In France, the options for food shopping are somewhat more open than in the UK. Most towns still have a thriving market, there is an artisan culture providing many excellent, good value small shops, and most open early in the morning - around 8am - closing at 7pm. There is usually a two-hour lunchbreak, since the French take their food very seriously indeed. Also, beware that different towns still have a tendency to be closed on different days - often Monday or Thursday. Shopping on Public Holidays is a no-no; everything is likely to be firmly shut - check the dates before you go, and plan ahead.
Bread from a French boulangerie is almost always of a good quality. Look for a busy store - this is a sign of quality. Be up in the morning and be prepared to queue. As a general rule, avoid French supermarket bread - it's not much cheaper. The real stuff is of good value, and tastes nicer too.
French bread is not loaded with preservatives like English bread - buy it on the day it will be used, and keep it wrapped in a dry tea-towel - or it'll go hard and crusty and stale, particularly in a hot environment.
Milk and Butter
Fresh milk in France is quite hard to come by. Most supermarket milk is UHT, but at larger stores, a few brands of bottled milk are available. A good choice is Candia, available in normal, semi-skimmed (blue label, demi-écrémé) and skimmed (écrémé). As far as butter goes, buy a nice-looking packet from the middle price-bracket and bear in mind that French butter is unsalted, unless otherwise stated (salé).
Tap water is not always good to drink in France. The French often buy eau de source from the supermarket in 1.5L bottles. Note that this is not the same as eau minerale naturelle - this is five times cheaper than the posh water that the Brits all buy, like Perrier, Badoit, Evian etc. The other water is pretty good and French families will use this even when entertaining guests.
The tap water is fine for washing up, washing and all the rest; it's just drinking it that is occasionally unadvisable. It can usually be cooked with as well.
You can go and buy tinned items for cupboard stocking in the supermarkets and they are usually quite good if you steer clear of own-brands. Any dried, non-perishable food is best bought at the supermarket - it saves time, money and effort. Tea is not drunk in the same quantity or way in France as it is in the UK, and is often designed to be drunk with lemon, not milk. It's probably best to take your own tea. As far as coffee goes, buy a nice-looking brand such as Carte Noire, now also available in the UK, and avoid the really cheap stuff. Also, don't expect to find the same brands in France as you do in the UK - the French have their own brands, and while they may taste a bit different, they're usually quite good. A good example is the Lesieur range of mayonnaise and dressings. Think of it like you would cars - try finding a Volvo dealer outside of the largest towns, but there are heaps of Peugeot, Citroen and Renault dealers.
Fruit and Veg
Buy as little fruit and veg as possible from supermarkets - go to the market, and hunt for both quality and value. Feel the produce and beware of vendors picking for you, as a tourist. Buy melons that are riper than British supermarket ones - they taste great. However, if they've already split when you first see them, leave them alone. Look for local produce, and try not to buy things from abroad. Buy tomatoes on the vine - they're more expensive, but taste fantastic.
The French are really good at the wine from their own area. If you're in a wine-growing area, avoid the supermarket, and touristy resellers. Instead, go to a few growers and look out for tastings. Small roadsigns like the ones used for hotels and restaurants will generally help you find some growers. If you are in a city, you can always head for a cuvée de vin - a cellar which stocks wine at producer prices; you may have to bring your own bottle. If you're not in a wine area, take a look at the supermarket shelves just as you would at home.
When you're in France, don't buy supermarket cheese unless you absolutely have to. There's nothing wrong with the supermarkets, it's just that supermarket cheese isn't that different to the stuff you'd find at Sainsbury's or Tesco in the UK, although there's a bigger range. Instead, take a trip into town, and look for a busy cheese shop (fromagerie) which smells of cheese, but not overpoweringly so.
Buy the local cheese varieties. They'll be cheaper - for example when in the area, a huge piece of the creamy blue cheese Fourme d'Ambert cost 90p in 2001, and over here, it would have been about £2.50. Also, it will not have travelled, and the fromagerie staff will look after it well. There is a huge amount of local pride in France.
