Dispatches from Behind the E-Curtain: No Peanut Butter In France

No, this isn’t about peanut butter being blocked by my ISP…

Those woes continue unchanged, by the way. Recently, it seems that tinurl was added to the list of forbidden sites, which seems like nothing more than a foolish inconvenience. (In case you aren’t aware, tinyurl is nothing more than a URL-shortener: give it a long, complicated URL, and it makes a small one of it. It can point to anything, and when you visit a tinyurl it redirects you to the original. In other words: tinyurl has no content, and it’s explicitly transformed into the original URL, so there should never be any reason to block it.)

No, this is not about that, although it’s on my mind pretty constantly.

This is about me being bored, and wanting to share some parts of my trip with someone – anyone.

This is about me still trying to find the benefits of my trip, to find that “sunny side”.

Actually, this is about peanut butter.

I love peanut butter.

It may not have always been the case, and I know that there have been years where I just never bought it. A few years ago, when I had to drain out all the extraneous salt in my diet to help my belaboured heart (and the rest of my health) from collapsing, peanut butter was one of the victims. Frankly, most peanut butter has more salt in it than it really needs to be tasty.

However, peanut butter is extremely useful. It makes a great snack. It melts well on fresh toast or bagels, or holds firm in a sandwich. It goes well with jelly and jam, and with bananas. Some people put it on celery sticks and things, but I’m not that crazy about celery sticks to bother with it.

I’ve even heard it said — or more likely, written — that it’s one of those staples, because it is so nutritious and filling: “If you have peanut butter and some bread, you’ve got a meal.”

I was lucky enough to spot two different varieties of no-salt-added peanut butter that seem to have come onto the market not long after it had been banned for its saltiness. Thankfully, they also taste pretty good. Since then, it has been a constant staple in my fridge, and I would like to have some with me all the time for a snack.

I thought I would do that here, in France. I thought I would beat the munchies with a baguette and peanut butter. Also, peanut butter is generally cheap — at least in my experience — and doesn’t go bad.

But they don’t seem to have peanut butter here. Almost not at all.

I admit, I’m at a coastal town, a smaller city of 78,000 people or so (100,000 tourists every year, however). I have no idea what it’s like in Paris (although I hope to find out before I leave France!).

But here, at least, there is almost no peanut butter.

It is, to be sure, one of the strangest food-related things I’ve discovered while here. I can get three kinds of brie and ten kinds of camembert in the tiny grocer in the neighbourhood, four times that at the two larger supermarkets within a half-hour’s walk of here, but only at one of them did I see any jar of peanut butter. And it was tiny. And expensive: 4€ for a small jar (25cl, I think). (That’s about $6 Canadian.)

A dozen types of honey. A half-dozen kinds of chocolate spread.

Only one variety of specialty peanut butter.

There have been a few other things to get used to here. I’ve already mentioned the brie and camembert – which, incidentally, have proven to be decent substitutes for some of my peanut-butter cravings. France is well-renowned for its cheese, and this is no myth. I haven’t tried that many of them, because I have no idea where to begin. (Not having much money and have no way to get any more means not getting terribly experimental.)

I love the tradition of boulangeries – bakers – here! Like most people, I love fresh bread. Every neighbourhood here which has a small set of shops seems to have at least one boulangerie, where fresh bread is made for daily consumption, particularly the baguette. It has to be made that way, because a baguette will turn into granite overnight.

One interesting note: you can get a fresh baguette from Monday to Friday, but not at all on the weekend. (You can get other kinds of bread all the time, however.) I was told that this is, in fact, the law, and after looking around a bit, I realized that they weren’t kidding! It has to do, if I remember correctly, with the fact that in order to make the fresh baguettes daily, they have to start very early in the morning. So, it was mandated that they take the weekend off.

(I rather like that idea.. My weekends shift the general activities I do, but generally there is also a nagging default task, the “get back to the school-related work” task. Having a task hanging over your head for so long is quite a degrading feeling.)

What else is different? I can generally buy duck cheaper than I can buy beef, if I can find beef at all. At the farmer’s markets, however, there are two meat deals: dried sausage and fish. I’ve had quite a bit of each, changing off from time to time with relatively cheap pork, one super deal on duck, and a bottle of rabbit terrine that I haven’t yet figured out what to do with..

