Before we moved to Paris I had a list of places I wanted to visit when we got here, and La Grande Épicerie was very close to the top of the list. I had read about this food emporium, part of Le Bon Marché department store, on various Paris-based blogs, and was eager to see it for myself, especially since after reading these posts, and checking out its official Web site, I still wasn’t sure what to expect once I actually got there. In the absence of first-hand information, I imagined it to be similar to the Food Hall in the London department store Harrods, which we’d visited a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed.
The Food Hall consisted of a series of elaborate rooms showcasing various pricey and delicious foodstuffs. It reminded me somewhat of the British Museum (also visited on the trip) in that it contained all sorts of treasures brought from the ends of the earth. I felt as if I were visiting a museum too, as we admired bright exotic fruits like they were the Crown Jewels. It was a fascinating experience, but I never imagined that mere mortals like us would make a regular habit of buying groceries there if we happened to live in the neighborhood.
I expected La Grande Épicerie to be the same—a boutique of fascinating foods that one might nibble on daintily, not a place to satisfy one’s appetite. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, we found La Grande Épicerie to be the exact opposite of the gosh-that-jar-of-olives-costs-more-than-our-monthly-food-budget type of place; compared to our local supermarket, the prices ranged from the same to dramatically lower. Of course, it does sell designer concoctions from high-brow producers like Fauchon and Hédiard, but on the next shelf over from those, you can find much humbler fare, like mini marshmallows that would not be out of place in a middle American supermarket. Yes, these were in the “American” section, and cost more than they would have in the US, but it warmed our hearts that haute cuisine could co-exist with comfort foods. Like our own, the store’s tastes ran from gourmet to granola.
We became giddy looking at all the products we had been unable to locate in other stores over the previous month. Swiffer! Irish oatmeal! Baking soda! It was worth the trip just to find these curiously rare items. I had been gathering ingredients to make pancakes since we arrived in Paris, and had everything (including the maple syrup) except baking powder. I found it at La Grande Épicerie. However, lest you think that we are reverting back to North American ways and ignoring the delights of French cuisine, I can attest to our even greater excitement when confronted with the array of traditional French foods available to us.
Just the sight of a case full of cheese in various states of decomposition made me swoon (maybe it was the fumes). Who knew that cheese could come in such vivid colors? Joe became transfixed by the selection of milk products on display; I’ve heard they even sell horse milk although we didn’t see it at the time. Bread, sausage, olives, herbs, chocolate—we hadn’t seen such a wide variety of all these in a long time. And the best part, at least for me, was that we could browse to our heart’s content without coming under the watchful eye of the staff, as we’d experienced in smaller stores all too often. Perhaps this was what was so appealing, that we could have access to traditional French artisan products in the familiar setting of a supermarket. Maybe some day when our French improves, it won’t be so daunting to carry on a five-minute conversation with the local baker about what he or she might recommend, but for now it was lovely just to look, and to imagine all the culinary adventures ahead of us.
A note on the photo: This is the side view of the building that houses La Grande Ã‰picerie. We were amused to see that fellow Paris blogger Polly Vous Francais? posted a very similar photo on her blog today.