One of the many delights of Paris is the infinite variety of flavours available in everything from yogurt to jams to ice cream to spices. Compared to the depressingly limited array in North America (you can have any flavour you want as long as it’s chocolate, strawberry or vanilla), the choices in Paris are dazzling.
Even in the most mundane of French grocery stores (Franprix, G20, or Monoprix), be prepared for a wealth of options. We like to buy yogurt for breakfast, and have been known to spend ages in agonized indecision over the possible flavours — pear? fig? kiwi? grapefruit? chestnut? One is equally beguiled by the containers. In France, yogurt does not necessarily come in throwaway plastic tubs; glass containers and little earthenware pots are common and fun to reuse (today we store Q-tips in a green ceramic pot and spare change in a glass jar — both once held yogurt).
Choosing a jam to spread on croissants is another dilemma. Apricot with almonds? Blackcurrant? Quince? One of at least three different varieties of plum?
This indecision no doubt contributes to the long line-ups at Berthillon, the ice-cream shop on the Ile St-Louis. Faced with a choice of everything from blood orange to honey nougat to passionfruit, the average tourist is likely to become completely unhinged.
Foods of France – ginger mustard, violet-scented sugar, saffron honey…
France is the land of specialization. The expressions “all-purpose” or “one-size-fits-all” really don’t translate well into French. Last year, after an enjoyable afternoon spent at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Philippa and her husband went in search of a café and stumbled instead upon a spice shop called Goumanyat in the third arrondissement that sold a seemingly infinite range of flavours and combinations of flavours. Ginger mustard. Violet-scented sugar. Lavender vinegar. Saffron honey. Pistachio oil. Just imagining what one might do with these extraordinary ingredients was enough to occupy the rest of the day.
One specialité de la maison is saffron, and we bought some to add to the risotto we made that evening. The shop offered saffron in powdered form or in threads, and in other products such as chocolate, caramel, or white icing. The knowledgeable and helpful young man in the shop gave us plenty of time to wander and sniff and stare and imagine.
Around the same time, Barbara was in Paris searching for petale de rose ice cream. A few days before she was due to leave for her trip, she encountered a friend as she was crossing the Hennepin Bridge across the Mississippi in Minneapolis. The friend, who had recently returned from Paris, raved about some ice cream she’d been served in a little shop in the 5th arrondissement. At first she had thought the pale pink concoction was strawberry, but a single taste told her that she had found something quite different. The rose flavour seduced her completely, and she urged Barbara to find it again. Trouble is, she couldn’t remember the name of the shop or the street.
Barbara took up the challenge. She prowled every tiny street and alley in the 5th, looking for the shop her friend had described. When she didn’t find it, she widened her search to other arrondissements. She explored a dazzling array of tiny shops and met patissiers, glaciers, and confiseurs (and visited Angelina’s, shown above). Eventually her search led her across the river to the 8th andHediard’s near the Place de la Madeleine, a venerable house of gourmet treats, where petale de rose ice cream is a traditional product.
Perhaps for that little shop in the 5th, petale de rose was a seasonal flavour. The French still believe in the maxim “to everything there is a season.” There are foods that are specific to winter, or springtime, or summer, or fall, and it is pointless to ask for a winter speciality in summer or vice versa.
In North America, alas, seasons have disappeared, and we eat strawberries in November (admittedly, they have no taste, but no one seems to notice) and hot-cross buns in August (which when we were growing up was a treat available only at Eastertime). One of the reasons that we love France is that not everything is available everywhere all the time. So when you find petale de rose ice cream, it is a fleeting and precious moment that may not recur. Things taste better when they are not available 365 days a year.
Paris has far more than 1,001 flavours to experience, and not everything you seek may be available when you seek it. That is as it should be. It simply means you have to come back.
Some of our favourite yogurt flavours include amande (almond), poire (pear), and figue (fig). We love jam made with myrtilles (blueberries), mirabelles (yellow plums) and coing (quince). Some of the unique flavours of Berthillon ice cream include réglisse (licorice), agenaise (prunes and armagnac), plombière (dried fruits and kirsch), turron de Jijona (nougat), praliné avec citron et coriandre (pralines with lemon and coriander), and Thé earl grey (Earl Grey tea).
Vocabulary: French to English translations
Agenaise: Prunes and Armagnac.
Mirabelles: Yellow plums.
Plombière: Dried fruits and kirsch.
Praliné avec citron et coriander: Pralines with lemon and coriander.
Thé earl gray: Earl Grey tea.
Turron de Jijona: Nougat.
Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto, and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy.
She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Smell and Taste, Sensation and Pleasure, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who explains the “smart” education of the French child who is taught to recognize and describe the flavours, the feeling of taste, and most importantly, why they liked it or disliked it. Her introduction to the world of flavour is all about sensations and pleasure. She urges to “tell what you feel.”
Alsace Asparagus, Best in April, by Michelle Hum who shares the first time she tried the very best white asparagus from Alsace while a student living in Montpellier, France. An unforgettable dish of asparagus dressed with a simple olive oil, balsamic, mustard vinaigrette. Recipe included for white asparagus by Alsatian Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten from Food & Wine magazine.
Paris macaron, love in the afternoon, by Barbara Redmond who tells about the French women who vanished back into the streets of Paris, exiting Pierre Hermé, this elegant confectionary, each clutching her little cellophane bag of macaron, her Le goûter (afternoon treat). But, Frenchwomen do not snack… or do they? Paris locations included for Pierre Hermé and Ladurée, beloved for their Paris macaron.
French Onion Soup – a Paris meal to remember, by Michelle Hum who recalls the aroma of sweet, caramelized onions, dry wine, and rich broth carried with the steam rising from her bowl. With the first taste – serendipity. Recipe included for Julia Child’s Soupe à l’oignon (French onion soup), from her cookbook, The Way to Cook.
Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.