French eating habits

I recently heard a story from another gite owner about someone who visits them each year from the UK, and pays excess baggage charges on their flight so that they can bring a few tins of baked beans and tinned tomatoes with them. Since this excess baggage costs eight euros a kilo, that would mean their tinned tomatoes end up costing as much as a tins of confit de canard. Just in case you are reading this, I can confirm that you can buy tinned tomatoes in France.

Baked beans I’m not sure about, but the ‘haricot beans in tomato sauce’ are sort of similar.

A lot of popular expat towns now also have ‘English shops’ where enterprising expats import typical British foods – sausages, marmite, cream and so on – and I would guess these kind of shops have baked beans. I don’t know how profitable it is driving a big van back to the UK each week or two to fill it with teabags and maltesers but quite a few people seem to do it so I guess there must be quite a demand for these kind of items from expats in France.

One notable aspect of our visit to the UK with a French girl was a reminder that our eating habits are still different to those of the French. She is used to having a large breakfast, a large 3-course cooked lunch, and something lighter in the evening, all meals accompanied by copious amounts of bread and water. So our typical offerings of a piece of toast for breakfast (marmalade if you are lucky), a bowl of soup at lunchtime, and a big meal in the evening had the poor girl on the point of constant collapse from malnourishment all day and then feeling too over-stuffed to sleep at bedtime.

One night my brother cooked cannelloni for us, the filling of which didn’t include meat. This, she later whispered to our daughter, is not normal. A meal without meat is, quite frankly, not a meal. I described once before how the parents at the local school were up in arms when the school had the audacity to serve pasta with a sauce that didn’t include meat – it took an oath sworn in blood that something so scandalous would never happen again before they removed the barricades from the school entrance.

Funnily enough it was with school dinners that we noticed the biggest difference of all. In France school dinners are 3-course sit down meals – not always great but usually pretty good – and there is no such thing as a packed lunch. Children don’t leave the school premises at lunch time, unless they are going home to eat with their family.

So to see children walking around a town in the wind and sleet while eating a bag of chips for lunch was beyond all comprehension for our French friend. Even for me it was not very clear why anyone would consider flicking snowflakes off a sausage in batter to be a nice way to enjoy lunch.

Didn’t I read a while ago that, under the guidance of Jamie Oliver, UK school dinners were now a gastronomic pleasure? If so why do so many children seem to want to avoid them I wonder? It is unfortunate if school canteens in the UK are rustling up magnificent restaurant quality dishes every day only to find that everyone still prefers to rush off for a burger and a bag of crisps instead.



  1. Emigré March 10, 2008 at 4:08 pm |


    you’d better try italian products, which are tastier!


  2. Boris March 10, 2008 at 6:16 pm |

    You could be right or you could be wrong Emigré, but our local restaurant does a prune, confit de canard and chorizo pizza which Mrs B. swears is great at combining the best of Spain Italy and France.

  3. Tanya March 11, 2008 at 11:55 am |

    I’ve never heard of tinned tomatoes. We “can” tomtoes, well mostly my grandmothers generation. I never learned the trade, but canning isn’t really “canning” because you use a mason jar. Not sure why they don’t call it “jarring” now that I think about it,lol.
    It’s hard living away from all the foods you are familiar with. While I still live in my same country, I’m 3000 miles from where I grew up, and miss alot of the foods we love.

  4. Mark March 14, 2008 at 11:24 am |

    I find that there are far more people who live in the ‘sticks’ buy from my site, I guess that the larger towns or cities would have a bricks and mortar shop to cater for their needs.

    Funnily enough though I don’t sell as many baked beans as you would think.

    I’d imagine that wherever in the world you are, it’s always nice to have a little bit of home with you, and it’s not just Brits.
    We have a fairly large Polish community here, and only yesterday I followed a Polish bakery van making deliveries.

  5. Mark March 14, 2008 at 11:27 am |

    Forgot to add to the last post, I’m on a primary schools board of governors, and the school lunch is something that is monitored quite rigorously.

    There is very, very little processed food on the menu for the children to choose from.
    Sad to say, but the school dinner is quite possibly the best meal most of the kids get all day.

  6. Boris March 14, 2008 at 5:43 pm |

    Mark you didn’t say but I guess you are based in the UK? That’s good to hear about school dinners. Presumably primary school children don’t get the ‘wandering about the local town’ option either.
    Your business looks like a good idea, good luck with that. I’m glad to see marmite on the front page – we always force visiting French children to try it just for the pleasure of seeing them look completely horrified when they taste it.