Many cheeses are unpasteurised in France. It's best to try not to consider this a problem unless it's for the children. The French eat the stuff all the time, and they're doing alright.
Buy four or five cheeses of different types, and take the advice of the staff. You need a variety of cheeses. Try one run-of-the mill mild cheese with a rind, a mild (doux) and a stronger (demi-sec) goat's cheese (chèvre), a strong non-blue, and a creamy blue cheese. This is pretty much a complete cheeseboard, and it's cheap enough to do. Eat the cheeses at room temperature - allow half an hour from the fridge. Don't wrap them in film, they'll sweat. Wrap them loosely in paper, then put them in an airtight container. They'll keep a while, but they'll get progressively runnier and stronger. Eat them with bread, not biscuits. When eating, work from mild to strong, the last should be the blue.
Meat and Fish to Cook
Eat meat as you like to, but there is a lot to be gained from going to the market, and going for the stalls that look clean and are busy. It's best to leave the horsemeat from the boucherie chevaline alone; it's not great.
Cooked Meats and Savoury Items
The cooked meats and snacks are a very important part of French food. Go to the traiteur, a sort of delicatessen, and take their advice on what is good today. Buy the little pizzas, slices of cooked pork, and other goodies like quiches and taboulé (a bit like couscous), but beware - they're quite expensive, so don't go wild.
Try to look for a pâtisserie that is both busy, and not attached to a baker. If all they sell is cakes, they should be good at them. In smaller towns, a combined shop will have to do - they can be exceptional. Buy fruit tarts (tartes aux fruits), they're good, and worth the money. Cakes are a special occasion food, and so they're not cheap.
The rôtisserie at the market will almost always be queuing, so get there early. Buy a free range (férmier) chicken. They're more expensive, but they are much more tender. Also, say 'yes' when the vendor asks if you want jus, or gravy. If you have change from 100F (which you should have), buy some potatoes as well. This is a good quick fix lunch, served with salad from the market. Also, if the paella that is sometimes offered is just ready, get that instead of the chicken. It's more special.
Where to Buy
Don't judge a supermarket (supermarché)in France by its name, the quality of store even within one company can vary hugely. However, Shopi, Marché U and Super U are best avoided. Hyper U, Champion, E Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefour and Géant are usually good bets. Intermarché can be superb, but steer clear of the sister chain Ecomarché. Look for supermarkets in their own building, of decent size, and that are clean on the outside. Rusty warehouses are not a good sign. French supermarkets are better value than their British equivalents, but the insides are less pleasantly decorated. One notable exception is the bilingual E Leclerc in Saumur, Loire Valley. However, this store is very expensive to shop at. Some smaller supermarkets may make a fuss about British credit cards, don't let them take a card out of your sight, if necessary, show them how to use the card without reaching over the counter.
Supermarkets aside, the newest, shiniest, cleanest-looking store or market stall isn't always the best. The only way to judge reliably is on how busy the stall is - and busy with locals, elderly people, and young children, not tourists.
A good stall at the market will always be well staffed and the staff will be helpful. Always try to speak French first because they'll be more helpful if you at least try. Small vendors of saucisson and cheese won't always be refrigerated - this is fine since cheese keeps anyway for a few hours and saucisson sec (cured pork sausage) will happily rest for months.
Also, if you're going to go to a town market, get there nice and early. This way you get the best choice, and while waiting may get cheaper prices, you'll be getting the worse end of the crop. If you arrive at midday, the market will be packing away, 8am to 10am is better, but if you can bear getting up earlier, you'll find some really nice treats.
That's about all there is to it - food shopping in France is mostly common sense, and hopefully everything else is covered here. Remember that France isn't the ideal place to diet - but it's easier to eat healthily - the salad stuff and fruit is exceptional. Just be sure to wash all of the bugs of lettuces - the French don't spray these as thoroughly as other countries do, and care should be taken.