There are many things that have confounded me since moving to Paris two years ago (!) this month. There’s the eternal quandary of when to “tu” or “vous” someone; dealing with all that cigarette smoke while dining a la terrassse; and, of course, the fact that many shops are closed on Sunday. And Monday. (And possibly any other day of the week just because.)
But nothing mystifies me more than the supermarket yogurt aisle. It’s long. It’s wide. It’s filled with brand after brand of variations on fermented milk and bacteria with various names and percentages of…variations on fermented milk and bacteria. I walk down it, humbled by its fermented glory, and go directly for the Fage Greek yogurt or the Dannon vanilla because, quite frankly, they don’t scare me.
But how silly? This is a country who clearly prides itself on its milk-fermenting and curdling ways. They don’t just eat the stuff for breakfast. In fact, the French eat some form of the stuff for gouter, which translates to that time of day when children are brought to coffee shops for a late afternoon snack, during which they will interrupt your late-afternoon work or reading session and make you want to pull your hair out. Slowly. It’s also eaten for dessert and often topped with cream and confiture.
Rather than continue to walk the yogurt aisle with a look of stupor on my face, I decided it was time to dig a little deeper and go beyond Fage and Dannon. Thankfully, I am not alone in my befuddlement, so I enlisted the help of my fellow expat and friend Amy who is also bewildered by the options. During an admittedly slow work week, we gathered at chez moi in Montmartre for a tasting session, with her French boyfriend on-hand via text with necessary explanations for how, why, when and what-the-differences?
We began by acknowledging that while there are definitely a high percentage of Parisians who only buy artisanal yogurt from farmers at their weekly market, the majority of the population probably hits up their local Monoprix (or Carrefour or Franprix or Insert Local French Food Chain here). That said, since we didn’t want to go broke or be wasteful by OD-ing on dairy, or screw with our bowel movements for the rest of 2016, we chose French brands that were not mainstream, nor too local. Fage, Dannon and Activia were out (but HOLY COW what a selection because, as it turns out, Dannon began as Danone founded by a Spaniard who had been inspired by the fermenting milk process in…wait for it…Paris!)
Once we decided the brand type, we scanned the aisles for the main yogurt categories to taste. Upon closer look, it appeared there were fewer choices than we realized, but rather a shitload of brands who make them and, of course, marketing ploys and variations on each (such as fat, flavor, toppings or sugar percentages, etc.). Here is what we stuck to:
Now, keep in mind that none of these come with explanations (least of all in English). If you don’t know “brebis” means sheep or “chevre” means goat, well, baaaaa-baaaaa bad luck for you. Some tout “nature” while others just tout “yaourt,” but both are one in the same. (Because, of course.) Nature, essentially, means plain; as in, this ain’t no vanilla or blueberry-flavored situation.
In our minds, we chose (clockwise from top left): plain sheep’s milk yogurt, fromage blanc, plain goat’s milk yogurt, plain cow’s milk yogurt and low-fat plain cow’s milk yogurt.
Key words being “in our minds.”
See, two of our choices featured words we didn’t recognize and therefore chose to ignore: la faisselle and caillé. We chalked them up to brand details and bought them anyway, but later found out such words connote different processes that change the taste and consistency.
Furthermore, while “fromage blanc” literally translates to “white cheese,” it is about as cheesy as cottage cheese, which is to say not at all—at least not in the traditional cheese sense in that it’s not super stinky, chewable and does not pair well with wine.
While we’re on the subject of cottage cheese, I miraculously found one stand-alone container during this research trip, but had yet to see any in my previous shops over the last two years, which is unfortunate as I like to eat it with strawberries. (Mom tip!) Same goes for sour cream, which pairs well with bananas (another Mom tip!) and is essentially crème fraîche—despite the fact that if a recipe calls for crème fraîche in the States you would not go buy sour cream. You would buy crème fraîche.
Someone’s making a mockery of us, people.
