Shopping in France opens the door to such a splendid variety of regional traditions, gastronomy and crafts that it would take much longer than one lifetime to explore them all, but the fun is in the trying! Here are a few items that are hard to find anywhere but France.
They are bright and cheerful and will remind you of your travels in the sun. The colours of Provence in the South of France are echoed in the fabrics, which can be used for everything from tablecloths and aprons to little lavender sachets or cushion covers. You’ll find them in most large village markets and also in specialist stores in Provence.
Not just any salt. You can find specialty cooking salts in most gourmet shops everywhere… but in France they take their salt seriously. On the package, the exact region and method of harvesting will be specified. So if it says fleur de sel de Guérande, for example, the premium mineral has been hand-skimmed from the thin layer of crystallised salt on the surface of the Guérande marshes in Western France. Chefs swear by it, and it makes a lovely gift for the foodies back home.
Nothing says summer like a sundress and a pair of Tropéziennes. The iconic, leather sandal born in the French Riviera is a favourite of top models and celebrities. While look-alike styles are pretty and fun, the original has a look and feel that can’t quite be imitated, owing to the know-how of makers like Rondini, in Saint Tropez, who have been making these exact same shoes with choice materials for over 90 years.
The ‘green fairy‘ was legalised in France a few years ago, so you can find the distinctive bottle of the impish spirit and the special spoon used to hold the sugar lump you pour the drink over.
The French linen bed sheets, striped tea towels, napkins and curtains of yesterday have now become desirable antiques, sought after by treasure hunters in flea markets and vide-greniers. It used to be traditional in France for a young woman to build up her trousseau before marriage, often embroidering their own initial long before engagement and leaving space to add the intertwined initial of their intended later on. They varied in quality and motifs, depending on the purchasing power of the family and the region, but they invariably add a chic, country accent to your home décor.
The town of Grasse, set high above Cannes, is the capital of perfume. It is not only a charming town to visit, but it is also possible to create your own signature fragrance during workshops and demonstrations offered by the main perfume houses.
Of course, you can find French mustard pretty much anywhere, but it’s not this kind of mustard that concerns us. The specialty shops in Dijon and Beaune, the cradle of the famous condiment, and the finest gourmet stores in the country offer varieties you’ve never heard of that are only available here. You’ll find fresh mustard on tap and charming little jars with flavours such as blue cheese, chanterelle mushroom with sorrel, or mustard with Marc de Bourgogne, the local pomace brandy.
The French are proud of their wines, to say the least, and the sheer scope and variety of wine paraphernalia you’ll find in French shops are second to none, from professional sommelier tools to wine-centred implements for the home. Some of these specialty items are hard to find anywhere else, like the quirky champagne cosies you find in gift shops of champagne houses, to keep your bottle chilled for your picnic, or the shipping cases to protect your bottle in transit that come in original shapes and styles, making for a most memorable gift.
A little jar, can, or tube of crême de marrons de l’Ardeche, made by Clément Faugier, has been a classic in French homes since 1885. It’s a delicious paste made of steamed chestnuts, chestnut flakes, sugar and vanilla. Spread it on toast or crêpes, use it as a topping on vanilla ice cream, or as a filler between the layers of a chocolate cake.
When you enter the kitchenware section of a large shop or an old-fashioned quincaillerie, it feels like stepping into another century. You can find cleaning utensils and kitchen accessories that you never knew existed, plus the traditional Opinel or Laguiole knives, Madeleine molds and pans, tiny cocotte pots, you name it.
One of the wonders of shopping in France is the very special universe of parapharmacies. Sometimes found as a standalone, or sometimes as part of a formal pharmacy where you get your medicine, the parapharmacy covers that transition between the strictly medical and the sphere of wellness and beauty care. A large part of the value of a parapharmacy is the knowledgeable ‘secret’ advice that is passed on by the pros, so it pays to listen carefully and stay open to suggestions. Some staples to stock up on are Embryolisse, a light face moisturiser that is found behind the scenes on every fashion shoot, Cicalfate, the magical eraser of blemishes and scars, the calming Biafine lotion for sunburned or irritated skin, and an endless number of great quality and inexpensive skincare and hair care that will keep you coming back for more.