November 6, 2012
Reporting back from Le Salon du Chocolat Paris 2012.
The Salon du Chocolat in Paris comes hard on the heels of London’s Chocolate Unwrapped, and my experience of it was inevitably a comparison. Both are significant chocolate festivals, bringing together an international selection of chocolatiers and chocolate makers with chances to meet them and sample their wares. There the similarity ends. If it weren’t for the ever-present and all-important presence of chocolate, you could be forgiven for struggling to find common ground.
Chocolate Unwrapped is an edited selection, a centre for excellence, a place to learn, meet and taste.
The Salon du Chocolat is a day out, an extravaganza, a big, bold, full body slam by a chocolate juggernaut. This is partly due to the size of the show. The Parc d’Expositions at Porte de Versailles is, very roughly, the size of about four football pitches, every inch of which is covered with something to taste, buy or look at. This is also down to the scope, the sheer range of things on offer. It isn’t just chocolate, but if something isn’t chocolate, it will be similarly gastronomic. Think macarons, pain d’epices, or my favourite, the glorious ‘tourteau’ cheesecake from Poitou-Charentes, so named because of it’s blackened dome-shaped ‘shell’.
So, plenty to eat then! Not everything is edible, but if it isn’t its not far off. I found great silicone baking moulds in an array of shapes, fun jewellery in the shape of miniature confections, a chocolate inspired fashion display and even a macaron encrusted car!
There is such a quantity of stuff that it does beg the question, what about quality? In answer I would say that it is a mixed bag. The area near the entrance is dominated by the big confectionary brands, such as Nestle and Leonidas. There are a fair few giant independent stalls piled high with indifferent quality creations in every possible flavour, shape and size.
The sweet and underwhelming is not the whole story. In amongst all of this there is also some seriously good chocolate. Under a banner jauntily insisting “Ecuador, Aime la Vie!” Pacari chocolate, multiple International Chocolate Awards winner, was for sale, and it’s founder Santiago Peralta was meeting and greeting, spreading the word about his work in Equador and his glorious chocolate. On another stand The Grenada Chocolate Company’s bars were changing hands and their enthusiastic salesman was keen to empress upon his customers what a bargain they were getting for such a top product.
As well as chocolate makers there chocolatiers aplenty many of whom continued the international flavour. I particularly enjoyed chatting to Pascal Beschle, Master Chocolatier of Beschle of Switzerland and fourth generation of the Beschle family. He had me tasting a wide and well-judged range of flavoured bars.
Inevitably, this being Paris, there was a strong French showing. Jean Paul Hevin, a personal favourite for his clean use of flavours and classical excellence, had a free-standing stall which sold his chocolates on one side, while the other operated as a top-notch hot chocolate pit stop.
Francois Pralus had given over half his stand to a fully operational kitchen from which a constant stream of his signature brioches emerged. This did roaring business, as the crowds continually gathered to watch the skilled bakers at work folding chocolate chips or the traditional pink praline into the soft buttery dough. It didn’t hurt that there were trays of the stuff to help yourself to always on offer. ‘Try before you buy’ is part of the Salon DNA.
Try I did, on your behalf, to bring you tales of the weird and the wonderful. A chestnut spread from Le Petit Duc had just the right level of sweetness and was rich with the nutty flavour of its main ingredient. Superb, densely spiced pain d’epices from Delices au Miel, was a perfect example of it’s type. That great Pralus brioche was frankly a great big carbohydrate hug of pleasure if ever there was one. Not forgetting the true joy of pure, complex, true-to-bean chocolate that the likes of Pacari and The Grenada Chocolate Company are working so hard to produce.
I also tried caramelised Vietnamese cocoa beans, nougat from every corner of France and chocolates filled with black sesame, potato eau-de-vie and horseradish from Theobroma of Tokyo. I drew the line at chocolate foie gras, forgive me, I am vegetarian, so it was a step too far even for the sake of being completist for my writing.
There is so much to taste at the Salon that the challenge is to pace yourself and save your palate for those things you really wouldn’t want to have missed. There are real gems in among the false sparklers. It is not an exclusively gourmet event. However it is great fun! There are always things I haven’t seen before, things I want to ensure I can find again. So, plan your trip for next year, get on that Eurostar, brave the crowds, take the kids, and whatever you do don’t eat breakfast!