Editor’s note: While a draft of this post sat open on my browser for a few weeks, I told several people about this experiment. Each person, a few of whom were French, responded with an: “Oh, what about X?” or “Did you try Y?” and “You can’t forget about Z!” leaving me to realize that we didn’t, in fact, go deep enough. Furthermore, our inability to recognize and translate “la faisselle” and “caillé” may have skewed our completely unscientific taste test.
That said, back to Monoprix I went to buy different kinds of yogurt like brassé and le petit suisse; this time including brands such as Danone, but avoiding anything touting caillé and la faisselle, which I will explain in detail below. (I know. The suspense is just too much. Hang in there.)
This left us with a total of 9 variations on French yogurts to taste and attempt to differentiate between. Without further ado, I give you:
Brand: Le Petit Basque
Type: yaourt nature brebis caillé
Description: traditional, plain yogurt made from fermented sheep’s milk and bacteria/culture that’s been curdled (that’s the caillé).
Amy says: “I would put raspberries and honey on it and eat it slowly without thinking about what it is.”
Sara says: “Slowly? I can’t even finish a teaspoon. Yuck.”
Type: yaourt nature 0%
Description: traditional, low-fat plain yogurt made from fermented cow’s milk and bacteria/culture.
Amy says: “It almost feels like chunky water with a weird dairy after-taste.”
Sara says: “Blech. Not worth the extra Weight Watcher’s points.”
Type: yaourt nature
Description: Traditional plain yogurt made from fermented cow’s milk and bacteria/culture.
Amy says: “Feels like something you’d use in a recipe rather than eat on its own. But you can sex it up.”
Sara says: “I’m into the not-too-jello-y, not-too-syrup-y consistency.”
Type: yaourt nature chevre
Description: Traditional, plain yogurt made from fermented goat’s milk and bacteria/culture.
Amy says: “I love a goat’s cheese, but goat yogurt? I prefer it a bit more solidified.”
Sara says: “Ditto, sista.”
Brand: Monoprix Bio!
Type: fromage blanc
Description: The absence of fermentation and presence of cream sets this liquid-y treat apart from the others.
Sara says: “This is tart and bitter and definitely needs some topping love.”
Type: Le Petit Suisse
Description: Technically this is not yogurt, but “fromage frais,” as it’s made from skim milk, cream and lactic acid bacteria. Of course, it’s not to be confused with “fromage blanc” (above) despite the fact that the two are often linked. It’s something of a delicacy here in France as you’re meant to flip it over, push it out of the small plastic container, unwrap its paper and eat it with sprinkled cane sugar or confiture.
Sara says: “That was fun! It has a thick and creamy cheesecake consistency and a dry after-taste, but I ate the whole thing and could see dressing it up with toppings.”
Type: fromage blanc (la faisselle)
Description: The unpasteurized (or raw) milk version of fromage blanc.
Amy says: “This is very good. Not too tarte. I’m a fan.”
Sara says: “I don’t hate it. But it’s not as dessert-y as other fromage blanc’s I’ve had.”
Brand: Vrai La Laiterie Familiale
Type: yaourt nature brebis
Description: Traditional, plain yogurt made from fermented (and, this time, pasteurized) sheep’s milk and bacteria/culture
Sara says: “To my surprise, this doesn’t make me want to hurl like the one made with caillé did. It has a jell-o consistency and definitely tastes more like cheese.”
Type: yaourt velouté (aka brassé)
Description: Essentially the same ingredients as plain yogurt, but its texture is more “velvety” since it’s been stirred to become semi liquid.
Sara says: “Adding to the confusion, this doesn’t even say ‘brassé’ on it, but the brand came recommended by a French friend who claimed this is, indeed, considered brassé. It’s my favorite of the bunch and easy to eat on its own.”
Et voila! Yogurt shopping in Paris should be stress-free from now on. That is, until I gain five pounds from favoriting the velouté and le petit suisse and decide to do another experiment on all the taillefine (thin waist) options of which there are, of course, hundreds. And don’t even get me started on reading nutrition labels.
Speaking of, Happy Eat-Your-Face-Off Day! I am thankful for Google Translate and, in all seriousness, the constant support and encouragement of my family and friends as I navigate this thing called la vie. Wishing you all a day of great joy et bonheur.