September 11, 2012
A brief and biased guide to some of the chocolate delicacies over the water in the city of love.
You don’t have to walk far in Paris to reach a chocolate shop. In fact chic boutiques entirely dedicated to the stuff are to be found on every other street corner. The French take their chocolate seriously. And some of it is seriously good. But while they may all look the part, they are not all worth the considerable number of euros you will have to part with to score some of their treats.
I had a few days Paris at the end of August, and took the opportunity to visit a few that are worth it. If you are a chocolate nerd, like me, you can plot them all on a map to make your chocolate tour of the city more efficient, as many of them are clustered together.
Old school, and in a shop that feels like it could have walked straight off a Parisien movie set, Michel Chaudun’s shop is lined with an amazing array of chocolate work. Everything from cute animals to elaborate figure scupltures has been modelled with the utmost skill. The chocolates are very good, predictably strong on the classics. I liked the dark hazelnut praline, which had a good amount of both crunch and crisp, and smelt wonderfully of hazelnut even before I tasted it. Chaudun is famous for his pavés; squares of dark cocoa-dusted ganache. A box of those would get the nod of approval from any Parisian hostess.
Also classically French, but actually established by a Belgian family in Provence in the 1960s, Puyricard is bursting with a feminine elegance. The shops are chocolate box pretty, forgive the pun. The chocolates are well executed and there are many inventive flavours, even if they do betray the Belgian origins of the founder. I found the tendency was too mild and too sweet. This was particularly evident in a praline made with hazelnuts and almonds. It was very creamy and sweet, with little flavour, but no duff notes either. However the lemon and violet chocolate was something of a revelation. It takes a lot to get me interested in floral chocolates, but this was expertly balanced, very fine, technically perfect, and with a great balance of those tricky flavours. The lemon really stopped the violet from being soapy, which is of course the risk with floral inclusions. If you like your chocolates rich, creamy, mild and sweet, Puyricard is doing just that, very well.
With its airily elegant boutiques, and pretty as a picture packaging, Richart has several boutiques to tempt you as you tour Paris. Originating in Lyon in 1925 the shops sell pretty colourful and refined chocolates and macarons. It isn’t possible to pick and chose in here, and the prices of the packaged boxes can be as mouth-watering as the treats inside. None of these chocolatiers is cheap, but in all the others I visited you can buy piece by piece. So, if you only buy four chocolates you can try four flavours. That is a little harder here, unless money is no object. There is however a good selection of bars, with a strong emphasis on different origins and percentages. They do have an amazing range of inventive flavours, using a full range of floral, spicy, herbal and other inclusions. I was most interested to try a plain dark 70% Venezuelan ganache, as the shop assistant was keen to emphasize their commitment to the best cacao. I didn’t think that would leave them anywhere to hide. It didn’t, and the result was good, spicy, dark, almost gingerbready, with plenty of cocoa. The ganache is made with Crème de Bresse, which is no doubt of high quality like everything in this shop. But for me, the addition of cream diminishes the finer notes of the couverture. Personally I now much prefer the water based ganaches that really showcase the flavour notes of the chocolate used, like those pioneered by Damian Allsop.
Pierre Hermé is a Parisian success story that has travelled across the channel, and you no longer have to go to Paris to sample his wares, or read French to enjoy his stunning book; Macarons. But given that I was there, and that I felt he ought to be on my shortlist, I checked out the boutique on the Rue Bonaparte. There was a queue snaking out the door for the entire time I was taking pictures, chatting to the very knowledgeable staff, and making my selection. It is as slick as can be, from the picture windows to the wildly chic stiff cream bags with artful cut-outs. The chocolates here are good, although some are a bit mild and creamy for my tastes. But there are many interesting flavour combinations, the Chuao and cassis being the best of those I tried. It had a very fresh and zingy blackcurrant hit, and the couverture was well matched and full flavoured. There is plenty of flavour experimentation, both in the chocolates and his famous macarons. They don’t call Pierre Herme M. Macaron for nothing.
Another reliably excellent Paris chocolatier is Jean Paul Hevin. There are macarons and patisserie here too, as in many of chocolatiers in the city. The chocolates here are really excellent, full flavoured, technically excellent, and reliably delicious, whatever flavour you go for. The plain ganache was a classical version with cream, but the fruity Cao I chose was just that, intensely fruity, rich in cocoa, and hard to fault. Without doubt one of the best chocolates I ate on my trip. A praline feuilleté had the most intensely caramelized nut flavour of any I tried, and a fantastic texture. A rum raisin dark chocolate was heady with boozy grape, and had a wonderful fruity cocoa pairing. Hevin has a few shops to choose from and is always an inviting presence at the Salon du Chocolat in October too. Last year their displays included a stunning chocolate stiletto. Highly recommended in my opinion.
Another chocolatier with great refinement of flavours and that really delivers is Jacques Genin. His store in the 3rd is worth the trip. You can take away, or you can sit with a tea from Maison des Trois Thés, and take a selection of chocolates to eat in the simple and elegant tea room. However on this trip Jaques Genin, like many of these chocolatiers, was closed over the summer. Most I managed to catch as they reopened, but I had to head back to Blighty before he re-opened. It was a similar story with the boutique of Michel Cluizel on the right bank, who didn’t return from their summer break until September. It is worth noting that this summer shutdown applies to many of Paris’ delights, if that’s when you are planning a visit.
I did however make it to Un Dimanche a Paris, the divine and exceptional chocolate world that is the brain child of Pierre Cluizel, son of Michel. This is a chocolate shop, café, restaurant, chocolate school and all round must visit. Their hot chocolate is worth the Eurostar ticket alone. Died and gone to heaven, or at least part way there in a chocolate coma, is the best way to describe it. Thick, and rich, and fully intense in chocolate flavour, it is served in a little pot, with accompanying cup, so you can pace yourself. My favourite chocolate was a cinnamon dark chocolate ganache, smooth, deep and clean, it is full of the warmth of spice. There are so many tempting things to eat in or take home here. You can even buy jars of chocolate covered spices, which must surely be the ultimate sweet nibble. Pierre Cluizel himself is, as you can imagine from the scion of such a family, utterly passionate about chocolate. He is a charming delight, and I vowed to return to Paris as soon as I could for a full interview.
Last on my list, for this trip, is another chocolatier at the forefront of the current scene. Patrick Roger is breaking boundaries and turning heads with his radical artistic take on chocolate. Chocolate modelling is in far more evidence in French chocolatiers than in those in the UK. Roger has taken this to striking and very modern extremes. His latest work of art is a 7-metre long bar made with 4 tons of chocolate, from which are emerging, wallowing in the muddy darkness, a wonderful group of dark-eyed hippos! This has been created in Roger’s studio, and then broken up so that a few of the darkly delicious creatures can preside over each of his boutiques. These are worth a visit for more than just a look at the artwork. The chocolates are well made and flavoured, and almost as beautiful to look at as they taste. The coffee chocolate here was the best I tasted, like the finest espresso, matched with a coffee that was really up to it in strength and depth of flavour.
If I have whetted your appetite then do plan a trip. You can always do a channel swim home to work off the excesses. For my part I can’t wait until I return to Paris for the Salon du Chocolat in October, I already have my ticket booked.