Be My Guest column: How the French do self-sufficiency

Our local store has been taken over and is undergoing a refit. Unlike British giants such as Tesco and Asda, which can completely rebrand and alter a store in the hours of darkness between a Sunday evening and Monday morning, Ecomarche has taken five months.

To start, nothing much changed apart from the check-out uniforms and hastily-made notices reminding everyone of the new name. But just recently the pace, although reassuringly slow, has picked up.

Last month, the suspended ceilings came out and the whole place was rewired, with cables draped over the aisles and coiled up on the floor, yet with business as usual. This week, they’ve managed to tile the floor, take out an entire outside wall, put in half of the new ceiling and replace the shelving – again staying resolutely open as usual throughout.

The only thing was, it definitely was not “as usual”. The wine and spirits aisle was inundated by torrential rain, which was blown in through the missing wall. Shelves had been pushed back to allow access for the three forklift trucks present at any one time, leading to a Hampton Court maze effect throughout, with lots of dead ends and unpacked boxes full of cabling and lights. To make matters worse, there was no lighting in the store.

I was telling our old French neighbour about this, who was surprised I had been to the shop twice in the same week. It transpired that her last shopping trip was in March, when she had to go to stock up on sugar, soap and chocolate.

She was amazed that I had not yet started a vegetable garden and did not have a house cow or goat. We are definitely bucking the local trend, at least with the older French population, by not being almost entirely self-sufficient.

Most French families have a vegetable garden, with leeks and onions being the firm favourites, and many also keep rabbits, poultry and pigeons for the pot.

Absolutely everyone takes part in countryside forays for mushrooms, nuts (lots of walnuts and hazelnuts) and fruit, such as blackberries and sloes. Hunting for game birds, as well as deer, duck and wild boar, is a common Sunday pastime.

Also, the French eat everything – there is not much they throw away – beef tongue, tripe, calf brains and all other offal are found next to prime steak in the chiller cabinet.

Even more commendable, once the food – whether grown, shot or nicked – is in the kitchen, something is done with it. Every supermarket sells Kilner jars, sausage-making equipment, meat-safes for curing, vacuum packing kits and a wide range of pickling products. French larders are full of containers preserving last season’s produce – animal or vegetable.

I do want to start growing our own vegetables and wish I had more time to be creative in the kitchen, but I can’t imagine self-sufficiency will be the answer for this family. For a start, has anyone got the recipe for Crunchy Nut Cornflakes?

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