Presenting: Tips for the best shopping spree in the world.
From trendy Paris to the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera, France is known for its style. While there’s a definite emphasis on luxury here, there are plenty of ways to shop without breaking the bank. And although it’s somewhat disconcerting to see Gap stores gracing major street corners in Paris and other urban areas in France, if you take the time to peruse smaller specialty shops, you can find rare original gifts that serve as the ultimate French souvenirs. Here are some things to add to your shopping list.
The one question on all our minds: Can you pull off a beret if you aren’t actually French? The only thing we know for sure is that you should definitely try. French couture designer Laulhère has been making the disc-shape hats since 1840. If you’re in Paris, stop by their boutique at 14–16 Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré to pick up a unisex merino wool Genuine Beret (Béret Véritable), a steal at €75. Or splurge on the €740 Béret Belle de Jour, a wool and cashmere black beret, with individually made flowers of wool, satin, and pearls, sewn by hand. There are plenty of other small shops throughout the country that you can browse to find the perfect French addition to your wardrobe.
There’s a sweet tooth and then there’s the Calissons d’Aix, a candied fruit treat topped with ground almond and icing sugar that was first served in 1473 at the second wedding of King René. In the 16th century, as almond trees started to grow around the Aix-en-Provence region, production of the diamond-shape morsel took off. The strict method of making Calissons has been protected in France since 1991, but by the time it took French manufacturers to file a global trademark bid at the Protected Geographical Indication, the trademark had already been snapped up by the Chinese. In 2017, the French Union of Calisson ultimately blocked the Chinese trademark registration, and the darling of Aix returned to its rightful owners. Today, you can find the candy in plenty of stores throughout Provence.
It’s all in the detail, and in 1830, some 4,000 people were employed in the Chantilly area north of Paris to make traditional handmade bobbin lace, which remains en vogue to this day. From Kate Middleton’s wedding dress to the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, the delicately woven textile features intricate black (sometimes white) floral motifs often outlined in a cordonnet (a heavier but untwisted matte silk or linen thread). Look for Maison Sophie Hallette, whose family has been weaving tulles and other fabrics in Caudry and Calais laces since 1887. By the way, we can also thank Chantilly for the invention of whipped cream (aka crème Chantilly).
Perhaps surprisingly, France isn’t the biggest consumer of chocolate in the world; that honor goes to Switzerland where more than 8 kg per capita of chocolate was consumed in 2017. France actually ranked 20th (4.3 kg), right behind the United States (4.4 kg). Still the French do love their chocolat noir. The first chocolate shop in Paris, À la Mère de Famille, opened in 1761 at 35 Rue du Faubourg and is still there in all its old-time glory. In the southeast of the country, look for chocolate olives.
The capital of the Burgundy wine region, Dijon has been recognized for its mustard-making since King Philip VI first used the pale yellow condiment in 1336. Made from white wine and mustard seed, which is grown as a cover crop beneath the rows of grapevines to provide them with nutrients, these mustards accompany many dishes. The most famous brand, the Grey-Poupon label was created in 1866 by Maurice Grey, who built a machine that made it faster to produce mustard, and Auguste Poupon, another mustard-maker who acted as a financial backer. Vegan alert: Dijon mustard is vegetarian, but the wine used to make it may be filtered with animal products.
Herbs de Provence
This rock star of spice blends is always a crowd pleaser. Along with the usual suspects of thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf, other herbs that can be in the mix are oregano, basil, tarragon, marjoram, savory, sage, fennel, and dill, all grown in the southeast of France. The omnipresent Herbes de Provence became popular thanks to Julia Child, who included a recipe for Poulet Saute aux Herbes de Provence in her iconic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. However, there is no guarantee that your herbs are really from Provence because the name doesn’t have Protected Geographical Status, so your best bet is to buy direct from a local Provençal market.
Driving through the lavender fields of Provence should be on everyone’s bucket list. During the summer bloom, you’ll see endless rows of vibrant purple lavandin, or French lavender, a hybrid created in 1920 for the French perfume industry. The less fragrant lavandin produces almost five times more essential oil than true lavender, with 1 ton producing 25 to 40 liters. That’s plenty to scent the pretty soaps and candles that visitors shop for, along with the creams and aromatic sprays that can act as disinfectants or help with sunburned lips, dry skin, insect bites, and nausea. But remember: only the label “PDO (AOC or AOP) Lavender Essential Oil” tells you that a product has authentic lavender essential oils from Haute Provence.
