Paris at Christmas: caviar and confections

Paris at Christmas is cold and it glitters. The air is crystalline and the network of a thousand million bare branches is threaded with tiny golden lights. The Eiffel Tower, ablaze, is a child's giant Christmas tree.

Everywhere in every window there are confections sculpted of sugar and chocolate, glistening glaceed fruits-angelica, citron, chestnuts, cherries - and gold and silver sugared almonds.

The Reveillon, the traditional French feast, begins after midnight on Christmas Eve. It can feature a roast stuffed goose or a turkey and once-a-year delicacies from foie gras to caviar, oysters to the elaborate buche de Noel.

Many of these delicacies can be purchased in the city, which makes Christmas a marvelous time to take a free-wheeling tour of some of Paris's glorious food shops.

You begin, of course, at Fauchon in the Place de la Madeleine, a great spectacle.

The fruit and vegetables are exquisite still lifes. The rows of spice and condiments range from artemisia to myrtle.

English biscuits, Australian honeys, local charcuterie, Belgian chocolates, and American goods, from Cheerios to maple syrup, are a must-see, as much as the Louvre or the Invalides.

From Fauchon you stroll to La Ferme Saint-Hubert, at 21 Rue Vignon, for a staggering array of cheese in a rustic setting, among them the exquisite triple cream Saint-Hubert.

Wend your way to Battendier at 8 Rue Coquilliere, where Clemenceau, Napoleon, and Charles de Gaulle bought their bacon.

The shop goes back to 1826 and is now redecorated in 1930s chic. Take away a terrine of rabbit or duck, some pistachio-studded pate or truffled pheasant.

Go across the river and into the Left Bank via the Ile Saint-Louis to pick up the best baguettes from Haupois, at 35 Rue des Deux Points, and then for a snack - and some to take out - some of the world's best ice cream.

This is at Berthillon, a tiny shop at 31 Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile. There is an ever-changing menu of flavors - hazelnut, pistachio, candied chestnut, wild strawberry, prune, pear, and lichee - 31 flavors or more.

At 8 Rue du Cherche-Midi is Poilane, the famous Paris bakers, where you can pick up some rich, round, dense country loaves of bread and the glorious wheat rolls, which are even better toasted the morning after.

At 30 Rue Dauphine there is Coesnon, with 18 kinds of Boudin made from grapes , truffles, sweetbreads. And then there is Millet, in the Rue Saint Dominique, where the season's confections are a dream and the boucheron, chocolate based, is a perfect finale for a celebratory feast.

That done, you head now for Petrossian. If April is everything the songs say, Christmas is better, mostly because of this establishment.

Melchoum and Moucheg Petrossian, two Armenian brothers, were students in Moscow and fled the Revolution to Paris. To support themselves they tried to sell caviar when it was relatively unknown. Everyone laughed, but they persisted.

Now still a family affair, Petrossian is a major supplier of luxury foods in France and now in the United States.

At Christmas the Paris shop is jammed with people, rich people, working people, taxi drivers, princes. There is cheerful chaos and everyone is merry.

You could, in fact, buy your whole dinner here, for Petrossian produces an excellent line of prepared dishes under the label August Cyprien.

Among them: confit of duck or goose, choucroute and cassoulet, and a range of spectacular vegetables from red or white beans to pureed spinach, celery, chestnuts, and foie gras.

There is also a variety of smoked fish - eel, trout, sturgeon - and what many think is the best smoked Norwegian salmon in Paris. Then there is, of course, the caviar. There is nothing quite like it.

There is the small, dark sevruga egg, the medium golden brown oscetra, and the big, mild, succulent beluga.

When serving, the Petrossians say to keep it simple. Eat it without lemon or onion or capers or egg, quite simply on a piece of plain white toast, with perhaps a smear of butter.

If you want to paint the lily, try the pressed caviar, much less expensive, a kind of dense black, heady marmalade made from lesser-quality roe. It is spectacular with blinis, those tiny Russian pancakes.

There is something quintessentially celebratory about caviar. As my taxi driver said, ''Ah, madame, you have been to Petrossian. They treat you as a prince even if you are a taxi driver. It would not be Christmas without a trip to Petrossian.''

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