What to put on toast in the morning was not something I thought much about for most of my life. That is, until four years ago, when we moved to France. It strikes me as interesting how a seemingly nondescript food item can be turned into an art form when you step outside your normal way of experiencing it.
Most jams and jellies in North America are found in the supermarket aisle alongside peanut butter or honey. They can be chosen by color, flavor or, in my case, if there is seeded red fruit in it. One lone jar usually sat forgotten in the door of the refrigerator until I remembered to pull it out. It had the status of something easily ignored and possibly moldy.
Within the first year after our move to Paris, I experienced a “jam epiphany”. Students in French language courses learn “la confiture” is something to spread on the breakfast baguette or to stir into plain yogurt for dessert. Outside of class the learning curve rises steeply when you discover that confiture in no way resembles Welch’s-fructose-sugar-product in a jar. Yes, it comes in jars, but the difference is there are shelves upon shelves dedicated to the myriad brands and flavors in every market or shop. Another difference is that you want to savor, remember, and talk about what the flavors taste like.
While wandering about Paris, I discovered a small shop completely dedicated to “Les Confitures”. This specialty store, stocked floor to ceiling with out-of-this-world-sensational jams, was not in my normal shopping district. Now I plan excursions across town to pick up a jar, or two, or three. I send visitors there to buy gifts to take home.
What is it about jam in France that turned my head around? For one thing, each jar tastes exactly like its name–-to the ingredient. You can close your eyes and identify the fruit from which it is made without looking at the label. The sweetness is not overly sugary, but subtle. The taste is pure, sweet, fragrant fruit in spreadable form.
Sometimes confiture tastes like flowers. At a breakfast buffet in a château hotel in Normandy, I zeroed in on an arrangement of seven jars in a perfect circle of color, each with it’s own long handled spoon. They had names like Violettes de Provence, Cerise Grillotes, Oranges Améres, Lait Confiture, and Roses Confit.
I tried four of them on the fresh bread being served. They were all exceptional. Those named after flowers tasted as you might imagine a violet or rose would taste. They had what looked like pieces of flower petals mixed into the jellied consistency.
Lait Confiture is light caramel in color and taste. It was notable for a creamy texture that made you want to close your eyes and hum. When my nephew was visiting from the United States, I watched him quietly stir one spoonful of Beurre Lait Confiture into his coffee each morning.
I have written before of my love for French butter imbedded with crystals of sea salt; how I spread it daily over toasted pieces of grainy baguette. On the weekends, breakfast has a different routine. My husband and I share a leisurely petit déjeuner in the small eating area overlooking the vine-covered courtyard of our apartment building.
He starts the coffee and begins making a plate of toasted pieces of baguette. Sometimes we have the crusty bread from Poilâne bakery. On the round marble-topped table goes a clean cloth. From the refrigerator comes a special pottery container filled with confiture transferred from its original jar to this colorful one. The flavor is whatever is on hand: mango, fig, strawberry/rhubarb, wild blueberry, pear, or simply “fruits rouges”, red fruits. Weekend breakfasts are when we indulge pleasurably—when there is time to sit and read, or converse quietly, without rushing out the door. It’s a sweet formula we have come to love.
I learned something new about enjoying fine confiture from a young French boy. Nico, ten-years-old, lives in Strasbourg, and stayed overnight with us one weekend.
His mother and I were chatting when he arrived at the table to have breakfast. I served him a small wedge of Spanish omelet and two pieces of baguette toast. While our conversation continued, I was distracted by Nico’s approach to his food.
He looked into each of the two open jars of confiture and smiled to himself. Next, he scooped a generous amount of strawberry/rhubarb jam onto a piece of toast. With patience and precision he pressed the fruit of the confiture into the larger holes of the baguette, using the back of a spoon. Then he smoothed the entire surface, back and forth, back and forth, for about three minutes until it was evenly and completely covered out to the edges. Not a millimeter of bread showed through. It looked beautiful. Like a rosy, still life painting. Once satisfied, he began to eat. For Nico, nothing was more important than preparing his toast and confiture, just so.
It reminded me of a story M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about Lucullus, a gourmand from ancient Roman times. He had a reputation for hosting lavish, elaborate banquets. But a solo dining experience was just as important to him.
Once, when served a meal where “he was conscious of a certain slackness” in the food, he became annoyed. When the summoned chef protested, “We thought there was no need to prepare a fine banquet for my lord alone…”, Lucullus responded icily, “It is precisely when I am alone that you pay special attention. At such times, you must remember, Lucullus dines with Lucullus.”
At my kitchen table, Nico was dining with Nico. With full attention and pleasure.
We stopped talking and watched as the second piece of toast was readied. With no less concentration, each meticulous step was repeated–smilingly scooping out jam, pressing it in, painting long strokes from edge to edge. His mother asked him what he was enjoying more, his toast or his confiture.
There was no need to answer. Nico’s contentment was visible down to the bottom of his little boy soul.
- La Chambre aux Confitures
- Specialty Epicerie
- 9, rue des Martyrs, 75009