I really miss my barbeque! My cooking set-up is pretty simple: two burners, onto which I place my one pot and my one frying pan. I’ve gotten pretty versatile in the combination of meals that I can make with that, but nothing beats the pure simplicity of firing up my summer barbeque.

Of course, La Rochelle is a port town, so the variety and abundance of seafood is to be expected. But there seems to be quite a flourishing farming community around here too, as there are farmer’s markets just about every day, with big ones on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love farmer’s markets? Well, these are not only abundantly full of a wide variety of fresh, cheap, very tasty produce, but are also located in the heart of the old city. La Grande Marché sits at the centre of the main markets, an ancient building only open itself during the bigger markets on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Around it, however, sprawling up and down for several of the cobblestone streets are carts and tables of goods. I usually wander around for an hour, just trying to take it all in, stopping randomly each time to pick up some potatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms or garlic (my staples).

Now, Fredericton is no slouch when it comes to Farmer’s markets – the weekly Boyce Market has been a regular appointment for me – but I’m afraid that it will feel a little diminished in the face of the large, sprawling markets I’ve seen here. For those of you familiar with the Boyce Market, imagine if the outdoor market extended through all of the parking lot, then also onto Brunswick and George streets, over onto St. John St as well. (I’d rather see it than imagine it, but our region needs to grow up quite a bit before that will happen.)

Aside from that, what else is different? Well, I’d be ashamed if I didn’t mention milk. Along with many a great peanut butter sandwich, there is often-times the very important glass of cold milk. I’ve found that nothing quite sluices away the stuck-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth bread-and-peanut-butter than this.

Milk here is.. different. In fact, for the first couple of weeks here, before I had located a miniature supermarket, I didn’t know if they had regular milk at all. (I’m still not sure..) Instead, they have “lait ultra-pasteurisé” — “ultra-pasteurized milk”.

What does that mean? Well, it probably implies something of a very intensive process of production and microbial-life-killing, but the real important gist of it is this: it is sold unrefridgerated, on the regular grocery shelves.

This was quite surprising to me! Now, I realize that, in quaint old days (and perhaps still in England) 😉 , milk was sold in bottles, delivered door-to-door on milk trucks, and consumed daily. I know that, in my grandmother’s time (and perhaps when my mother was a child), milk was often local and raw, sometimes from your own cows.

But I’d never encountered it before. And, strangely enough, this isn’t that kind of warm milk either. This stuff is heavily processed – quite the opposite to the unprocessed or little-processed “raw” milk that actually goes into a large number of cheeses here – and needs to be refridgerated after opening.

Further, it tastes a little odd. And the worst part: it seems to go bad quickly.

I only wanted it for cereal, and for that purpose it’s fine. But I don’t eat cereal every day, and I find that it will often go bad between bowls, making it pretty awful. (I once used some rather solid stuff in a soup that I made, and it was fine in the soup.)

(I seem to have left out churros and a few of the other snacks you can get; as well as how often the adjective americain is added to things from sandwiches to licorice.. Perhaps in another post, one about desserts?)

Beyond that, things are remarkably normal. I haven’t gone out to the restaurants much, because I really can’t afford to. I’ve gone to McDonald’s a few times (“McDo”, as they call it here), partially out of curiousity (how different is a French McDo?) and partially out of wanting something simple, fast and edible enough – really, a junk-food craving.

(Maybe I’ll describe the difference in the McDo of France at a later date; this has gone on quite long enough!)

Overall, I’ve been able to feed myself well enough here, although I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been following my usual very-low-salt, healthier style of eating that I was just getting used to at home. But I won’t be dead from my cooking, either, and I don’t have to rely on high-priced resto food or ready-made (to-kill-you) “easy-make” food.

Although I want to hit a few more of those restaurants before I go..

One thought on “Dispatches from Behind the E-Curtain: No Peanut Butter In France

  1. About milk, I imagine that you wanted to say “UHT (Upérisation à Ultra Haute Température)” instead of “Ultra Pasteurisé”.

    Well, UHT implies that milk is heated over 135 °C (275 °F is Wikipedia is right) during a few seconds, and then it is quickly refreshed. This is a kind of sterilization.

    UHT milk is drunk a lot in France, as well as in Spain ; but it is not the same in the United Kingdom where almost no one drinks UHT milk.

    Hope I enlarged your knowledge. Mooooo!!

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