Eating Local in Paris

by phyllisflick on March 16, 2011


People ask if my eating habits have changed since moving to France, assuming that Americans live off processed junk and shop in giant supermarkets.  Thankfully my upbringing was nothing like that and not all that different from how I eat in France.

My mother worked full time, but managed to make a home-cooked dinner for four kids every night.  We had a milk man who left fresh milk and eggs on our porch and a butcher named Tony who wrapped my mom’s packages in brown paper, tied up with string.  My parents weren’t foodies, but for some reason we never bought meat from the supermarket, only from the butcher. I remember one night my father asking with suspicion if my mom had bought that night’s steak at the Acme, and you knew from the tone of his voice that this was not something you wanted to do.  Produce came from the Amish farmers market up the street and we had a vegetable garden in the summer.   We had all sorts of tomatoes in that garden and I have never tasted better tomatoes than the one’s my father grew.  I learned that eating fresh local food was better.  No one told me it was better, but it certainly tasted better.

There’s a myth that everyone in France shops at outdoor markets or their neighbourhood butcher, cheesemonger and baker. Sadly this isn’t always the case. While many still shop at family run shops, more and more people are opting for the ease and convenience of hypermarchés or giant supermarkets just like Americans. And even if you do shop at outdoor markets in France, it is by no means a guarantee that what you’re buying is from a local farm and may very well be from some industrial farm in Spain.

A recent trip brought this sad truth home.  We were ten renting a beautiful house in the French countryside, with nothing but farmland surrounding us. Being the only non-French person in our group, I wasn’t going to insist on shopping at local markets and kept my mouth shut when everyone headed to the local hypermarché to stock up on groceries for the week.  When it was time leave and there were leftovers to be taken, I took some of the onions we hadn’t used.  Once home I was shocked to see that our red onions had come from Egypt and the yellow onions from Tasmania of all places.  Here we were in France, surrounded by farmlands and the supermarket was selling onions from halfway around the world.  How was this possible?  So you see France is not all that different from America in the food department at times.

Fortunately, every product sold in France must be labelled according to its origin, so things like this can be avoided.  When you’re at the market you’ll know whether your apples are from the Loire Valley or from China if, of course, you take the time to look.

While terms like locavore and “farm to table” have become mainstream in the US, it’s not something you hear often in Paris. It could be because the French have a strong sense of terroir and certain foods are associated with particular regions.  Few realise that Ile de France, the region that surrounds Paris, is an agricultural area with some 5,000 farmers.  There are signs however that this is changing as more and more people are becoming interested in local products.  Yannick Alléno, 3-star Michelin chef of the Meurice, offers a Terroir parisien menu and has a beautiful new book that champions products found in Ile de France.  A handful of restaurateurs have started putting Argenteuil Asparagus, Pontoise cabbage and authentic champignons de Paris on their menus (Racines, Saturne, Agapé and Les Fines Gueules all come to mind) and hopefully more will follow suit.

To make things easier, Ile de France producers announced a new ” Saveurs Ile de France” label in February (green for agricultural products grown in Ile de France, blue for artisan products produced in Ile de France and grey for products that have been transformed in Ile de France) to help consumers recognise products made in Ile de France.

If you want to buy more local products in Paris, here are a few ways to find them:

L’Echoppée Locale

This adorable shop in the 3rd carries some 300 products, all made and grown within Ile de France, and is the only store of its kind in Paris.

The owners, Barbara Martel and Nathalie Vidal, are passionate about what they do and have worked hard to find the best local products. You’ll find Menthe Poivrée de Milly, a wonderful dried peppermint that makes delicious mint tea, all sorts of artisan mustards, vinegars and oils, rose and poppy scented candies, Gatinais saffron, honey, cider and beer, terrines, sausages and even foie gras, all produced within 90 KM of Paris. It’s the perfect place to find an original gift or souvenir from Paris. My only disappointment was that there were not more local produce.

237 rue Saint-Martin, Paris 3rd. Open Tuesday-Friday  10h00 to 19h00, Saturdays 14h00-19h00

For produce, my favorite purveyor is Terroirs D’avenir, the Paris-based company which sources artisan products in France–often local and hard to find, which I wrote about here. At the moment, you can only find them on Fridays outside of Du Pain et Des Idées, so if you don’t have to be in an office, like I do, on Fridays, this is where I would shop.

