There is nothing in France like the hand-made sign, and that is as true of the high street in town as it is of the tiny village grocery. Out of the cities, it feels as though there are far fewer chain stores than there are in the UK.
In England, privately-owned bakeries have all but disappeared. Greggs, Hampsons and Greenhalgh’s bakers have largely taken over. I can’t say the British have the same love of tradition or bread – though most bakeries carry a good range of products. If you go to Greggs, it’s because you want a pasty or a pie, if you ask me. And why wouldn’t you want those things? You can be snobbish about Greggs if you like. I miss the cheese and onion pasties.
There aren’t that many people who buy bread outside of the supermarket. I do miss crumpets, especially a Warburton’s crumpet. I will never find a multi-seed brown sliced loaf that goes just perfectly with strong cheddar and Branston pickle. Is there anything like a Hovis loaf across the entire globe? I doubt it. I miss malt loaves, bagels, custard tarts and cream cakes too. Crème patissierie isn’t quite the same. Things in French bakeries don’t change much and they don’t take much on board by way of ‘foreign products’.
There is a weight of tradition behind French bakeries and the stock doesn’t change much. Cookies and muffins are still a novelty here. My most local bakery carries a small range of products: baguettes and ‘pain’, the large, thick baguettes. There are ‘boules’ and occasional products with different flours. If you want patisserie, there’s apple turnovers, croissants, pain aux raisins, pain au chocolat, Suisses and a handful of other occasional products. After a while, you get to know the best bakeries for particular products – the bakery in La Rochefoucauld does the best eclairs, and my local bakery does the best pain aux raisins.
You can buy a facsimile sliced loaf in the supermarkets. It has a two-month sell-by date. Most of them are entirely square and virtually crust-less. The brown version is tolerable if you absolutely have to. Sandwiches in packets have never taken off, and that is because they are utterly foul. I don’t know why but the French haven’t mastered putting sandwiches in packets. The bread disintegrates. I suspect it is everything to do with the fact the bread has to have a long shelf-life because they don’t have the same packet sandwich sales as the UK, and therefore the bread is worse quality than some of the pre-prepared packet sandwiches you can get in England. Eating in the streets is still not the done thing in rural France. I remember it being like that in the UK too, when I was young. You just didn’t eat and walk. It wasn’t done. Now you eat, walk and check the internet.
Rarely in rural France though.
And let’s face it. Why would you buy a cheap sandwich, a coke and packet of crisps, or a McDo or Quick when you can have a three-course sit-down two-hour meal for twice the price? It’s a no-brainer.
The bakery is the only place you can get stuff that is good to go. It’s for that you see so many baguettes with the end eaten off. French people are partial to snacking before they get home to eat, just like the rest of the world.