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Wednesday, March 08, 2006


So, you think you know ice cream. You've dabbled in Maggie Moo's, dawdled in Marble Slab, drooled over Cold Stone. You've even had gelato in Genoa, salivated over sorbetto in Sicily. You and ice cream are old friends, going back to the days of scraped knees and tennies, flying higher than your best friend in the swings, sitting crosslegged on the floor at jacks, kickin' butt and takin' names. It got you through tonsils, breakups, and many a late night gab session. You know ice cream.

Honey, you only think you know ice cream. Take it from me, if you haven't had the ice cream at Berthillon's, that stuff you call ice cream is merely a shadow. Essence of ice cream. Merely a hint of the confectionary wonder that ice cream was meant to be. And to get Berthillon's, you have to go to Paris, to the Île Saint-Louis, where you will stand in a long line of pilgrims, fidgeting, salivating, waiting for that one shining moment when you are finally seated and the waitress comes over to ask your choice, when you - dazed from the seemingly hundreds of flavor choices on the menu card before you (there are actually only 30something) - will garble out "pamplemousse rose et pomme verte" with no inkling of the culinary joy about to make its way to your table.

But I get ahead of myself.

Berthillon opened on the Île Saint-Louis in 1954, the brainchild of Raymond Berthillon, who clearly understood the need for insanely good ice cream. Monsieur Berthillon had just sold his bakery, and he and his wife had moved to be closer to Madame Berthillon's mother, whose husband had recently passed away. To amuse the neighborhood children, Mr. Berthillon churned ice cream in the small ice cream maker he'd kept as a reminder of his former bakery. A stickler for quality, he eschewed additives and artificial ingredients in favor of 100% natural ingredients he brought fresh from the market: milk, cream, eggs, cocoa, fruit, vanilla - and called his treats the sorbet of the sultans. (There are no preservatives or sweeteners in Berthillon's frozen treats, either.) In 1962, two food critics, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, discovered Berthillon and included in their restaurant guide "the surprising ice cream maker who hides on the Île Saint-Louis."

Berthillon's fate was sealed.

One visit to the picturesque shop in the rue Saint Louis makes it plain to see why. When I first made my way there July 12, 2003, I had no idea what awaited me. I thought my friend Marie-Pierre had brought me to a bookstore; all she had said was that we were going to Berthillon. I rounded a corner to see a delightful facade of gorgeously rich strawberry-blonde wood with old-world gold lettering spelling out "Berthillon" above the door and narrow front windows. It was mysteriously incongruent, straight out of the 17th century, squeezed into stolid, dove-grey masonry, apartment windows with black, wrought iron railings lining the building face above it. There was - as there is nearly all year long - a line of people waiting to get in, but we made it to the front of the queue and got the very last open table, a tiny two seater sandwiched in among so many other tiny wooden tables. The waitress was harried and brusque, but I had time to survey the astounding array of choices, from ice creams with outrageously rich-sounding names like caramel with ginger, Grand-Marnier, nougat with honey, and coffee with whiskey, to refreshing sorbets like ruby red grapefruit (my personal favorite, like, EVER), green apple, and wild blackberry. I chose the coupe-de-deux, a 2-flavor combo, and it came in a silver bowl perched above a plain white plate, covered with whipped cream and fruit, and it was sheer heaven from the very first bite. I made those two scoops last a very, very long time.

Mixed in among the exotic flavors of lemon-thyme, fig and earl grey on the menu, there are also flavors to put the least adventurous ice cream seeker at ease. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry all wait...to be teamed with seemingly just about anything else you can think of. The menu also changes with the season, so you're sure to find something new to try each time you visit. But you'll have to do it before the summer heat and tourists arrive in Paris; in some weird, dessert variant of Murphy's Law, Berthillon closes up shop just before mid-July and doesn't open again until October or so. It is still a family-owned business - Monsieur Berthillon's daughter, Marie José, married Bernard Chauvin, and now their children run Berthillon's - and like any sensible Parisians, the family vacates the city during the tourist months of summer.

For those who like to dine while they stroll, Berthillon (bair-tee-yone) also serves its ice cream to go, in cone or cup. The ice creamery is open from roughly October through June and half of July, Wed - Sunday, from 10am to 8pm. It is located at 29-31 rue Saint Louis en l'ile, on the Île Saint-Louis. (75004 Paris) The nearest Metro exit is Cité, but I horribly can't remember which direction you proceed down rue Saint Louis en l'ile. I've never been there by Metro! (But I think you go east.)
Telephone #01 43 54 31 61.



Blogger Chad said...

now that's some good ice cream

12:06 AM  
Anonymous jenie said...

i love it. :) the texture is part of the experience, too, I think. so creamy. :)

7:39 PM  

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