Let’s call it the Gourmet-Industrial Complex.
During the final stage of the Tour de France, crowds hovered alongside Paris’s Champs-Élysées, cheerfully spilling plastic pint cups of Kronenbourg on each other while leaning towards the action. By L’Arc de Triomphe, another crowd turned their backs to the biking and perused global supermarket company Carrefour’s “Le Village Régional,” a mock market where brand representatives offered tastings of artisanal honey from jars (swarmed by bees I was assured were incapable of stinging), fresh brioche, roasted chicken and more. Even during the Tour’s climactic final loops, passersby puttered around Le Village, where signs showing a map of France’s regions boasted that Carrefour has nearly 20,000 partnerships with French producers. After tasting a cube of fluffy brioche, a gun-toting policeman asked for a whole loaf to bring back to his colleagues.
The French love good food; this is undeniable—after all, brioche was available at a sporting event. But as supermarkets and “hypermarkets” continue their country-wide domination, sometimes to the detriment of small vendors, many French people remain skeptical of brands like Carrefour touting regional, artisanal, honey-bee-swarmed goods.
“I don't really trust supermarkets to sell good regional products,” said Hélène Feuillebois, a lifelong Paris resident. “I would rather go to a cheese or charcuterie shop or outdoor farmers’ market. I don't find it that much more expensive, and those extra two euros really are worth it. I only ever consume those [supermarket] products at other people's dinner parties, so I guess some people don't mind buying them.”
Other French people are more overtly skeptical of the ways in which corporations have coopted regional food identities, sometimes passing off industrially-made products as local by way of creative branding. Jamie Schler, food writer and author of Orange Appeal, has seen the resentment of this trend grow as fast as the trend itself over the thirty years she’s lived in France.
“When a supermarket stand is selling ‘regional foods’—last week there was one in our supermarket selling ‘authentic’ food from Martinique—people either avoid them, assuming it is fake or industrial, or are curious and approach,” said Schler. “But even if people are interested in tasting, they know that what is being presented as ‘regional’ is most likely an industrial product posing as artisanal. If they purchase one of these foods, it may be because it is cheaper than the real thing or simply because it tastes good, without really thinking about whether or not it is local or regional.” However, she added that many people will take the time to approach a stand to verify that a product is truly produced locally.
“Most people who are truly interested in good food and the food of their region will still head towards the stands of local artisan producers, first because they know it is authentic and high quality, and second because they will make the effort to support their local producers, which many people still find very important,” she said. “Every country has a swath of the population that doesn't have either the money or the inclination to purchase a local or regional specialty and will buy whatever is cheap, but those interested will search out the artisan producers. This is also why the AOC labeling on foods and wine is still very important and very much alive in France.”
Lindsey Tramuta, a Paris-based writer and author of The New Paris, said that the existence of Carrefour’s “Le Village Régional” at the Tour de France reflects a wider trend among large food corporations, as well as the disappearance of the small grocer.
“Monoprix, another supermarket chain, has entire sections now dedicated to gourmet, regional and chef-approved products as a way to speak to consumers who are paying more attention to what they're buying,” Tramuta said. “The reality is that in many small towns, the supermarket or hypermarket might be the only place to get anything, including bread and cheese, as the small grocers are closing left and right.” She added that in Paris and other mid-sized to large cities, artisanal goods still have a place outside of massive supermarkets, but in smaller towns, less so.
A cheerful woman named Sabrina, who works for Carrefour (which did not respond to requests for comment), stood in front of the Tour de France honey display and somewhat menacing cloud of bees. In the case of this particular station, the supermarket had partnered with Miel Besacier, a family of apiculture workers and organic honey-product producers from Roanne who’ve been on the scene since 1905. “You meet people all over the world here,” Sabrina said, noting that it was her first year working the Tour. “I’ve been telling people about apiculture, and they can choose their favorite honeys. All the products are available at Carrefour stores. A lot of people are scared of being stung, but not one person has been.”
When asked whether these tastings affected sales, Sabrina showed an uneasiness, or at least unfamiliarity, with any capitalist intent that seemed uniquely French. “It’s always pretty much the same, sales-wise,” she said. “They come and just learn about the product, and then they leave.”