Buying art in France requires confidence on two fronts: to get past the judgmental looks when you walk in a gallery, and to not be bullied into buying something that’s not what you actually want. Instead, head to the streets of France to find a perfect piece of local artwork. If you’re in Paris, head to the city’s tallest hill, Place du Tertre, which has attracted local artists for more than a century (although for Picasso, Renoir, and Van Gogh, the appeal may have been Montmartre’s tax-exempt wine laws). Normandy’s fishing ports Honfleur and Le Havre, where Monet painted Impression, soleil levant in 1872, continue to inspire artists, who sell their work on the city streets. Inside the fortified walls of St-Paul-de-Vence is a tableau vivant, cobblestone streets dotted with sculptures and lined with galleries and ateliers selling their art.
While the olive oil product in France doesn’t quite match the likes of Italy, Spain, and Greece, the French choose to emphasize quality over quantity. Historically, the town of Roussillon has been the country’s leading olive oil producer, creating high-quality, aromatic, and organic olive oils. Visit Domaine les Fonts for a tasting and an oil grove, too. French olive oil is also for sale in many stores and street markets.
Follow your nose to the microclimatic town of Grasse, north of Cannes. Here you’ll find the perfume capital of the world, thanks to Jean de Galimard who first invented fashionable perfumed gloves to cover the nauseating smell of tanners (those who regularly tanned and skinned leather hides). Two-hundred-and-fifty years later, the $49.4 billion global perfume market is booming like never before. But why choose from more than 8,000 perfumes on the market when you can create your own scent? Galimard, Fragonard, and Molinard all offer Make Your Own Perfume workshops, varying from 20-minutes to four hours (which includes a champagne break).
From the moment Picasso met Suzanne and Georges Ramié in 1946 at their ceramics factory in Vallauris in Provence, the pottery industry in France would never be the same. Picasso produced 633 original pieces over 23 years, and the Madoura workshop still attracts art enthusiasts eager to see his clay masterpieces. With the bonus of clay rich soil and hot sun, many villages in the region continue to pay tribute to the country’s earthen cookery history, especially in Provence where you find the emblematic sunshine-yellow-color water jugs and two-part olive bowls.
Provençal Fabric and Place Mats
It’s next to impossible to choose between the Provençal place mats or the matching tablecloth, so just buy both. Known as les indiennes, these colorful cottons date back to the 16th century when they were first imported from India to Marseille. The material was so popular with the high bourgeoisie that in 1686, French textile manufacturers in Lyon were so worried about going out of business, they ordered an import ban. This led to Armenian craftsmen coming to France to create similar patterns that you still see today on everything from tablecloths and napkins to clothing and ceramics.
Get out the dental floss, here come les caramels. A beloved French treat, the buttery and chewy caramel takes rich to a new level. Wanting to make a name for himself in the world of confectionary, Henry Le Roux came up with salted-butter caramel, which won the 1980 Best French Candy at the International Confectionery Fair in Paris. The following year, CBS (Caramel au Beurre Salé) became a registered trademark. In addition to the classic, there are seasonal flavors, from black sesame to piña colada. The big-name stores are the chains of Maisons Le Roux in Paris and Pâtisserie Bechard in Aix-en-Provence, but hand-crafted salted caramels can be found at most chocolate shops, too. For the kids, pick up a bag of Carambar individually wrapped caramels at any grocery store.
New on the gourmand circuit is the chickpea-based Socca Chip, created by Niçois chef Luc Salsedo in 2016. It may look like a nacho chip in shape, but these crunchy snacks are 100% natural (and gluten-free), made from chickpea flour, olive oil, salt, pepper, and sunflower oil. These are the same ingredients for making socca, Nice’s version of a pancake. There are now lots of knockoffs, but Salsedo’s Socca Chip is authentic and perfect for sampling rosé or any apèro. In March 2019, the chef launched the organic SoccApero, a liquid batter in a bottle that simply requires adding water to make your own socca at home.
Bordeaux or Burgundy, Sauternes or Sancerre, Romanée or Côte du Rhône, all throughout the country, the great wine regions of France attract hordes of travelers with just one thing on their minds: wine. But the fact is you can buy the bottles of the most fabled regions anywhere, so why not nab a bottle to bring home from one of the lesser-known local crus from, say, the lovely vineyards in the Loire Valley, Bergerac, or Languedoc.