29 December 2009

Chez Berthillon

Photo by Dan Guller. Used with permission.

Among the gustatory delights of Paris, few rank higher than the ice creams and sorbets at Berthillon, reputedly the finest to be had in the capital. Since I’m not a fanatic, I haven’t sampled any of Berthillon’s ice cream (only a few of the sorbets), much less the wares of every other purveyor in town — so I can’t judge too strictly. But I can safely say that Berthillon’s is the best sorbet I’ve had in France — and indeed anywhere else on earth. Whenever possible, I make a point of bringing visitors to the Ile Saint-Louis, the tiny island just to the east of the Ile de la Cité and the backside of Notre Dame de Paris; it’s an ice cream paradise where the house of Berthillon reigns supreme.

Treasure: What appear to be cherry, tangerine, and mango sorbets.

Beginning in 1954, the Berthillon family has run its business from a salon de glace there on the Ile Saint-Louis, but since the restaurant is always packed to the rafters, I’ve set foot there only once in my life. Ordinarily, I join the ranks who line the Rue Saint-Louis-en-Ile to purchase my Berthillon on the sidewalk. Berthillon has a couple of windows open to the street, and many other licensed vendors on the island sell Berthillon products, whether in cafés or from windows, as well.

For such is Berthillon’s reputation that the entire island is known for its ice cream, and a magnet for other brands that capitalize on Berthillon’s renown by selling their ice cream all along the street. As a consequence, you should look closely for the Berthillon name before making your purchase — or else you can judge by the length of the line of waiting customers. The longest lines are for Berthillon products; the shortest are for other brands.

Eric James (far right) awaits the joys of Berthillon, May 2007
Photo by Dan Guller. Used with permission.

The key difference lies in the ingredients, and Berthillon rightly boasts of the freshness and wholesomeness of its products. All the milk and eggs and most fruits come directly from the market at Rungis; the more exotic varieties of fruit, as well as the chocolate and vanilla, are scouted and shipped from farms around the world. Heaven forbid Berthillon should use a preservative or coloring or an artificial anything. In practical terms, however, this means that many flavors are seasonal, and once the stock of cherry sorbet (for example) has been depleted, it won’t be replenished until the next year.

The devotion to choice ingredients doesn’t entirely explain the intensity of the flavor, however. Berthillon’s cassis sorbet, one of my personal favorites, exudes a muskiness, beyond the sweetness of the fruit, that speaks not only of blackcurrant berries but also of the leaves and soil and sunlight. One taste, and everybody else’s cassis sorbet will seem forever dull and rather puny.

In the shop, you can order more elaborate ice cream dishes, with plenty of crème Chantilly and cookies, as well as other sorts of desserts. Yet for this purist, the real pleasure of Berthillon consists in strolling along the Rue Saint-Louis-en-Ile, which retains so much of its antique charm, then buying one’s cone and sitting on the retaining wall overlooking the Seine, in the shade of the plane trees.

This is especially nice to do in hot summer months, but naturally the Berthillon folks, being Parisian, take vacation in August, precisely when you want their ice cream most. Right now, when Paris is cold and damp, you can get all the Berthillon you want.

So what? Don’t most great pleasures require a small sacrifice of comfort or of convenience?

In the Salon de Glaces, with one of my godsons, March 2008.

For your edification, I’ve copied the list of flavors from the Berthillon website:


Agenaise [Agen prunes]
Banane [Banana]
Café au whisky [Coffee with a shot]
Café Dauphinoix [Coffee with something else in it]
Cannelle [Cinnamon]
Caramel au beurre sale [Salted-butter caramel]
Caramel au gingembre [Ginger caramel]
Chocolat au nougat
Chocolat blanc [White chocolate]
Chocolat du Mendiant [Chocolate with nuts]
Chocolat blanc du Mendiant [White chocolate with nuts]
Chocolat noir [Dark chocolate]
Créole [Pineapple? Rum? Tropical, anyway]
Feuille de Menthe [Mint leaf]
Gianduja à l'orange [Chocolate fudge with orange]
Gianduja aux noisettes [Chocolate fudge, with hazelnuts]
Lait d'amande [Almond milk]
Moka [Mocha]
Marron Glacé [Candied chestnuts]
Noisette [Hazelnut]
Noix [Walnut]
Noix de coco [Coconut]
Nougat au Miel [Honey nougat]
Pain d'épices [Gingerbread]
Pistache [Pistachio]
Plombières [Tutti-frutti (not plumbing ladies!)]
Praliné au citron et coriander [Candied nuts with lemon and coriander]
Praliné aux pignons [Candied pine nuts]
Réglisse [Licorice]
Thé earl grey [Earl Grey tea]
Turron de jijona [Spanish nougat]
Vanille [Vanilla]


Abricot [Apricot]
Ananas [Pineapple]
Cocktail Exotique
Cacao extrabitter [Extra bitter cocoa]
Cacao au whisky [Cocoa with whisky]
Cassis [Black currant]
Citron vert [Lime]
Cerise [Cherry]
Figue [Fig]
Fraise [Strawberry]
Fraise des Bois [Wild strawberry]
Framboise à la rose [Raspberry with rose]
Fruit de la passion [Passion fruit]
Framboise [Raspberry]
Groseille [Red currant or Gooseberry]
Litchees [Lichi]
Mandarine [Tangerine]
Mûre sauvage [Wild blackberry]
Mûre de framboisier [Blackberry from a raspberry bush]
Myrtille [Blueberry]
Mirabelle [Small yellow plum]
Mangue [Mango]
Menthe [Mint]
Orange sanguine [Blood orange]
Pamplemousse rose [Pink grapefruit]
Pêche de vigne [Wild peach]
Pêche [Peach]
Poire [Pear]
Pomme verte [Green apple]
Reine-claude [Small green plum]
Rhubarbe [Raccoon or possibly muskrat]


win&baguettes said...

I'd like to try pamplemousse rose.

Girl From Texas said...

Oh God - now you've done it ! I'm gonna be Jonesing for one of those...till I can trot over there and get some !

Jeanne said...

I have tried many of the ice creams and sorbets, with and without chantilly, chocolate sauce... Savion eats no dairy and is very adventurous in his sorbet experiments.and he agrees, absolutely the best sorbets in France.
One of my favorite days there, the cafe was almost empty and all the staff sat at a back table peeling mandarins for sorbet. The whole shop was awash in that scent.

William V. Madison said...

Pamplemousse rose is one of the flavors I've sampled, and it is indeed pretty darned special.

ABC in WFT said...

How COULD you so cruelly denigrate
the lowly rhuba'b? I'll bet you a cone that it's fabulously good!

William V. Madison said...

I wondered whether anybody would read all the way to the end, ABC! And surely the rhubarb is tasty ... especially to the palates of those who like rhubarb. (I'm indifferent to the flavor, myself.)

Late Blooming Mom said...

Do you know I have managed to get to Berthillion every single time I have been in Paris? But somehow managed to order no sorbet? Clearly this must be rectified and a trip is in order. Happy new year and thanks for bringing up my sense-memories of one of the most delicious spots on the planet.