At the market

Not all outdoor markets in Paris sell local produce but many do. To find a producer, look for the words “producteurmaraîcher“. You’ll also want to look for someone who only has a small selection of seasonal produce.  If it’s the dead of winter and you see tomatoes and strawberries, it’s not local.  But even if the vegetable seller buys their goods from Rungis, the immense wholesale market outside Paris where most food in Paris is bought and sold, it could have very well come from their “producer pavilion” where the area’s producers gather to sell to restaurateurs and retailers who then resell their products in Paris. You’ll know if something is local if it’s marked “Ile de France” or displays the name or number of one of the departments in Ile de France (75, 77, 78, 91, 93, 94, 95).  For local organic vegetables head to the Marché Biologique on Saturdays at Batignolles or the Marché Biologique on Sundays at Raspail.  But again, you need to look at the labels.  Buying organic string beans shipped from Chile seems to be missing the point.

AMAP or CSA

If you don’t like spending your Saturday or Sunday morning at the market, you can sign up for an AMAP*, the French equivalent of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) whose mission is to support family farmers struggling to compete with industrial farming.  An AMAP is a community group who enters into a yearly, or half-yearly, contract to buy weekly from a local farmer.  You sign up for the year (or half-year) and pick up your basket of freshly picked vegetables (some offer others goods like eggs, cheese, meat, etc) once a week at specific time and location.  You get the freshest of local produce and the farmer is guaranteed a certain number of sales. The downside being you don’t get to choose and need to commit for at least one season.  To find an AMAP in your neighbourhood check out www.reseau-amap.org

If you are not ready to commit to a full season, you can opt instead for one of the “Paniers Bios” or vegetable baskets, which are more expensive than an AMAP but have the advantage that they can be ordered weekly with little notice.  I’ve tried Tous Primeurs, which delivers Joël Thiebault’s, amongst others, beautiful vegetables to you, but in the end preferred going to the market myself where the selection is better. Mr. Thiebault sells his vegetables at the Rue Gros market on Tuesdays and Fridays and at the Président Wilson market on Wednesdays and Saturdays and his vegetables are worth crossing town for.  Other panniers which I haven’t tried include:

Local bio bag: Organic vegetables grown in Ile de France, picked when ripe the day of delivery.

Mon Panier Bio: This is a great resource for finding produce baskets in France as it aggregates most, if not all of them, by region.  You can search by region or city to find a basket near you.

Direct from the farm

If you’re feeling hardcore and want to buy direct from a farm, the following sites can help

CERVIA:
CERVIA’s website (Le Centre Régional de Valorisation et d’Innovation Agricole et Alimentaire de Paris-Ile-de-France) is a good place to start with its interactive map that shows local farms that sell direct to consumers and shops with local products.  The map also displays where to find a “cueillette”, a pick-your-own” produce farm, and explains the different products produced in Ile de France .     www.saveursparisidf.com

Another good website listing farms you can visit in Ile de France www.decouvertedelaferme-idf.fr

And lastly, a great national website where you can search by product.  Want to find a farmer who will sell you organic milk or eggs?  Just put in your criteria and region and you’ll find what your looking for. http://annuaire.agencebio.org/default.asp

So why buy local anyway? For one, the vegetables are more likely to have been picked when ripe and closer to the date when you’ve bought them, which means more flavor and more nutrients.  By the time industrial produce gets to the supermarket, it may have sat in warehouses and travelled many miles,  meaning it’s no longer very fresh.  Vegetables rapidly lose their nutrients once picked—spinach looses 75% of its vitamin C within days of being harvested[1]—so if you’re not buying local, you may be better off buying frozen vegetables.  Local produce is also less likely to have been chemically treated in order to withstand long travel times.   A recent article in the Nouvelle Observateur found that fruits and vegetables coming from outside of France had alarming traces of pesticides, some of which are banned in France, so buying fruits and vegetables from countries with lower environmental standards may expose you dangerous pesticides.

I hope this helps you in your quest for buying local food in Paris and if you have any tips, I would love to hear them.

For More Reading

Eat Here: Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket


Yannick Alléno’s Terroir Parisien