My favorite French word is dégustation. It used to be grenouille until I realized how difficult it is to pronounce if you are saying it correctly (which I still can’t). Dégustation means you can try just a little bit of everything, whether a wine or chocolate or gelato or pesto mousse (more on this later). The direct translation would be savoring a taste – it is important to capture the appreciation and pleasure of eating revered by the French and Francophiles alike.
Rue d’Italie, the main street of the Quartier Marazin, is where Aix’s bourgeoise reputation really comes to life. A few days ago, Corinne and I ended up traipsing down the vieux rue in search of a used bookstore, instead getting distracted by all of the specialty food shops on the way. She is a great person to have around, because she is so outgoing with shop vendors and is always ready to ask question or tell a story about where foods come from and where to find the best product possible.
Our first stop was La Chambre aux Confitures. The shop is lined with every confiture you could ever imagine, from raspberries and champagne to crème de calisson and apricot. They also have honeys and caramels that are absolutely divine – Corinne offered to buy a pot for me, and I knew that if I chose the best-salted-caramel-I-have-ever-tasted I would spend the rest of the afternoon eating it with a spoon. I chose cassis instead – delicious with a morning tartine, but not so enticing to merit eating it like a bear with honey.
Going into a shop like La Chambre aux Confitures is when you really realize that Toto, you aren’t in America anymore. The jars of confiture have upwards of 80 percent fruit in it, instead of artificial flavorings and preservatives (not to be confused with preservatifs*).
Once we had eaten about a jar full of confiture on little tasting spoons, we stopped in an Italian specialty store, L’Italien. Fresh raviolis and bruschetta and canolis lined the window, but the best thing the store had to offer was hidden from the window : pesto mousse, recette à la maison. Corinne quizzed the vendor about what might be in the mousse, and every time she got close to figuring it out, the vendor would say, “Sorry, house recipe. It’s a secret.” What he would tell us was that there is no crème fraiche to make it more like a mousse…maybe goat cheese?? It was trop bon and part of me wants to just spend the rest of my time in France tasting it and trying to recreate it, like Monica with Phoebe’s secret chocolate chip cookie recipe from Tollhouse.
In the back of the store is a mini Italian delicatessan, where Corinne convinced the man to let me taste proscuitto di parma, probably one of the most expensive hams I have ever eaten. At 140 euros a kilo (!), my sampling was probably worth about 5 or 6 euros. Absolutely astronomical, but it’s easy to see why – it wasn’t stringy or chewy and wasn’t covered in fat, and was almost creamy in gout. Miam.
Our last stop was the fromagerie on Rue d’Italie. I am fairly familiar with fromageries (and often consider them my troisième maison), but generally only buy goat cheese and pecorino. Many of the cheeses in the shop were from the region where Corinne grew up, so she knew all about the taste and ate the rind like a pro as I tried to delicately eat around it – prompting the fromager to say, “You know you can eat all of that, right?” (Yes I know this…I just don’t like to).
I was dreaming about all the sucré and salé adventures on this impromptu stroll for days, only wishing I could afford to shop at all those stores every day, like a true Aixoise. One day. ♦
*”Préservatifs” in French means condom. Many of us have gotten weird looks from saying things like, “In America our food is full of préservatifs!” Conservateurs is the word we are looking for.