We spend this Valentine’s Day busily doing household chores and running errands. After we were finally done, a last quest took us to the chocolatier. Not just any chocolatier, but our very own neighborhood chocolate maker “La Chocolataise” on Cour National, the main road through town just two blocks from our house. True to form we received our purchase in a pretty “sac”, a paper shopping bag.
Shopping bags and gift wrapping have their own culture à la française, as I first experienced in 2008. My mother, one of my sisters and I were traveling through the South of France. One day, in the small town of Puylaurens in the Tarn department, we stepped into the “Pâtisserie Périé“, a pastry shop filled with sweet delights made in house by pastry chef and chocolate maker M. Christian-Marc Périé. We selected just a few pieces of chocolate art, not a large or very special order, yet we were asked if it was meant to be a present. When I confirmed, the sales person created the most beautiful gift package out of folded and twisted glassine paper and ribbon. Naturally this chore took extra time, but none of the other customers expressed irritation at the delay, only voicing approval and admiration for her skillfulness. Her efforts in turn paid respect to the chocolatier’s work. So, how could his clientele possibly begrudge a little extra wait time?
Our Valentine’s chocolates were also prettily presented in a box with a lovely bow. The name of our local chocolate shop borrows from the name of our region, the Charentaise. Any reference to one’s region is important in France. Le terroir, strictly speaking means a vineyard, but the emotional implication encompasses the land on which one was raised and everything else therein. It represents a significant part of oneself as a person. I found this brief explanation of “terroir” in google translate. It seemed quite to the point: “Literal-minded fundamentalists love to call terroir the soil and climate of a specific vineyard, but in truth it’s about husbandry, about sensitivity to place and its careful management so that the best of things can be delivered of it.” Therefore, all matters of one’s home area, including historic events, cultural aspects and traditions, food and food preparations are cherished. To make the point that their sweets are lovingly hand-made right here, the chocolatier cleverly combined Charentaise and chocolate to Chocolataise. As I mentioned in previous posts, the Frenchies also love word play!
“Les sacs” are quintessential for the process of shopping in France – as long as you do your shopping the traditional way, in individual boutiques. If you buy your shoes, your prêt-à-porter, your stationary, books, make-up, mobile phone or your extra special bottle of wine in a neighborhood boutique, your purchase will be presented to you in a glossy paper sac.
Most paper bags are made of recycled pulp, as are many other paper products. Rarely if ever, will you run into a non-biodegradable plastic bag. Least of all in a grocery store. None of the stores where you shop for groceries or household goods, be that a convenient store or a supermarket chain will supply you with the means to carry your purchases home, unless you also buy a reusable bag. We usually keep 3 or 4 really large bags in the car for shopping at the extensive commercial center on the outskirts of town, and we have another couple of bags on hand for walking to the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker. Quite often, you see people at the supermarket check-out, who put their purchases back in the shopping cart, item by item, to transfer them directly to the trunk of their car. And speaking of shopping carts or “chariots” as they are called here, you’ll need a token or a one Euro coin to release a chariot from its chain in the glassed in corrals in the shop’s parking lot. One only gets the money back, if one attaches the cart to its chain again after shopping. Hence, you never ever encounter shopping carts littering parking lots like you do in the US.
What you do encounter, especially on market days are a bunch of us old ladies with our rolling shopping bag contraptions dragging home a bounty of fresh veggies and maybe some oysters.
For Saint Valentin, we bought lettuce & raw vegetables with cold cuts & cheeses at the market, to be followed by our special chocolates.
And we had a rainbow. Of course.