Paris has a long love affair with chocolate. Now adventurous artisans are adding wild variety to the mix, writes Julie Street.
When Sulpice Debauve, an apothecarist to King Louis XVI, opened Paris's first chocolate shop in 1800, he vaunted the medicinal qualities of his confections, recommending them for anyone suffering from "chronic illness or nervous stomachs". These days, chocoholics need no such excuse to indulge. Chocolate concept stores and chocolate cocktail bars are all the rage in the City of Light and chocolate-tasting tours guide those on an existential quest for the perfect "tablette". There are more than 300 chocolate boutiques in the city and a new generation of artisan chocolatiers is developing increasingly experimental flavours and eye-popping presentations.
Patrick Roger, the enfant terrible of the gourmet chocolate scene, is renowned for his stunning window displays, which have included everything from an edible reconstruction of the Berlin Wall to a life-size nude rugby player fashioned out of chocolate. Paris's most eccentric chocolatier recently turned conservationist, sculpting hippopotamuses from seven-metre chocolate bars in an attempt to raise awareness of endangered species. The chocolatier's dramatic vitrines match his flamboyant lifestyle - Roger likes to spend his free time on his scarlet Ducati - but his incredible chocolate creations are not just eye candy. Connoisseurs flock to Roger's flagship Saint-Germain boutique to sample dark-chocolate bonbons filled with intense lingering flavours, including zingy lemon-basil, smoky Earl Grey tea, spicy Sichuan pepper and fragrant quince jelly. If your budget doesn't run to the metre-long selection box, treat yourself to a single-origin chocolate bar or a bag of noisettes, wild hazelnuts dipped in caramel and dark chocolate. (108 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 6th arrondissement; metro: Odeon.)
Master chocolatier Jean-Paul Hevin has attracted a cult following since opening his first shop in Paris in 1988. The award-winning artisan is fanatical about the quality of his ingredients and insists on personally sourcing and tasting the cocoa beans used in his confections. The counters at Hevin's sleek designer boutiques showcase everything from ganaches and truffles to "chocolats dynamiques" filled with chilli peppers and tonka beans. Hevin is an innovator: his scale-size models of nine-inch stilettos are modelled on a real design by French footwear star Rodolphe Menudier, for example, and his "aperitif" chocolates have soft mousse centres made of Roquefort, Pont-l'Eveque and Epoisse cheese. For his latest project, Hevin has converted the upper level of his rue Saint-Honore boutique into a "bar a chocolat", serving unusual hot-chocolate drinks: chocolat chaud with oysters, chocolat chaud with matcha green tea or the 4pm aphrodisiac hot chocolate, which delivers an energising hit of ginger and spices. Le Figaro magazine ranks this as the best hot-chocolate experience in Paris. (231 rue Saint-Honore, 1st; metro: Tuileries.)
In 1948, Michel Cluizel began working from the attic in his family home, making truffles for neighbours. The veteran artisan runs the Chocolatrium museum and boutique in Damville, Normandy, and has spawned a Parisian chocolate dynasty. Cluizel's daughter, Catherine, is in charge of the family's chic rue Saint-Honore boutique, which has an old-fashioned chocolate fountain in the window alongside cute chocolate replicas of Hermes handbags. Meanwhile, Catherine's brother, Pierre, has put a contemporary spin on the humble cocoa bean, opening the city's first chocolate concept store, Un dimanche a Paris. Spanning three addresses in a tiny cobbled alley in Saint-Germain, it's for people who live, breathe and indulge in chocolate seven days a week. The ground-floor patisserie has a formidable array of cocoa-based creations, including luscious fondants, Corsican clementines dipped in dark chocolate and the must-have Merveilleux (a Willy Wonka fantasy of a gateau involving white-chocolate flakes, meringue, chocolate mousse and fleur d'oranger cream). Aspiring pastry chefs can learn to create truffles and tartelettes au chocolat in the second-floor kitchen, but I recommend heading straight to the restaurant for the six-course tasting menu, a series of superbly inventive dishes with unexpected chocolate twists. (Michel Cluizel Chocolatrium, Avenue de Conches, Damville; Michel Cluizel, 201 rue Saint-Honore, 1st, metro: Tuileries; Un dimanche a Paris, 4-6-8 Cour du Commerce Saint-Andre, 6th, metro: Odeon.)
Jacques Genin was born on the wrong side of the gourmet tracks, running away from home aged 12 and launching his career in an abattoir. Genin has no professional chocolate-making qualifications but went on to become head patissier at La Maison du Chocolat. From there he went on to supply chocolates and petits fours to Paris's top hotels and restaurants, wowing Michelin-starred chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon with his exquisite creations. Genin used to work out of a tiny atelier in the 15th arrondissement, but he finally opened his own boutique (with upstairs "laboratoire") in the Marais in 2009. Designed by Guillaume Leclercq, an architect behind several Louis Vuitton interiors, Genin's Chocolaterie resembles a luxury accessory boutique and the ground-floor cafe is an elegant place to linger for afternoon tea. I recommend the dill-flavoured ganache, the tonka noir and La Belle Epineuse (a wonderfully sensual mix of raspberry and dark chocolate), but be sure to leave room for the sensational made-to-order millefeuille. (133 rue de Turenne, 3rd; metro: Filles du Calvaire or Republique.)
