Berthillon opens in the morning with at least 32 of their fabled ice cream and sorbet flavours. By the time they close they might have 10 left. Ice cream aficionados from the world over make their pilgrimage to the small shop hidden at the tail end of the Ile St. Louis. They fervently murmur the names of their favourite flavours - melon, peach, blood orange, and the nearly mythical strawberry of the woods - fraise des bois. As they approach the narrow storefront, their eyes scan anxiously over the nameplates on the flavour board. They're often with generations of family in tow, some who've only heard the legend, but all feverishly whispering their flavour prayers.
I have not been one of the faithful. I first tasted Berthillon ice cream in the fall of 2000 - one of the coldest and rainiest in recent Parisian history. I thought it was good, but not great, with scoops too small and relatively expensive. After a sit-down visit inside I perceived inhospitality towards my dog, so I wrote them off. I joined the opposing ranks - those who defame the ice cream house's name - decrying their long lines, slow and rude service, and stingy portions of overpriced, uninspired ice cream.
In fact, just recently, when over the course of two days off, I decided to taste what I believe are some of the most important ice creams in Paris at the moment, I left Berthillon off for last. After tasting nearly 30 ice creams in less than 48 hours, I expected Berthillon to be flat and confirm my dismissal.
I confess - I was wrong. I was surprised to find that Berthillon not only impressed my overwrought taste buds, but also offered an unsurpassed sensuality. I was lost, but now I'm found.
Above you see my chocolate ice cream on the left, the darker chocolate sorbet on the right, and fraise des bois sorbet on top. Click on the photo to see all the day's flavours.
Founder Raymond Berthillon has long said that the flavour by which all ice cream should be judged is vanilla. It is the mantra of purists. I understand, and while I've worked with some of the finest and most alluring whole vanilla beans available on the market in my gastronomic training, for me, there is but one personal standard - chocolate.
At each shop I tasted their chocolate ice cream, chocolate sorbet if they had one, and one other flavour - either their signature or most popular creation.
At Berthillon, what struck me first was that the texture of the scoops was impeccable. Soft on the tongue, remaining firm at the center, holding shape beautifully, while yielding to the warmth of the mouth. I found tiny, whole, frozen fraises des bois in the sorbet - tart, vivid flashes of its wild nature. The chocolate ice cream was the ideal - silky, rich, and comforting in its milky chocolate. But it was the chocolate sorbet that left me breathless - uninhibited by cream, it drew me deeply to the dark side.
I spoke with Monsieur Berthillon's granddaughter, Muriel Delpuech, at the shop. Her mother works mornings - she works until close. Like keepers of the faith, there's always a family member watching the store.
She told me that during last year's vacation closure they were finally able to expand into their longtime neighbor's space - Berthillon celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. They opened the new salon de thé - tea salon - at last year's rentrée - or return - from summer vacation in September. They also renovated their existing space - moving the pastries and blocks of ice cream and sorbets by the liter towards the back. Most importantly for the majority of visitors, the family was finally able to add a second scoop station in front. The lines are still long - reaching down the street and around the corner on warm and sunny days - but they now move briskly. It's only after clients receive their blessed cones that they still slow, absorbed, and then drift away.
The new flavours this season are a peach and mint sorbet and a thyme and lemon sorbet. There have been over 70 flavours in 51 years, with only one notable failure - a peanut ice cream back in the 90s. While that sounds enticingly like peanut butter to Americans, the French are no fans of our lunchbox staple.
At the height of their summer production, Berthillon will make one thousand liters a day. They'll sell 500 liters alone at the boutique. The remaining 500 will be scooped in and around the city. The family has no desire to increase production much less become an international brand.
Muriel's favourite flavour is vanilla - fraise des bois when it's in season. She has a 5-year-old daughter - fourth generation in the Berthillon family. Her favourite? Vanilla too. Purists.
Me - I might be saved but I'm still a heathen. I want that chocolate sorbet and I want it now.
31 rue St. Louis en L’Ile
Métro Line 7/Pont Marie
01 43 54 31 61
Open 10:00 to 20:00. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Cones or cups cost 2 euros for one scoop; 3 euros for two scoops; 4 euros for three scoops. 20 centimes extra per scoop for fraise des bois - only available in the summer - and marrons glacés - glazed chestnuts - only available the winter. Cones are for takeaway only.
The boutique will close from 17 July until 01 September 2005 for their annual six week vacation, but production will continue - ensuring fresh Berthillon ice cream and sorbet in and around Paris all summer long.
This is the first in a summer series on ice cream in Paris.
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