While recent medical reports have proven the health benefits of chocolate, the French do not need validation from scientists. For centuries they have realized the positive effects on mood and how including sweet cocoa treats in festivities adds to the joie de vivre. I had the pleasure of taking Context Travel’s Chocolate Pastry Tour Paris and experiencing the depth of devotion Parisians have to my favorite food.
The small group tour (limit of six) began in the heart of Saint Germain in the 6th arrondissement where our knowledgeable docent Alisa Morov gave us a brief history of the French fascination with chocolate. She also shared that we would be tasting pastries and bonbons from historical and artisanal to modern and innovative artists . We were in for the treat of a lifetime!
Our two and a half hour walking tour that included tasting (of course) began at Paris’ regal Debauve & Gallais. This national treasure have been catering to French royalty since 1800. Chocolate connoisseurs or mere enthusiasts will appreciate that Sulpice Debauve’s correspondence from the 1830’s suggest the three most important rules for tasting chocolate:
Rule One: A Spiritual State
“It is important, above all, to take one’s time and to make each moment of tasting a moment of eternity. Serene, surrounded by loved ones, with a calm spirit – allow yourself to become absorbed in the taste of the chocolate.”
I often break that rule and gobble down a few squares and it is true, I really do not enjoy it nearly as much as when I am sitting down in the company of friends or family, especially my son Phil who is a chocoholic like me.
Rule Two: The Moment – Heightening One’s Awareness of Tastes and Aromas
The ideal moment for tasting a dark chocolate bonbon is between meals. In effect, hunger sharpens the perception of cold aromas while the beginning of the digestive process awakens the perception of hot aromas. It is also possible to approach tasting in this way: before meals, taste “hot aromas” – in this case, ganaches – and after meals, taste only “cold aromas” – or pralinés. “The palate appreciates all best when its tasting ability isn’t muddled by a pressing hunger or the saturation of the taste buds following a large meal.”
This is why the French savor everything that goes into their mouths, they plan ahead, pair the chocolates or bonbons appropriately and never overindulge, ruining the moment.
Rule Three: Taste Slowly
Debauve’s instructions for eating chocolates are precise: Place a chocolate in the middle of your tongue. Chew slowly, several times. Let the chocolate linger for several seconds, during which time you may notice a warm sensation from the outer coating of cocoa as it melts on the tongue. The bonbon – still resting on the palate – then begins to withdraw into a blend of subtle aromas until finally it overwhelms the palate with all of the richness of its flavors.
In our house, we do everything to quickly. We walk fast, talk fast and Lord knows we eat fast. I will insist we slow down and heed the advice of Monsieur Debauve from now on, particularly when it comes to dessert!
Next it was on to La Maison du Chou, a petit patisserie across from the Christian Delacroix Museum. Here the choux are hand-filled at the time of your order with luscious creams of various flavors from the sublime chocolate or mocha to exotic and spicy. Takeaway boxes make it handy to try few different kinds later on after dinner back at the hotel. Locals catering a party can order ahead of time and have them delivered!
By now, most people are familiar with the macaroon moguls Lauderee, but did you know the pastries and bonbons are delectable as well? We popped in to sample some of fare and several of us walked out with pretty green boxes of treats to savor later on.
The lines were out the door at the house of the man that Vogue dubbed “the Picasso of Pastry,” Pierre Hermé. It was nearly Easter when I was on the tour and because his creations change with the seasons, everyone was queuing up for the latest by the master. The most beautiful pastry was a biscuit with lemon olive oil, red fruits raw and cooked with a lemon cream mousseline and the multiple chocolate layer cake was out of this world!
We sat on benches in the courtyard of Saint Sulpice and tasted some of the Hermé chocolate squares to compare and contrast them to the others. Pierre’s philosophy, “I believe that chocolate bonbons should have an outer coating that is neither too thin, nor too thick. The resulting texture contrasts with the tender moistness of the ganache or the crunch of the pralines. I enjoy a special relationship with chocolate, a substance that is not easy to domesticate. It’s a particularly complex, sensitive ingredient.” Based upon our tasting I wholeheartedly believe he achieves his goal – the outer layer simply melds with the inside creaminess and the pralines have a slight crunch that is pleasing to the palette.
A slight sugar rush was happening, but nevertheless undeterred, we pressed on to visit the serious chocolate artist Patrick Roger. He sculpts gigantic works that can weigh up to 175 pounds. It was truly amazing to see how he transforms raw chocolate into life-size realistic pieces. The window had a whimsical display of chickens for Easter that made us all giggle. He is known for his “colors” – chocolate, caramels and ganache infused with flavors from around the world that combine the colors extracted from the original source into the final product. The innovativeness helped earned him the title of Meilleur Ouvirer de France Chocolatier, an award given to the top craftsman in a contest amongst his peers.
The house of Pierre Marcolini is built upon his self-proclaimed Haute Chocolatier passion. His drinking chocolates and infusions are legendary. At Easter he is known for his Easter Doll collections. I am not sure how the design connotes Easter in the slightest, but they were adorable nonetheless. Here, Alisa had us taste some of the chocolate flavors of macaroons as well as dark and milk chocolate pieces. They were much smoother than Pierre Hermé’s and our group was split on which ones they preferred.
We were enjoying our time listening to the nuances about each chocolate maker and learning about what makes French chocolate so different from their fellow European counterparts that time was running short, so we made our way to our last stop, Un Dimanche à Paris (A Sunday in Paris). You will love the location; it is in the heart of the passage of Saint André where centuries old cobblestone streets remain intact. Not only will you delight over the gorgeous pastries, you can also dine in their modern, light and bright restaurant before diving into the divine desserts. It is also a popular spot for an afternoon break at their tea and chocolate salon. Their handmade chocolates and pastries range from classic ganache and caramels to ultra hip cakes. Now that they have opened right behind one of my favorite little boutique hotels, Hotel Left Bank, I am in serious trouble. I might find myself sleepwalking and wake up drooling outside their shop window.
What an incredible edible journey it was with Context Travels and Alisa. It was good thing it was a walking tour so I could shave off some of the gazillions of calories I consumed that day. It was very cool to learn the history, taste the differences and see the artistic sides of all the chocolate makers. It solidified why all things chocolate are my drug of choice!
Thank you to Context Travel and Alisa for allowing me to tag along for a gratis tour of my dreams. So much chocolate, so little time. The only influence I was under was by the great tasting treats. As always, the opinions are genuinely my own. To book your own tour, please click here: Context Travel