Another in a series of posts to help you figure out what’s what in a French supermarket. Today, we attempt to tackle the dairy section.
The French are big into shelf stable milk so you’ll find milk in the supermarket in two places: in a refrigerated case with the butter, cheese, and yogurt and all manner of other dairy products, and on the shelf, often near the water. Shelf stable milk may be packaged in cardboard or plastic cartons. The cardboard variety are easier to stack and store; the plastic are more reliable for pouring. While my kids don’t particularly like the taste of shelf stable milk, I find it’s a very handy thing to have around, especially if you don’t drink a lot of milk or if you’re coming back to town on a Sunday evening and want to have milk for breakfast Monday morning.
The various types of milk are:
Lait frais: Fresh pasteurized milk. It comes in two varieties:
- Demi-écrémé (typically sold with a blue cap): While you may think this means “half cream,” it actually means half the cream of regular whole milk. So it’s 2 percent butterfat.
- Entier (typically sold with a red cap): whole milk.
Skim milk is sold under the brand name Bridelight. Or you may find it labelled simply lait écrémé (Again, it’s not cream, it’s de-creamed!)
Buttermilk is variously labeled as lait fermenté, lait ribot, or lait caillé.
Soy milk (lait de soya) and soy yogurt is widely available in both health food stores and in the bio (organic) section of many supermarkets.
Hold on to your hat. Distinguishing among the various types of cream can be challenging.
Crème fraîche: A staple of many French recipes, crème fraîche is a bit thicker than American sour cream and a bit less sour. But for all intents and purposes, it’s a good substitute. You will find it in varieties from super rich (about 40 percent fat) to light (3 percent). To determine the fat content, look at the label for the words, matière grasse or the abbreviation m.g. or mat. gras. followed by a percentage. Hint: any cream marked epaisse will have roughly the consistency of sour cream.
Other creams: You will find other creams marked variously as crème fraîche fluide, crème entiere liquide, crème fouettée, or crème chantilly. Take note: a cream must have at least 30 percent fat content to whip; creams with less fat content are delicious, and good for sauces, baking, or dessert but they will not whip up. Creams are sold bottled in the refrigerated case and in shelf stable varieties.
If you are a yogurt lover, you are in luck because the selection is phenomenal. A couple of things to keep in mind when reading labels:
Remember that m.g. indicates the fat content. If it’s not noted prominently on the packaging, it’s a good bet that it’s a full fat yogurt. If you are looking for a reduced fat version, consider the Taillefine brand by Danone. This brand also has no added sugars.
Yogurt made from goat’s milk (lait du chevre) and sheep’s milk (lait du brebis) are widely available.
Nature means plain, not natural.
Yaourt brassé is yogurt with a very smooth texture.
Not everything that’s packaged like yogurt is actually yogurt. For example, Perle de Lait is a dessert made with fromage frais, and has a 9% fat content. Le Petit Suisse by Gervais is also a sweetened fromage frais, popular with kids.
Fromage blanc and fromage frais have no equivalents in North American cuisine. They are smooth but thicker than yogurt and typically served as a dessert, often with fruit, honey, or a little sugar. You can buy these in different fat contents (as shown here) and in tubs ranging from individual portions to family sized.
Faisselle is a thicker, richer type of fromage frais. Some liken it to cottage cheese but it does not have chunks.
You will also find fromage frais, yogurt, creams, and butters in your neighborhood fromagerie and from the fromager at your neighborhood open-air market. You can buy in small portions (for example, one small glass jar of yogurt), perfect for experimenting and looking for the flavors and textures you like best.
Since there are literally hundreds of types of French cheeses and you won’t find the best ones in the supermarket, I won’t try to tackle the topic here. If you are a parent of a picky eater, you may be happy to know, however, that you can find something very much like Kraft singles, similarly packaged only it’s called burger cheese. Supermarket varieties of emmental and comte, two mild cheeses akin to what Americans call swiss cheese, may also go over with kids. Cheddar is hard to find and expensive. Some people use mimolette as a substitute because of its orange color although it doesn’t taste like cheddar.