Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I like coffee very much, but I'm not addicted to caffeine. Which is really lucky, because we recently went for a couple of weeks with none in the house.

Because I was too overwhelmed with guilt to buy any. I'd go into the store, look at the coffee and then go back home without.

And why is that?

It's because shopping in France is is so impossibly complicated. Back in Ouagadougou, my weekly trip to Marina Market was not always very effective, but at least it was easy: If it's what you need and you can afford it, you buy it. End of story.
The only real downside was when, for example, they would be completely out of butter for weeks at a time. Or certains items would be priced so high that it was out of the question to buy them. Frozen fish sticks at 15 euros a box were just not an option.

The latter factor acted as a natural control on the system. For example, in Marina Market you could find tomatos imported from France for several euros per kilo. But just outside the door, you'd find the locally grown stuff for just a few cents per kilo. Imported stuff was ALWAYS more expensive than local stuff. So, buying local was always cheaper and directly supported Burkinabé people.

There was no organic produce, so that was a non-issue.

See? Easy.

But NOW I'm in France. The supermarkets are all 20 times the size of Marina market and full of choices.

First off, there's organic vs non-organic. Organic is ALWAYS more expensive than non-organic. So, you have to decide if the product is worth the sometimes very large price difference. Very quickly, I decided that it was worth it to pay more, especially for dairy products and produce. For other things, like lentils for example, the price difference is so huge that buying organic seems crazy. But each choice involves a calculation.
See? Complicated.

Then you have to worry about the fair trade issue. I am all about helping the developing world develop properly...
But what about "buy local"? Aren't you supposed to buy stuff produced close to where you live to prevent the pollution and energy wastage involved in transportation and provide local jobs?

So, there I am, standing in front of the apples in the supermarché. There are about 10 different kinds, which is already overwhelming. (Back in Ouaga, I'd go to the fruit and veg ladies outside Marina Market and they'd have maybe a choice between red delicious and golden delicious from South Africa.) Do I want Reine de reinette? Boskoop, Chantecler? The prices are all pretty similar. Oh wait. These Fuji's are only 2.50 a kilo while the others are 2.70.... But hang on... Another look tells me that the Fuji's are imported from freaking New Zealand, while the other, more expensive apples are all from France. In fact, the Reine de reinettes are from the Haute Savoie.
Can somebody tell me how it is possible that apples flown to France all the way from New Zealand can be cheaper than apples grown just a few miles away? It just makes no sense.

My mind boggled a bit, but I dealt with the apple situation, always buying local stuff. But coffee? That's a lot harder. No fields of coffee growing on the flanks of Mont Blanc. So, no easy answer there.

I'd scuttle around in front of the endless rows of foil coffee packets with a big question mark over my head, reading the labels: Here's one that's organic, but it's not fair trade. Oh -here's one that's fair trade, but it's from Guatamala. Shouldn't I be trying to support local people and reduce carbon emissions?'s one that's roasted and packaged in our region of France. But it's not fair trade or organic and not 100% arabica. Yuck.
And hey! What about recycled packaging? Shouldn't I be looking for that, too?

My brain would be overloaded within minutes and I'd shuffle away, discouraged and coffee-less.

I spent WEEKS reading coffee packages, puzzling and musing.

Until finally, last week, I found it!! I was so excited as I unpacked the groceries at home. I grabbed the coffee package and waved it in front of JP.

"Do you know what this IS!" I said forcefully. Ok, I was probably screaming, a bit.

"It would" he ventured cautiously.

"Coffee? Coffee? This just isn't just coffee! This is the salvation of the environment and all of humanity in one small package!!!! Look!! Just look!!! It provides a fair wage to Peruvian peasants!!!! It's certified organic!! No pesticides or chemical fertilizers!! It's roasted and packaged in the Haute Savoie, providing local jobs !!! PLUS the packaging is 100% recycled AND it's all arabica. I did it!! I found the coffee!!! You see????"

"Yes. I see that you bought coffee." JP answered in a soothing, but somewhat distracted voice. I think he was wondering if we had any Valium in the house that he could crush up and slip into my next cup...
So, we finally have coffee in the house again. And you see why I am so excited about it.
In French, organic is "bio" and all certified organic products are marked with an easily recognisable "AB" symbol that stands for "agriculture biologique".
In the photo I laid out a few of the many "AB" products that I buy regularly: herbal teas, pasta, bread flour, etc...
I'm also very careful about milk and eggs (which we eat lots of). Just recently, I finally found local, organic eggs laid by free-range chickens who are only fed vegetable products and are allowed to lay their eggs "en paille", that is, in straw nests. They sound like happy chickens.
And I'm glad to facilitate their joy.
But all of this makes shopping in France exhausting and mind-bending.
And now I need to end this blog entry and go... to the supermarché.
But maybe first I'll go see if JP found any Valium...


strudel said...

ah non, Madame Jacob. Not the Frenchie AB spaghetti. Let me send you some from the South of Italy for Xmas.

Beth said...

Hey Strudel!!
I can't believe you still check out my blog! I thought that after I left Burkina, you'd abandon me! Good to hear from you! And thanks for the offer of tasty Italian pasta. It IS 100% politically correct, right?

babzee said...

Today I bought candles (probably made from boiled-down whale fetuses) from Dollar Tree after a much-debated trip to Walmart for a paraffin bath (don't ask). I'll just nip off and shoot myself, shall I?

Beth said...

I have a twisted mind and WAY too much time on my hands, apparently. Just ignore me and don't hurt yourself. Who else do I have to get me up to speed on modern, developed-world culture that I missed out on for nine years?
(Hey- does everybody else here know about Eddie Izzard? He just never hit Burkina. Completely off the map. But then, they mostly aren't all that tolerant of transvestites over there...)

Beth said...

I have a twisted mind and WAY too much time on my hands, apparently. Just ignore me and don't hurt yourself. Who else do I have to get me up to speed on modern, developed-world culture that I missed out on for nine years?
(Hey- does everybody else here know about Eddie Izzard? He just never hit Burkina. Completely off the map. But then, they mostly aren't all that tolerant of transvestites over there...)

NOLAGringa said...

Just found your blog from a friend of a friend of a friend ...

YES! YES! I proclaim a thousand times, yes!

People here in the States do not understand my problem when I stand in a cereal aisle. Or choose coffee. Or almost anything. Everything is so painfully slow in the process. I read the source, if organic, if it's a large corporation who does bad things, nutritional info, etc. etc. etc. and it's EXHAUSTING.

I don't know how other people just throw things into their carts willy-nilly.

I lived in the Soviet Union and waited in very long lines for bread - my choices were black or white, if they even had any. I lived in an Eskimo village where my culinary choices were salmon or caribou, or whatever dead animal somebody gifted me. I lived on a Liberian refugee camp where I was so grateful for whatever food people served me that I would never think to complain or want something different.

I've lived without choice and now to be back in a supermarket - it's exhausting.

It creates such brand loyalty once I find something I can feel good about. A lot of my own gardening, cooking from scratch, frequenting the farmers market, etc.

But my point is, after a long tirade here, I GET IT. I hyperventilate in bread aisles if I make eye contact with all those taunting loaves. So, I have been known to dash down aisles to avoid this trauma ... and I'm pretty likely to just make my own bread.