"It's a real family affair around here. We make everything in the same way that my grandfather taught it us to a T—at our own pace, of course," says Muriel Delpuech, Raymond Berthillon's granddaughter, who is now the head of the famous ice cream maker's shop in Paris's Ile Saint Louis neighborhood. "For me, a producer who doesn't consume his own products is a jerk," adds her father, Bernard Chauvin.
With a hairnet on his head, this trained ice cream maker knows what he's talking about: He has monitored the Berthillon machines since 1968—first with his father in law, then with his son, Lionel. Together, they take special care in choosing their suppliers and pay them regular visits in order to see how they grow the fruits that will become their precious raw materials.
The Berthillon saga started a few years before Bernard's arrival. After the death of his father-in-law in 1954, Raymond Berthillon left everything behind as a baker in order to run the family hotel and restaurant on the Ile Saint Louis. Since the café wasn't really his cup of tea, he spent his time in his culinary lab—a modest set up with a stove and an ice cream maker— tinkering with sorbet recipes.
At first, Raymond's initial customers were kids from a nearby school on the Ile Saint Louis who would run over after class, fighting for a place in line in front of the freezer, which was set up right on the sidewalk. Soon those same children started bringing their parents on the weekends, and "one day a certain Mr. Gault and Mr. Milau came for a taste—they liked it and started talking about us. That's how it started," Muriel tells us with a smile.
On this July morning, she agrees with her father that France is not a nation of ice cream connoisseurs. "For me, a real ice cream aficionado is someone who comes and gets one in the dead of winter, not someone who waits until it's hot outside," says Bernard, smiling. Nonetheless, around 1,000 liters of ice cream leave the premises every day, to fill up the shop's display cases and accompany desserts in the 140 restaurants that offer Berthillon creations on their menus.
The "partner" resellers are all located in Paris or in Ile de France, with two exceptions: "Chez Sénéquier in Saint-Tropez, and a hotel that's in my father's family, in the Jura department," explains the woman in charge. It's all family, now and forever.
People can't get enough of Berthillon ice cream because each of the more than 70 flavors is evidence of the producer's obsession with exceptional products. "We take pride in doing everything ourselves. For the caramel ice cream, for example, we make the caramel and the ice cream base. We buy whole pistachios, crush, and roast them for our pistachio flavor. This means there can be variations in flavor from one day to the next—and that's because there is a real human touch to everything around here. There's no stabilizers or emulsifying agents," explains Muriel.
Muriel, a dynamic woman in her forties, has her father and brother manning the stoves and the turbines every day to make the ice cream from scratch. Their day begins at 3 AM and ends at noon, which is when the ten or so employees have lunch together. Under the Berthillon roof, some traditions can't be shaken. And vacations in Aveyron may just be the most unshakeable of them all.
For a long time, the ice cream makers would allow themselves the luxury of closing up shop for two months every summer in order to go to Mur-de-Barrez as a family. "These days, we only close for a month, but the destination is always the same," shares Muriel. "Same thing in February, sometimes even in November."
Another household tradition is staying true to artisanal practices when almost everywhere else, ice cream producers use and abuse sugar and preservatives, making flavor less of a priority. In a sector where brand development and economic constraints can sometimes trump flavor or ethics, Berthillon is an anachronism.
The famous wild strawberry sorbet—a house specialty for nearly 60 years and counting—is perhaps the greatest symbol of that old-world craft. The rare flavor, which was created in the late 1950s, has its own legendary tale. At the time, Raymond Berthillon—who went out to buy produce every morning at the Halles Baltard—brought back a case of wild strawberries in his wheelbarrow, immediately pissing off his wife Aimée-Jeanne, who handled the finances and knew how expensive the product was. For her, it was a waste of time and money. That was, of course, until she tasted it.
"Making ice cream with wild strawberries is complicated: There's a lot of work involved with these tiny fruits, and you have to take out all the seeds," explains. The sorbet that came out of the kitchen that day, though, was an instant success, and the wild strawberry flavor became a Berthillon classic. "We pay 16 to 18 euros for a kilo of strawberries. They're so rare and expensive that it's not profitable, but it's become our specialty, our most popular ice cream. If we stop now, there'll be riots," laughs Muriel.
The rare commodity is delivered once a week (twice a week during peak season) on a plane from Malaga, where they are grown. "A few days ago, a customer brought back a cup of wild strawberry ice cream because he'd found a tiny worm in it. He was complaining, saying that he could have been poisoned. But it's no risk to your health. It's just nature."
Every flavor has its own history—a little anecdote that's either tied to Raymond Berthillon's wheelbarrow, Lionel's inspirations, or Bernard's concoctions. "We try to respect the complexity of each fruit and not take the easy route by piling on a bunch of sugar. My greatest pleasure is to see a customer savoring our black currant ice cream, being transported into the bushes, picking and snacking on the fruits." Bernard turns thought into action and offers a taste of a few of their classics: cherry sorbet, which he uses the pits to give a little acidity, a white peach sorbet that is both fresh and light, and a mango-based creation, which is smooth as can be.
And then there's the best-seller: vanilla. Over 200 liters of the singular flavor need to be produced every day. Prepared with a mixture of beans from Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and Tahiti, it is by far the patriarch's favorite. According to him, this is the yardstick that we should measure the skills of an ice cream maker.
While some basic flavors remain staples, nothing is stopping Bernard, the ex ice cream maker, from trying out new recipes when the opportunity arises. "A few years ago, my wife told me about a fish dish that was served with an amazing roasted pineapple and basil sauce. When I made my first attempts to make it into an ice cream, she got mad at me—there was too much basil and not enough pineapple. It took me a little time, but now, the flavors are just right."
Some say that people from Aveyron are stubborn, and Raymond Berthillon seems to have passed this virtue down to his children and son-in-law. It seems that Berthillon has no plans to change. And that's a very good thing.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES France.