As a child I was introduced to St. Valentine’s Day at school like many other American kids. The entire class would run around the room placing colorful valentines and small bits of chalky heart-shaped candies (that our mothers had bought for us at Woolworths) on each other’s desk. This developed into a more serious ritual in the seventh grade after I developed a crush on a boy named Robert O’Kronley. Much to the embarrassment of this 12-year-old boy who scarcely acknowledged my existence, not to mention my teacher who watched me with disapproval, I offered a hand-inscribed card and a heart-shaped box of chocolates to Robert. Later, in high school, after receiving my first satin Hallmark card and heart-shaped box of Whitman’s chocolates, I discovered Valentine’s Day was even more fun when you played by the rules and let the boys do the offering.
I was a bit disappointed when I arrived in Paris. Hardly anyone observed this beloved event. Up until the last decade, there were no banners, no cards, no paper hearts planted all over the stores. Surprisingly, in a country where people like to think of themselves as the world experts on love and the adulation of women, the celebration of Valentine’s Day was left up to the discretion of a handful of husbands and boyfriends who vaguely knew the significance of the day. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Americana began to seep into the veins of this culture, that French merchants awaken to the potential commercial benefits of selling “Le Jour des Amoureux” to their countrymen.
Though some progress has been made, it is still not a day shared with children. So you’ll be hard pressed to find dimestore packs of valentines and cheap candies stamped with messages like “Be Mine.” However, flower merchants like Monceau Fleurs (11, bd. Henri IV, 4e; 60, ave. Paul Doumier, 16e; 92, bd. Malesherbes, 8e; 2, place du General Koenig, 17e), where the quality is high and prices are reasonable, do a thriving business on Valentine’s Day. Understandably, roses are hot items and are likely to be sold out fairly early on the day. Before you run out to buy a dozen, learn the color code: Many of the French hold fast to the symbolic meaning of the rose’s color as defined by legend. Pink means he’s fond of you while red stands for passionate love. It is customary to offer an odd number for good luck. White stands for chaste love; a man will rarely offer yellow roses, which symbolize infidelity.
You can carry this floral conversation even further with the help of “Le Langage des Fleurs du Temps Jadis” by Sheila Pickles (a lovely gift idea in itself, available at the Virgin bookstore). This hardback book published by Solar, with its scented pages of poems and lovely reproductions of paintings, is a treasure chest listing 43 flowers and their symbolic connotations. About the only thing the book forgets to mention is that one should never offer chrysanthemums…which are usually reserved for grave sites.
Most candy manufacturers are still not exploiting Valentine’s Day to its full potential. Heart-shaped wafers and even heart-shaped boxes of bonbons are extremely rare here. On the other hand, you can find more exotic chocolates that don’t exist in the States, like those with zapped with a good shot of cognac, fruity liqueur or potent spirits. In addition, a choice of French, Swiss or Belgian chocolate is plentiful everywhere.
For the most part, the French are purists, preferring the unadulterated bittersweet variety over milk chocolate. The 50-year-old company behind the highly touted Valrhona label boasts a product with up to 70 percent pure cocoa and a minimum of sugar. The best and rarest cocoa beans from Latin America, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean are ground and blended to create a unique gastronomic experience. Where other manufacturers extract and sell the cocoa butter to cosmetics firms, Valrhona works it back into the chocolate for a highly rich product that is made to be savored in small quantities. The company puts out a box called “Collection” signed by Sonia Rykiel (a member of the “Croqueurs de Chocolat,” an association of chocolate connoisseurs). The individually wrapped dark chocolates are separated into three different intensities of cocoa concentration: 61, 66 and 70 percent.
Among the places Valrhona chocolates can be found is La Maison du Chocolat (52, rue Francois 1er, 8e), an elegant shop selling exquisite French chocolate in all its glory, from candies and pastries to ice cream. Recognized as one of the world’s best confectioners, Robert Linxe sells sweets that are a chocoholic’s dream: high in cocoa content, low on sugar and with just enough crème fraiche to make the whole thing delightfully decadent and smooth as satin. In addition to handmade filled bonbons, there are truffles, macaroons, caramels, beans and sugared chestnuts as well as gift items.
