Paris Hotels Articles

July 18, 2010

Glorious Gourmet Food in Paris – Part III

If there’s one thing the French know how to do well, it’s food. Food is more of an art (and for some, a quasi religion) in France, and so I knew I would be remiss in my duties to readers of if I did not go and seek out Paris’s finest gastronomic glories for you. Sampling the following is not an option – it’s a must!!!

This third part, for the icing on the cake (no pun intended), brings you two more Parisian gastronomic wonders, with first a dessert: Berthillon’s simply outstanding range of ice creams and sorbets on the charming St-Louis island.

And Now for a Spot of Dessert…

I think it’s safe to say that Berthillon sets the standard for ice cream and sorbet… Not only in Paris, but all of France – and quite possibly, the world.

Berthillon’s typically Parisian ice cream parlor is located right in the middle of the Ile St-Louis, a small island on the Seine River which is itself a major tourist attraction. The St Louis Island is a charming little miniature Paris with quaint restaurants and hotels. In the early 20th century, its inhabitants fancied their specificity, and ’seceded’ from France to become the ‘Republic of the St Louis Island’. One of those French loopy ideas!

Most of the food stores, tea parlors, and restaurants on the St-Louis Island advertise that they stock Berthillon ice cream. Yet there’s only one Berthillon tea parlor. The company is owned and operated by the Chauvin family, descendants of the eponymous Monsieur Berthillon who opened the first shop in 1954. The parlor is smart, wood-paneled inside and out, an elegant version of Friendly’s in America.

Berthillon sells its ice cream in bulk and by the scoop from its parlor, but many other retailers in Paris sell their ice cream in cones and cups, and some grocers sell larger amounts.

Any guilt you may feel at indulging can be laid to rest because Berthillon’s fame derives in part from its use of natural ingredients. Their sweets contain absolutely no chemical preservatives, sweeteners, or stabilizers. The ice cream is made with nothing else than milk, cream and eggs, and the flavorings are natural: cocoa, vanilla, fruit etc.

In terms of flavor, we go way beyond ‘Chunky Monkey’ and ‘Fish Food’. Get ready for something altogether more refined and, in the final analysis, much more tantalizing for the old taste buds (which should be stimulated rather than assaulted). We’re talking pear sorbet that tastes to me more of pear than an actual pear does; green apple; wild strawberry (”fraise des bois”); coffee; honey nougat; prune Armagnac… All to die for.

Keep in mind that the French don’t scoff, they ‘déguste’ (savor with relish) – so if you’re expecting large Ben & Jerry’s portions like you get in the US, you’ll be disillusioned. But then again, that may not be so bad as far as our waist-lines are concerned…

Unfortunately, Berthillon’s excellence is no secret. There is always a long line of eager customers no matter when you go, and it’s even worse during hot weather. Trust me though, the trip is worth it.

I do like their hours though – open from 10 am with a late 8 pm closing time, I know my evening cravings will be catered for – well, at least from Wednesday to Sunday, as sadly they are closed the rest of the week. Also, much to my chagrin, I found out the place is not opened for business during a large part of the summer holidays (a relatively common occurrence in France). Yet all is not lost since we can always get our Berthillon fix from the other ice cream shops and tea parlors on the Island!

For a taste of Bertillon’s habit-forming, gourmet glories, get onto Ile Saint-Louis: walk down the left side of Notre Dame; at the back of the Cathedral, cross the bridge to your left onto Ile Saint-Louis; then, hang a right on Rue St-Louis en l’Ile, and go to number 31 on the right side of the street. Or go by Metro and get off at the Pont Marie station, and cross the bridge. When you get to the central street of the island, make a hard left, and the shop stands right there, on the opposite sidewalk.

Go Organic Parisian Style

Paris is renowned for its local street food markets, which can be found in nearly every one if its quartiers (districts). The Rue Cler market is a very famous one, the Rue de Levis is another one almost as famous. The wonderful symbiosis of ‘traditional and parochial’ with the ‘grand and capital’ undoubtedly lends Paris its unique character.

Personally, Parisian street markets appeal to me because they offer a rare respite from the bland, cookie-cut supermarket retail experience and because, just like the proverbial box of chocolates in Forest Gump, ‘you never know what you’re gonna get’. Not only do I always seem to discover something I never even knew existed, but the quality and freshness of the produce is high and the whole experience in general is less clinical and more… well, fun.

Parisian open street markets usually operate off touristy alleys and are held either on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The stalls get set up early in the morning, and the end-of-day sales begin in the early afternoon, although timing really does vary from one market to the other so I recommend doing your homework, and checking the schedules published by the city hall of the local district.

Of all of them, the organic Marché de Raspail is probably my favorite. It is held on Sunday mornings from 9:00 am to 1:30 pm on the center divider along Boulevard Raspail, between Rue de Rennes and Rue du Cherche Midi (stop off at the Sèvres Babylone metro station).

The Sunday Marché de Raspail caters only to organic (’biologique’ or ‘bio’) food, and many of its products are just a cut above the rest. Indeed, French fresh produce are renowned, and I must say that every time I come back to Paris, I’m quite baffled to find that I actually forgot what a real cucumber tastes like…

The market’s stalls number about 100 and are spread out over 200 yards, and they are run by anybody and everybody – from organic producers to various resellers, and some pretty interesting characters!

They sell just about anything that’s organic. I walked away smugly with some very rustic lavender honey, loads of cheese and a delicious organic chicken that was roasted before my very eyes…

The service is usually very friendly. You will appreciate the way French vendors actually bother to ask when you actually plan to eat their produce. They can select it for you accordingly (i.e. so that it ripens neither too early, nor too late).

All in all, a healthy treasure trove, well worth getting up early for on a Sunday morning – even if only for an education in what fresh fruits and veggies are actually supposed to taste like…

The Raspail non-organic market runs on Tuesdays and Fridays, between 7:00 am and 2:30 pm.

Once again, the Marché Raspail can be found in the 6th quarter, on the corner of Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Rennes. Closest metro station: Sèvres Babylone.

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