  7. Mark March 15, 2008 at 5:58 pm |

    Hi Boris,

    That is just evil, funny as hell, but evil!

    I’m in deepest Essex…
    The wandering about town is definitely off the menu for the primary children, I think it all goes to pot once they get to the local comprehensive though.

    Thanks for the good wishes.

  8. Jacqui U March 16, 2008 at 12:30 am |

    As the only English family in our area, EVERY YEAR our children’s English Teachers at Primaire and College ask us to send in a pot of marmite – so that all the children (French) can try it.

    At least it is something to do with all the pots of marmite that our friends/family bring out to us! There is only so much marmite that you can get through – one pot lasts us months and months!!!!

    On a different point, one major difference we find between school lunches here versus at home in the UK – our girls only get chips once a month (in Primaire) and once a fortnight (at college). Back in the UK I seem to remember them on the menu every day? Hopefully this has now changed I think.

  9. Kay April 14, 2008 at 7:24 pm |

    It’s not just the eating habits that are different – it’s the whole concept of food and how it’s treated. On our visits to France we’ve always been impressed by so many things. Plain old pork chops from a local butcher were probably the best we ever had. Olives from a farmers’ market – wow! And so on and on. Even a simple meal was often a gourmet treat. I know there’s “modern British” cooking but good old-fashioned French would suit me fine any day. (I also liked having a pastis in the local deli while telling the shop-keeper what we wanted to buy.)

  10. Whaives April 26, 2008 at 11:05 am |


    I’m french, living in Poitou-Charentes, and I like british food. I can confirm that many supermarkets, here, have a little place where they sell british products as baked beans, marmite and so and so. You also can find these products in little english shops.

    Bon appétit !

  11. Matt Smith September 4, 2008 at 2:04 am |

    Hyper Champion almost always have an English range of products. Hovis Digestive biscuits are about the only thing I tend to buy as I love them but there are many things available including English conserves and preserves, English style bread, baked beans and a few other things, I’ll take a look next time I go and update this post.

  12. Matt Smith September 4, 2008 at 2:22 am |

    Quick Update: From recent experience where French friends visited an English lady in the area (I was called in as translator *sigh);

    Four important things not mentioned in this section when welcoming French visitors to your home:

    1: Regardless of arrangements, if it is a meal time, french people will (quite rightly) expect to be included in the meal regardless of when they arrive and whether they are expected or not. Great offence can be taken if you do not include them. If you do not have enough of the actual meal then provide cheese, biscuits or some other snack foods although something substantial is usually preferred. Bread is acceptable as a bare minimum

    2: ALWAYS offer drinks, ideally apéritif such as Pastis (Ricard et al), Martini (Rosso is popular), any fruit liquor etc but failing that, soft drinks, water or coffee. Postmen particularly enjoy a Pastis when delivering large parcels and indeed here in the north, are well known for generally finishing their rounds drunk as a church friar!

    3: The French, particularly in Rural areas but also in towns, tend to live on day to day shopping as opposed to the British tendency to have large food reserves. This may or may not be practical for you but please bear in mind that the French will ALWAYS appreciate a FRESH meal from FRESH ingredients regardless of how basic the meal is. Mayonnaise from a jar or tub is a surefire way to tell your french visitor that you are a culinary numbskull and British style (hellman’s) mayonnaise should NEVER be served to french people at ANY meal.

    4: When serving wine with meals or even without the meal please bear in mind that most french people are not concerned with vintages. Cheap vin-de-table is more than sufficient for get togethers especially when topped up with apéritifs. A good size block of two or three cheeses (preferably local with perhaps one english as a talking point) and bread will finish a get-together nicely. Remember, don’t overcomplicate things, often the simplest way is the best way. In choosing cheeses, if three is enough then stick to it but select three very different regional cheeses, a goats cheese (to me, beurck but to the french, divine!), a normal cheese and a fromage de brébis (Sheep’s cheese: much nice than it sounds) is often a good way to go.

    On a final note, French meals are almost always relaxed and carefree EVEN in the most formal settings. Please remember that the English dinner party atmosphere will alienate most french visitors who would much rather have a plate and a glass and a few trays of food to help themselves to. There is so much more that I could say here but please feel free to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you want advice on planning a dinner party for french friends. I am an experienced chef and confirmed francophile.

  13. Boris September 4, 2008 at 5:11 am |

    Great advice there, thanks Matt, very useful.

  14. Liquorice August 2, 2011 at 12:04 pm |

    I’m French and I think French schools canteens aren’t yummy either. It is simply a problem of expenses. Canteens will never be restaurants.