I love doing my souvenir shopping at supermarkets, wherever I happen to find myself. I’ve bought olive oil and saffron in the supermarket in Madrid; Lavazza coffee in Rome; and Fat Boy soy sauce in Chiang Mai — and when I’m headed back to Texas for a visit, I still stop by the stinky stinky Franprix (above) for French staples that you can’t get in the U.S.
To accompany my Fort Worth Star-Telegram story about fall in Paris I thought I’d put together my list of favorite supermarket souvenirs — an inexpensive way to bring home a little bit of France, no matter what the exchange rate is up (or down) to.
1. Mousse-worthy chocolate.
Yes, yes, it’s as much of a French cliché as a black beret, but if you want to make chocolate mousse, this is the chocolate to use — so says pastry/baking rockstar Dorie Greenspan, who credits the recipe on the back of this bar as her favorite, and the one that was fabulous enough to make it into her new book, “Around My French Table,” which if you haven’t ordered yet, what are you waiting for?
2. Drinking and baking chocolate.
I don’t know what Dorie thinks about this Van Houten chocolate, a yummy powdered, unsweetened chocolate, but I love it and use it for chocolate cakes, cookies, and for hot chocolate in the winter. It’s far richer and darker than what you’ll find on your grocery store shelves in the U.S., and makes even the simplest of cakes richer more chocolatey.
3. Sea salt.
Buy as much as you can stuff into your suitcase. This is what you’ll want to sprinkle on every single thing that you make, including your chocolate chip cookies. It’s a fraction of the cost than what you’ll pay in the states, and it doesn’t weigh much at all.
4. Piment d’Espelette.
It’s not as hot as cayenne, but this A.O.C.-protected Basque pepper has a lovely subtle heat that’s as wonderful in savory dishes and soups as — I hate to be redundant here, but I’ll just say it — chocolate. Seriously. Try a sprinkle of this on top of your brownies or on your thick, made-on-the-stove hot chocolate. It’s amazing.
5. Nut oils.
Now these aren’t the fancy fancy J. Leblanc oils, but the grocery store walnut and hazlenut oils will do in a pinch, and are great for mixing into salad dressings, drizzled on top of soups or grilled veggies. I’ve managed to fill an entire fridge shelf with different nut oils, and use them all the time — they’re great on sandwiches, too.
6. Tuna in olive oil.
The way to go if you’re making anything tuna-related. No more of that dry packed-in-water business — that you then need to add oil (in the form of lots of mayo, right) to later to make it edible; try this tuna instead. It’s quite wonderful on its own. And so easy to stuff into those new boots that you just bought, to.
7. Sugar, sugar.
For a country that isn’t big on sweety things, the French sure do stock a lot of sugars. Here are some of the fun ones that we don’t find very often in the states.
The uneven cane sugar cubes that (eventually) melt in your espresso, with about 10 minutes’ of stirring.
The rock candy-like sugar, also for coffee and tea – or eating like candy, I suppose.
The sugar “perles” that look more like rock salt than sugar, and are used for one of my favorite patisserie treat, chouquettes, as illustrated on the box.
8. Real French mustard.
A friend of mine from Los Angeles told me that she filled her suitcase with Maille mustard because what you get in the states isn’t as strong as the stuff here. I can’t verify that, but I do know that there are lots and lots of flavors and types of mustards that are really common here and not so much in the U.S. I like the grainy mustards, like this one, the best.
9. Lentilles du Puy.
The best lentils in the whole world. I love love love these babies, and have gotten to be a bit of a lentil snob, I guess, since I started eating these a few years ago. Delicate and earthy, with a sharp, clean flavor, the little French du Puys are nothing like the fat brown ones, which seem to go mushy as soon as they’re cooked.
10. Powdered veal stock.
Terribly un-P.C. to even mention it, I suppose, but for those that want to make sauce Espagnole, but don’t have the time to run to the store for a sack of veal bones, here’s what Gordon Ramsay’s producer stuffed in her suitcase before she took her taxi to Roissy.
11. Speculoos pasta (no, not that kind of pasta)
Pasta, tartiner, paste, spread, whatever. Let’s just call this what it really is — CRACK IN A JAR. If you’ve never had this — a spreadable version of the oh-so-lovely Belgian cinnamony-gingery cookie, the Speculoo — you may want to consider yourself lucky, because once you try it, you’ll be finishing one jar, and then another, eating it by the spoonful, just like that, straight. Dangerous and addictive, this stuff will put you right back into your teal green Wal-Mart jogging suit, but it’s so wonderful, you won’t even care.
Bon shopping, everyone!