By Philippa Campsie
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 went in search of a café and stumbled instead upon a spice shop called Goumanyatin 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 she 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 and Hediard’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, French Cuisine: 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, what they like or dislike. Hauxaire’s introduction to the world of flavour is all about sensations and pleasure. She urges audiences to “tell what you feel.”
Foie Gras: “Fatty Liver” — its name can be deceiving, by Alyssa Glawe, an expatriate living in Grenoble, France. Alyssa writes about her ‘delightful culinary adventure,’ trying foie gras for the first time at a friend’s holiday party. Foie gras, yet another “French Foods to Try” on her list, follows Alyssa’s previous stories about escargot (snails) and des cuisses de grenouille (frogs legs). Recipe included for Terrine of Foie Gras from restaurant Chez le Pèr’Gras, Grenoble, France.
The African Queen of Parisian Cuisine, excerpts from Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to BLACK PARIS: Get Lost and Get Found, by Kiratiana Freelon about the “African Queen of Parisian Cuisine,” featuring suggestions such as Le Petrossian 144, Paris, where the head chef is Rougui Dai, a Frenchwoman of Senegalese decent. There are more than 2,000 French restaurants in Paris. Of the 400 that the Michelin Guide found worth listing, only 77 receive one of their coveted stars. And of those starred restaurants, only one has a black, female head chef: Le Petrossian 144.
Des Cuisses de Grenouille: Frogs’ legs, by Alyssa Glawe who brings to us another life-changing culinary experience from France. During her first extended stay in Grenoble, France, she experienced escargot (snails). This past year she mustered enough courage to try des cuisses de grenouille in Paris. Recipe included for Sautéed Frogs’ legs: Cuisses de Grenouille à la Provençale, courtesy of Saveur.com.
For the love of yaourt (yogurt), by Michelle Hum who writes about her love of French yaourt: a tangy, creamy, dairy product that can stand by itself —although a dab of honey or handful of fresh fruit never hurts. Recipe included for Gateau au Yaourt au et au Citron (Lemon Yogurt Cake) by Ina Garten.
Escargot. Don’t judge a snail by its shell, by Alyssa Glawe who shares this first time, life-changing culinary experience at Paris’ oldest restaurant, La Petite Chaise, where she was overwhelmed by the taste of butter, garlic, and herbs. Recipe included for Escargot with Garlic Butter, courtesy of LifestyleFood.com.
Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.