Uniquely French Gifts
Finding charming French gifts for a local French host or for overseas family and friends can be a challenge. To ease the angst of gift shopping in Paris, I’ve scoured the city, taken advantage of free samples, dropped some cash, and, most important, taken note whenever hearing a French person enthuse about something. (Spoiler alert: that something is usually either chocolaty or smelly.) Anything edible and described as hallucinant (mind blowing, or what appears to be “hallucination inducing”) is a must-have.
If the word mustard makes you grimace rather than drool, chances are you are not French. This tangy, sometimes spicy spread is often served with steaming, fresh-off-the-grill cuts of beef, duck or pork. The famous brand Maille has a shop at la Madeleine with a surprising feature unknown to many French people—at least the ones allergic to downtown tourists. In addition to the endless rows of colorful and creatively marinated mustards in jars lining the walls, the shop offers fresh mustard served on draft, squeezed from a tap just like beer. With three tempting flavors always on tap, such as Chardonnay, dry white wine and Chablis, you also have a choice of sizes, the smallest being 110 milliliters for 11–13 euros. Containing no preservatives, these healthy mustards remain fresh for one or two weeks, so wait to purchase them until the day of gift giving if possible. For longer-lasting options, a multitude of jarred mustards come in classy and quirky containers, with sweet flavors like orange ginger, blueberry and apricot with dried curry, plus more savory flavors like basil, lemon garlic and grilled onion with thyme.
Where to get it: 6, Place de la Madeleine, in the 8th Arrondissement.
Michel Chaudun Chocolate
With Esmeralda, grenadine, truffles and other exotically named morsels arranged amid an edible sculpture garden, this chocolate shop is a delicious trove of innovative flavors and sweet works of art. I was drawn inside after noticing a conspicuous electric drill in the window display and realizing in total amazement that it was in fact made of chocolate. Inside, rows of chocolates with imaginative fillings were surrounded by other shelved sculptures of goddesses, animals and cocoa pods. Pacing the store like it was a museum and taking in the artifacts, I saw objects that had blended into the wooden walls reveal themselves: horseshoes, saucissons, cigars, colorful paint trays and mini Eiffel Towers. With sculptures of nearly every hobby, you can easily personalize a gift. You can fill a box of chocolates by handpicking from dozens of varieties, from liqueurs to nuts to fruits, creating a gourmet selection sure to please even the pickiest of hosts.
Gaining fame over his 26 years of business, Monsieur Chaudun was the first to sell chocolate containing crushed cocoa seeds (the shell surrounding cocoa beans). A bag of this delectable combination is what I took home and praised for the following week. Monsieur Chaudun explained that the majority of his customers are like me, wanderers attracted to the irresistible, but his biggest sales are for weddings. His record sale was an order from the queen of Bahrain that came to 270,000 euros; he created 60 giant-size eggs and 600 boxes of chocolates for her son’s wedding. Currently the priciest item for sale is a giant egg at 1,490 euros; the cheapest items include chocolate rings at only 4 euros.
Even without a website or an e-mail address, Michel Chaudun is all over the web and proclaimed by fans to be one of the five best chocolatiers in the world.
Where to get it: 149, rue de l’Université, in the 7th Arrondissement.
Breizh Café Spreads and Cider
This little shop and épicerie brings the traditional treats of the northwestern region of Brittany (Bretagne) to Paris. The crêpe capital of the world, Brittany produces the most unforgettable sweet spread: caramel with salted butter. Stock up on jars of this delicacy and devour it with fresh sliced strawberries and a dollop of vanilla ice cream. Grab a jar of the light chestnut spread in consideration of those without such a sweet tooth. Likewise, Breizh offers a choice between sweet or dry cider, with various regional brands across the impressive bottle display.
You will also find special mixes of buckwheat flour for whipping up galettes—savory crêpes to be filled with grilled vegetables, ham, fried egg and cheese. For more unique items, scan the back shelves for fruity chutneys and seafood spreads, to be slathered on thinly sliced and toasted baguettes or crackers. These jarred goodies cost between 5 and 8 euros. Then take a seat and treat yourself to a fresh crêpe right in the middle of the épicerie.
Where to get it: 109, rue Vieille du Temple, in the 3rd Arrondissement.
La Fermette Cheese
For the very best and freshest cheese in town, a waltz through the neighborhood open-air markets (marchés) is highly recommended. I am a loyal visitor to the Belleville marché (near the Belleville metro, held on Saturday, Tuesday and Friday mornings), but all locations and schedules citywide can be found on the official website of marchés in Paris.
Inevitably, my French boyfriend acts like a kid in a candy shop and picks out the moldiest, slimiest cheeses for sale, but as I am heavily persuaded by presentation, I always go for the vendor’s fermier goat cheese. Set atop a dark green leaf, this cheese is creamy white, shaped like a hockey puck, and reeks like a damp goat—all of which will appeal to your French hosts. As for family members back home, they are likely to wash any pungent cheese down with ample wine; it’s illegal to carry cheese across borders anyway.
If you miss the morning window, there are still ways to get your cheese on a leaf. Many cheese shops, including la Fermette, offer a large spread of colorful cheeses in all the shapes and smells of those at the marché. Prices vary with the wide selection, but 3–6 euros will get you a rich family-size hunk of most types.
Where to get it: 86, rue Montorgueil, in the 2nd Arrondissement.
Pierre Hermé’s Macarons
Perhaps the most obvious of gifts, the macarons at Pierre Hermé are well worth the rage. Delectable and very Parisian—these cream-filled cookies were originally created for Marie Antoinette—this gift has the aesthetic bonus of brilliant colors representing the endless array of flavors: crème brûlée, orange blossom, caramel with salted butter, strawberry . . . and that’s just to name my favorites. Pierre Hermé even has a line of Christmas macarons, easily recognizable by their shimmering shells, as if covered in gold dust: a mixture of chocolate and foie gras (the famous fattened duck’s liver), and another combination of eglantine (sweetbriar), chocolate and foie gras. At once moist, crumbly and fluffy, the macarons at Pierre Hermé are bursting with flavor and leave other competitors far behind.
Assorted boxes make for a vibrant gift, though rough transport should be avoided in order to keep these crumbly cookies neatly intact. If the price surprises you (a box of 12 for 25 euros), take comfort in knowing that these rich, supersweet cookies go a long way.
Where to get it: multiple locations, including 72, rue Bonaparte, in the 6th Arrondissement; visit the Pierre Hermé website for other addresses.
Marchés of Paris
Struck with wanderlust at an early age, Tori Evans studied in Australia to try to get as close to as many deadly things as possible, then moved to Alaska to see how often she could get lost in the wilderness, and then to Egypt to get caught in a revolution. Now a resident of Paris and bound in the mysterious PACS (Pacte civil de solidarité) with the French man she picked up in Cairo, she is set on exploring the thrills of the City of Light. Check out her three years of culture shock, scuba diving and horseback—and donkeyback—desert riding in Egypt at www.torievans.blogspot.com and at her new French blog.
Editor’s note: A GG2P Travel Club membership makes the perfect holiday gift for your favorite Francophile!