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 still strikes me as odd how a seemingly nondescript food item can be turned into an art form once 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 was seeded red fruit in it. One lone jar typically sat forgotten in the door of the refrigerator until I remembered to pull it out. It had the status of something easily ignored, possibly moldy.
Within the first year after our move, I experienced what can simply be called 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 sharply when you find that confiture in no way resembles Welch’s-fructose-sugar-product in a jar. Yes, it comes in jars, but the first difference is that there are shelves upon shelves dedicated to the myriad brands and flavors in every market or shop. The second difference is that you want to savor, remember, and talk about what it tastes like.
One day, while wandering about in Paris, I discovered a small shop completely dedicated to “Les Confitures”. This specialty store, stocked floor to ceiling with out-of-this-world-taste-sensational jams, was not in my normal shopping district. But it is spectacular. Now I plan excursions across town to pick up a jar, or two, or three.
What is it about jam in France that turns 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 even looking at the label. The sweetness is not overly sugary and very subtle. It tastes like pure, sweet, fragrant fruit in spreadable form.
Sometimes confiture can even taste like flowers. At a breakfast buffet in a chateau 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 bore names like Violettes de Provence, Cerise Grillotes, Oranges Améres, Lait Confiture, and Roses Confit. I tried four of them on the good fresh bread being served. Each tasted more exceptional than the previous one. Those named after flowers were exactly as you would imagine a violet or rose would taste. They even had what looked like pieces of flower petals mixed into the jellied consistency. Lait Confiture was light caramel in color and taste. It was notable for it’s exquisitely creamy texture that made you want to close your eyes and hum. This summer when my nephew was visiting from the United States, I watched him quietly stir one spoonful of Beurre Lait Confiture into his black coffee each morning. A creative tasty pleasure, indeed.
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 seedy 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 baguette. Sometimes we have the good round bread from Poilâne bakery. On the round marble-topped table goes a clean cloth. From the refrigerator comes a special pottery container. It is filled with confiture transferred from its original jar to this more festive, 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, with a pot of confiture as centerpiece.
Recently I learned something new about enjoying fine confiture from a young boy. Nico, ten-years-old, lives in Strasbourg, and stayed overnight with us one weekend.
His mother and I were chatting over coffee 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 became 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 the spoon. Then he smoothed the entire surface, back and forth, back and forth, for about three minutes until it was evenly and completely covered. All the way out to the very edges. Not a millimeter of bread showed through. It looked beautiful. Like a rosy still life painting. Once satisfied that it was perfect, he began to eat. For Nico, nothing was more important than preparing his toast and confiture, just so.
It reminded me of a story MFK Fisher wrote about Lucullus, the gourmand from ancient Roman times. He was reputed to host lavish, elaborate banquets that were noteworthy in reputation. Yet even a solo dining experience was important to him. Once, when served a meal where “he was conscious of a certain slackness” in the repast, 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.” Now, right in front of me, it was clear that Nico was dining with Nico. With full attention and pleasure.
We stopped talking and simply watched as the second piece of toast was readied. With no less concentration, each meticulous motion was repeated: smilingly scooping out jam, pressing it in, painting in long strokes until it completely reached the edges. His mother asked him, in French, what he was enjoying more, his toast or his confiture. There was no need to answer. Nico’s contentment was visible right down to his little boy soul.
- La Chambre aux Confitures
- Specialty Epicerie
- 9, rue des Martyrs, 75009