an hour outside the nearest large city so that compounds my challenge.

  • Stéphanie

    This post reminds me how much I love the supermarkets in France. The chocolate and baked goods aisle is worth writing home (and trying to fill your suitcase) about. Thank you for writing about the staples that we sometimes take for granted!

  • Lilia

    Loved looking into your grocery cart! It’s been a long time since I had a proper cart but I do remember the time I had a bunch of bananas and didn’t understand why the cashier was just looking at me and not saying anything or doing anything at all. After a while, the young man behind me took my bananas, weigh them, and brought them back so he can pay for his groceries as well and go home. What an embarassing situation – I still smile whenever I think of it. I’m sure that young man still remembers that dumb woman in front of him at Franprix!

  • racheal

    Thank you for the great photos and information! I have been living in the Pays Basque for the past 4 months (I’m American), and one of my favorite things to do on lazy afternoons is to spend an hour or two exploring the supermarket…The apple and chestnut compote always seemed a strange combination, but I’ll give it a try!
    For the previous poster who wondered what is difficult for Americans to find…there’s not a lot I can’t substitute something else for, but I’ve never seen dill pickles…and I miss them!!!! I haven’t been in many supermarkets here in France that didn’t have at least a small British foods section, so I can find many familiar foods there.
    Thank you, Clotide, for such an interesting site. I just recently stumbled upon it, but I’ve quickly become a loyal reader! I can’t wait to buy your cookbook!

  • racheal

    Also…The Special K with dark chocolate was one of my first purchases here…It’s excellent, but it would be easy to make your own…Just use the regular cereal and add some finely shaved, quality dark chocolate, and you’re good to go…I was suprised at the generous portion of chocolate contained in the cereal, especially considering the fact that it’s supposed to be a diet food!

  • The apple and chestnut compote is killer. I’ve been buying it for months now.

    But, the Special K… am very happy to have outgrown my love of weird cold cereal… reading all your other reader’s comments makes me realize how well certain industrial foods have made inroads in daily eating.

    I do think that this post deserves a flickr meme. We should all be posting up the contents of our grocery basket the way we post up contents of our handbags. What fun.

  • wow!!!
    dark chocolate special K, that just sounds like a total oxymoron!

  • o’mahony

    Les recettes de Madame Loik ? You are addicted to that fresh cow cheese too ! Hmmm… We should make a fan club ! Each time I buy a pot of that cheese and a crispy fresh baguette, they both disappear mysteriously… And no one can tell where it’s gone. Strange, strange. Eating that cheese spread on a baguette au levain tastes heaven. I use it for cooking too. As I don’t like mayonnaise, I use it as a replacement

  • Suburban Tasteland

    I always wanted to try the homemade keffir from this Polish restaurant (Little Poland) across the street from my apartment when I lived in NYC. But the one time I worked up the nerve to order it, they had somehow run out of it.

  • Dan Dx

    Hi everybody!

    Buttermilk wow! Lait battu, kurd, kefir (turkish), elben (arabic), dough (persian)… I loved it everywhere one can find it, but IMHO the iranian dough, slightly salted, is the best one.
    Try the oysters on a bed of mashed potatoes cooked in buttermilk, “et mourir de plaisir!”

  • liz

    Oh thanks always wondered what the hell to use as a subsitute for buttermilk, will try it out soon.
    Hmmm seeing we live in the same area, we probably shop at the same supers, but I am a multiple type personality grocery shopper so if u happen to peek into my grocery basket it always seems terribly unbalanced cos I buy my various products from five or six different supers, boring basics from Franp, additional variety from Champion, specialties from Monop, lastminute or very specifics eg great Houmous with pine nuts from G and super little felafels in rue Lepic without counting Naturalia for organic, etc etc etc. I check out people’s baskets too and try to divide them into multiple shoppers like me and imagine what else they buy elsewhere.

  • di

    An interesting insight- I love looking at other people’s groceries and thinking what it says about them… and sometimes I look at my own and wonder what it says about me too.
    I have an unfailing bond to Barilla Pasta, ever since an Italian friend and exceptional pasta cook introduced me to it. Highlight of a trip to Napels was seeing the super-size Barilla box monument as we drove out of the airport- too quick to catch a photo sadly.

  • Nora

    I used to live in Lille, and I think the closest I’ve ever found to Speculoos outside of Flandres are “Anna’s Ginger Thins” at IKEA, of all places! They are made with beet syrup and they are quite similar, except they come in delicate little flower shapes instead of rectangles.

    IKEA also sells both light and dark beet syrup for baking. You can mix it with sugar to make a rough approximation of cassonade, just like you would mix molasses with white sugar to make brown sugar (usually 2T to 1C).

    I don’t mean to be some sort of advertisement, but IKEA also sells the Swedish crispbread.

  • I love this, Clotilde! Merci for posting – so I’m not the only one who pulls out the digital in a crowded Franprix aisle.

  • Rebecca Akin-Ottaviano

    I have always seen the the fermented milk in the refrigerated section and I was a bit hesitant to try it since I didn’t know anyone who uses it,thank you. I have a great homemade pancake recipe and it requires buttermilk. I have been making my own “buttermilk” by putting a tablespoon of lemon juice in a cup of milk and let it sit for 10 min. If you are in a bind it might work for for you. Thanks again.

  • Im amazed at that Special K. The title is even in English.

  • ACG

    just to echo what everyone else is saying…

    Dark Chocolate Special K?!

    How to we get them selling that here???

  • Beth

    For New Yorkers seeking the salt-flakes butter: I’ve seen it (or something like it, imported from France) at Fairway. Warning: When I bought it, it tasted a little less than fresh.

  • What a facinating post! Like looking into someone’s medicine cabinet, its so interesting to see what others buy at the market! I also love those Swedish skorpor, my husband always likes them when he’s not feeling well. But mostly we eat them with butter and cold rosehip soup, so tasty!

  • Sophie

    Sa me semble que tu as peut-etre oublié qqch – Nutella? It’s everywhere! Je me souviens d’un gars qui criait: MAMAAAAAAAN OU EST LE NUTELLAAAAAA?! Maybe it’s a phenomenon for those of us a little younger but nevertheless. I remember enjoying my crêpe with Nutella and banana much more than my crêpe with Grand Marnier.

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