Americans as a whole prefer the sweeter, milk chocolate. If that’s true for you, you’re in luck – Belgian chocolate (a treasured confection in the States) is easy to find and, for the most part, not overly expensive. Godiva (237, rue St. Honoré, 8e) sells divine chocolate valentines and heart-shaped ballotins, but the prices are as high as the presentation is beautiful. Your best bet is to head for the Belgian chains of Léonidas (66, bd. St. Germain, 6e) and Daskalides (21, rue Daguerre, 14e), which have chocolate shops all over the city. The latter sells small heart-shaped chocolates filled with lemon peels and kirsch. The cheapest place for Belgian chocolate (90F a kilo) is Chocolatier de Paris (25, rue Campo Formio, 13e), and you might also want to check out Etablissements Dupleix (72, bd. de Grenelle, 15e), a wholesaler offering rock-bottom prices to the public and usually stocked with Lindt, Weiss, Valrhona and other varieties of chocolates and confections.
There are unusual gift ideas in chocolate around town if you take the time to look. For example, Jadis & Gourmande (49 bis, ave. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 8e, tel: 42.25.06.04) sells edible letters of the alphabet, which you purchase by the box (115F or 155F) to spell out your undying love in chocolate. Even more original is a handmade chocolate mask from Le Furet (63, rue Chabrol, 10e, tel: 18.104.22.168. The masks are very reasonably priced (45F to 130F) but must be ordered 48 hours in advance.
Hey, fellas, lingerie is a gift everybody gets to enjoy (wink, wink). Some of the most beautiful undies in the world are made in France. It’s just that you pay through the nose for your pleasures. That hand-tied lace-encrusted silk lingerie at Dior or Nina Ricci can cost hundreds of dollars. (That’s right, I said dollars.) Even mass market brands like Dim, Chanterelle and Rosy are not exactly cheap. I’ve paid the equivalent of $20 for panties the size of a postage stamp and $30 for a bra the size of…two postage stamps. (Murphy’s Law of Lingerie: the smaller the item, the higher the price.)
Personally, I like being tempted to spend my life’s savings on some peachy, silk satin little nothing with lace inlays and wisps of chiffon that cover. If for no other reason than to dream about what you’ll buy when you come back with Liz Taylor’s money in your next life, you must take a peak inside Natoli, a chi-chi lingerie shop tucked away on 7, place Vendôme, 1er. Within the black lacquer walls of this jewel box of a shop, you’ll drool over bustiers dotted with seed pearls, black silk satin nightgowns with pastel floral appliqués, matching robes and slippers, wicked little lacy underwire corsets and richly embroidered je-ne-sais-quoi that can be worn for those (w-w-w-i-n-k) informal evenings at home or a hot date in a disco. You can get the same exhilarating high within the European boudoir atmosphere of Sabbio Rosa (71-73, rue des Sts. Pères, 7e). But don’t spoil the experience by looking at the price tags in these stores. Sticker shock could be severe.
After you come back down to earth you can either wait and catch a good sale at Galeries Lafayette or Printemps, when everything is usually marked down by 30 to 40 percent, or hit the discount stores. I’ll be honest. You will not find “low prices” as we know them in the States. Instead of $50 for a bra and $15 for the panties, you might spend up to $50 for the set at the two following stores. If you don’t mind rummaging though the chaotic bins, you can find some rather pretty “close-out” merchandise at permanent “sale” prices at Tab Degriffe (2, rue du Pont Neuf, 2e). Vetco Diffusion (54, rue d’Enghien, 10e), in the Sentier district, looks like a regular boutique with prices marked in the window ranging from 20 to 50 percent off normal retail value.
By the way, anyone looking for Valentine’s cards will find them at WH Smith (248, rue de Rivoli, 1er) and Brentano’s (37, ave de l’Opéra, 1er).