Shopping for jam, cheese, and honey on the rue Vignon
For lovers of food on a gastronomic pilgrimage to Paris, one of the addresses not to be missed is the Place Madeleine. Fauchon, Hediard, la Maison du Truffe, Michel Guerard's new Comptoir Gourmand -- these are only a few of the establishments that make the streets facing the Church of the Madeleine famous in the world of good eating.
Those shops are so well known, however, that they tend to eclipse others in the neighborhood. One street that falls in the shadow of the great square itself is the rue Vignon, a narrow thoroughfare by the side of Fauchon's stand-up coffee bar.
Anywhere else, rue Vignon would be a mecca inits own right, for lovers of sweets and of cheese, at any rate. Three of the small shops on that street are among the best of their respective kinds in Paris.
Walking away from the Place Madeleine, on the right-hand side of the street, we come first to No. 18, Tanrade. The house of Tanrade has been in business for over 250 years and is still run by the Tanrade family. It specializes in almost anything for the epicure with a sweet tooth -- preserves, fruit candies, chocolates, and so forth, with countless subdivisions in each category.
One of the first things that catches your eye as you enter the shop is a whole wall lined with beautiful crockery jam jars, each handsomely labeled. You ask the scholarly-looking gentleman in a beige lab coat what they are and he replies with wistful pride, "Two centuries of memories!"
During those two centuries Tanrade has been keeping a library of one jam a year, a wonderful, if probably an inedible, record of the firm's history. It is a living history, for the two dozen or so different jams made today by the Tanrades in small quantities are prepared according to the same recipes and with the same care and techniques that they have always used. The house's integrity is immediately discernible in its product, and Tanrade preserves are typically French in that they are looser in consistency than their American counterparts, but they are head and shoulders above the crowd in the clarity of the fruit as it stands out from the sweetness of the jam.
If I had to choose a favorite from among flavors such as Reine Claude plums, Mirabelle plums (just two of the several varieties of plum jams), fig, black currant, pear, and four-fruit, it would have to be Peches Rouges de la Vigne, a jam made of an extraordinary peach which puts any other I've run across to shame , both in texture and flavor.
Across the street and down the road a piece, at 21 rue Vignon, we find La Ferme Saint Hubert, the shop of Henry Voy, maitre fromager affineur, or master cheesemonger and refiner. Mr. Voy's job is to know which farmers and other small producers throughout France are making the best cheeses, to get hold of their products when young, and then painstakingly to raise them in his cellars, bringing them up to his small narrow shop only when they are at their absolute peak of taste and texture.
In doing this job as well as he does, he is able to juggle more than 195 kinds, which go in and out of season in the course of a year like fruits or fishes. Each has its own requirements; and he is still able to keep his shop filled each day with cheese ready to eat at dinner that night.
When you visit Henry Voy and ask him, "What's good today?," you are likely to be faced with a couple of score of cheeses, most of them made on small farms by traditional methods.
There are cheeses made from cow's, sheep's, and goat's milk and ranging in fullness of flavor from the mild fresh fromage blanc to the big strong cheeses like reblochon. And there are those made from young goat cheeses, which, while tasty, do not overpower, to long-aged goat cheeses, which are admittedly an acquired taste.
Besides cheese, La Ferme Saint Hubert stocks the best of France's butters in huge blocks, fresh from the dairies; new-laid eggs from free-range chickens raised on good old-fashioned grain instead of feed pellets; thick cream with the tang characteristic of French cream; and breads from the shop of the man many people consider to be the best of Paris's bread bakers, Poilane. In the past year, Mr. Voy has decided that he'd like to serve lunch, so he has built a little counter next to the entrance at which three or four people can sit elbow to elbow eating Mr. Voy's cheeses and butter spread on Mr. Poilane's bread.
Back across the street again to reach No. 24: La Maison du Miel, the House of Honey. There is a very different feeling about this shop. No master this or that is apparent on the premises. Here we have a simple repository of the finest merchandise: honeys from all over France, plus a few other countries to round out the selection to an even two dozen.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all honeys are, if not alike, at least along the same lines of flavor: This is easily disproved by a quick five minutes at La Maison du Miel, tasting a few of the various regional honeys and honeys from the pollen of specific plants. They range from smooth and, well, honey-flavored, like the blended honeys common here in the United States, to highly distinctive, with floral, herbal, or nutty overtones. It is amazing how different a honey made from, say, rosemary blossoms can be from one made from the flowers of a linden tree.
So the next time you are in Paris in search of gifts of food for the folks at home, or for yourself, do not stop short at Fauchon: Keep going, and have a stroll down the rue Vignon.