I like supermarkets. Strange you might think, but true. I mean casual, browsing, supermarket shopping. Not the depressing weekly, drudging round for such exotica as toilet roll, cat food and washing up liquid. No, I mean supermarkets as interesting sources of strange new fruits, wine offers and all the other frightfully unimportant things we have a bit of a complex guilt thing about – well I do.
But put me in a large supermarket in France, and even the toilet roll, cat food and kitchen roll there take on the dizzy appeal of unoaked chardonnay half price. Go shopping alone, with not too much communication available, and what an adventure. I find the continental ways of flavouring and packaging quite fascinating. (Should I get out more do you think?)
For example, I thrill at the thought of washing up liquid that is not only strawberry flavoured, or raspberry vinegar in aroma, but is called "Le Chat". Not the name of a cat, but actually “cat”. Who else would name their washing-up liquid after a domestic pet?
And in Brittany, in the larger supermarkets, buying some fish for supper becomes an extravaganza for the senses. I never knew prawns came in so many different sizes, piled high on ice. And there are other fish of all kinds, some of them alive in tanks, and a rowing boat full of crabs of all sizes, moving slightly, very occasionally and very alarmingly. The crabs that is, not the boat. Avoid taking small children from the UK to this scenario. It can cause alarm. And if you are buying say, prawns, then there's a minefield awaiting.
It's the innocently simple matter of weight. Simple? Oh.. mais non, non, non. Frankly, I really should be better at this by now, having married into the culture some years' ago. 250 grammes of prawns means very little to me. How many grammes does the average person eat? (Thankfully, nouvelle cuisine - 8 grammes of a carrot carved into the shape of a swan for £24.90 - isn't in my in-law’s psyche.) So, you say something like "250 grammes" , only to see that it results in 4.72 prawns per person. Clearly not enough. So whatever you say now and however brilliantly you say it, you'll look at worst stupid, at best greedy or probably both.
Next in our supermarket voyage of discovery.....ham. Few will forget, if ever seen, the rows and rows of ham in a French supermarket. No, not just rows, but more like shelves and shelves. Many a French person will stand agonisingly in front of this, pondering the exact selection of a product that, in many packets, contains just two slices. Yes, two. Is it really worth it we ask? Does something that will be devoured by the average family in 4 seconds really warrant such consideration? And I haven't even got on to the other 59 different types staring out from a veritable ham-packed aisle. Smoked, not smoked, with rind, not with rind, with herbs, not with herbs, good quality, good quality extra, good quality extra extra, good better quality extra, good better quality good price extra......
Once, I was asked to "go it alone" on the equally fascinating area of crêpes. Pancakes. Brittany's landmark product. Easy-peasy you might think. No. Alas, our regular source of good old crêpes, at the local boulangerie, was shut. So the big branded world of the supermarket was the only option.
Now, bread is one thing...and I can understand that in the French culture bread takes a high place, but as there are shelves and shelves of bread, there are also shelves and shelves of crêpes. Phrases like, "...de la maison, pur beurre, bonne qualité, bon prix", and so on, abound. So, what exactly to buy for a very discerning audience?
Suddenly, as my heart sank further and further, the harsh reality of the situation became clear. I was representing the reputation of the whole UK here. "You know," somebody in France will say one day," zat leetle Englishman oo married a French woman...?"
"Mmmmm ?", rather indifferently, will come the reply.
"Vell, zee story goes ee was sent out to buy crêpes. And do you know, Jean, ee couldn't even do zatt. Teepeecal English. Never get zem involvayd in anyzeeng to do with food." " Ahh, oui,.... mmm, ...oui."
And so, my friends, in this simple act, the reputation of what remains of the Empire was dashed for all time. You see, the innocent supermarket is where British reputation can be won and lost. Cruel. And fuel to the Brexiteers of all nations!