Fifth-generation pastry chef Franck Kestener has whipped up desserts at the presidential palace and, in 2003, won the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France Chocolatier award when he was just 27. Despite these credentials, Kestener has consistently flown under chocophiles' radar. Perhaps the self-described "chocolate alchemist" has been overlooked because his family business is based in the far-flung town of Sarreguemines in north-eastern France. If so, Kestener's new chocolate shop near the Luxembourg gardens in Paris is about to boost his popularity. Kestener's storefront may not be as eye-catching as some of his competitors', but the flavours of his chocolate bonbons are spectacular: think unconventional fillings such as tarragon, roasted sunflower seeds and buttery tarte tatin. (6 rue Gutenberg, Sarreguemines; 7 rue Gay-Lussac, 5th; RER Luxembourg.)
Henri Le Roux is another talented chocolatier who has just arrived in Paris from the provinces. Hitherto, chocolate obsessives had to travel to Le Roux's boutique in Quiberon, trekking to the tip of a long, windswept peninsula in Brittany, to relish specialties such as the Ch'tou (a chocolate sphere filled with caramel and a local Breton calvados known as Lambig.) Le Roux celebrates typical French ingredients in his creations, using black truffles from Perigord in his divine Truffe de Truffe and buckwheat (an ingredient traditionally used in Breton galettes) in his Florentines. Le Roux is also one of the best caramel makers in the world, renowned for inventing the oft-copied salted-butter caramel in the 1970s. His mouth-watering caramels and pates de fruit (squares of concentrated fruit in flavours ranging from blackberry and cassis to passionfruit and sour cherry) are presented in their own room and can be enjoyed at the window-side counter with a cup of gourmet coffee or Japanese tea. A "quadruple pleasure box" of chocolates, glazed chestnuts, caramels and pates de fruit will set you back more than €80 ($99). But for a mere €4 you can enjoy a mini tablette of yuzu macha, an emerald-coloured chocolate bar combining the finesse of green tea with the unexpected tang of yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit).
Le Roux's unusual chocolate bar recently earned him an innovation award from the revered French chocolate appreciation society Le Club des Croqueurs. (18 rue de Port Maria, Quiberon; 1 rue de Bourbon le Chateau, 6th, metro: Odeon or Mabillon.)
Besides posting tasting notes on its website, croqueurschocolat.com, the exclusive invitation-only club publishes an annual guide to France's best chocolatiers, which is worth downloading before embarking on any serious chocolate expedition. The croqueurs' hit list includes the chocolatiers profiled here and many old favourites, including Pierre Herme, Michel Chaudun, Patrice Chapon and Robert Linxe's legendary La Maison du Chocolat (52 rue Francois 1er, 8th, metro: George V), which is credited with starting Paris's artisanal chocolate craze in the 1970s. For a more in-depth experience of the capital's chocolate scene, book a tasting tour with an insider guide. Sadly, David Lebovitz, renowned pastry chef and author of The Great Book of Chocolate, is no longer organising weekly chocolate walks, reserving his connoisseur palate instead to take groups on an annual chocolate marathon from Paris to Lausanne and back (davidlebovitz.com/tours).
However, there are plenty of new chocolate tours, including two excellent itineraries mapped out by former blogger Lauranie Nonotte (firstname.lastname@example.org). Nonotte's Esprit du Chocolat tours, organised in English and French, explore the choco-centric neighbourhoods of Opera and Saint-Germain. Here, she visits haute chocolateries such as Pierre Marcolini and Hugo & Victor ("where couture-style vitrines can make people too intimidated to go inside and buy a handful of chocolates") and overlooked geniuses such as Jean-Charles Rochoux (whose kitsch window displays of chocolate cherubs and garden gnomes could lead you to bypass some of the best flavour combinations in town).
I drooled over Rochoux's Habanos Cigare - a potent melange of dark chocolate and tobacco leaves - and came close to tears tasting Marcolini's champagne truffles, but I still found the stamina to end my trip with a pilgrimage to Debauve et Gallais (30 rue des Saints-Peres, 7th; metro: St-Germain-des-Pres). Standing at the original counter of the 200-year-old boutique, I ordered a box of pistoles, the dark-chocolate discs Sulpice Debauve invented to help Marie Antoinette get her medicine down. As delicate notes of orange blossom began to unfold on my tongue, I respected Debauve's historic advice; remaining serene and "making each moment of tasting a moment of eternity".
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