Explore Paris’ Centuries-Old Love of Chocolate
“There’s no city in the world that loves chocolate more than Paris, and the passion Parisians have for it is one of those very rare ones that just grows deeper and more intense as time goes by,” observes French master chocolate-maker Nicolas Berger. Berger is well placed to comment on Parisians’ inexorable love of chocolate, too. He runs Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse – Manufacture à Paris, the small, intoxicatingly scented workshop with exposed brick walls in a former eastern Paris garage near La Bastille that is the French capital’s very first bean-to-bar atelier. This game-changing business opened in February 2013 and was conceived by gastro-entrepreneur and ardent choco-phile Alain Ducasse and Berger, who formerly worked as chef patissier at Ducasse’s restaurant at the Essex House hotel in New York City and then at Restaurant Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris.
“From the very start, many of our customers came daily, and just a few days after we’d opened we were getting people from the 16th Arrondissement (an affluent district on the opposite side of the city from their 11th Arrondissement location) and the suburbs. In Paris, it’s pretty obvious there’s sort of an informal chocolate tom-tom that keeps people who love it up-to-date on the very latest openings and creations even before they’ve been picked up by the mainstream press,” says Berger, whose own taste for chocolate dates “back to my cradle.” His parents are pastry chefs who ran a shop in a town outside of Lyon, and Berger says he was helping out in the kitchen as soon as he could walk and remembers being especially fascinated by watching chocolates being dipped.
But what is it exactly that makes Parisians so insane for chocolate? “Paris is a profoundly epicurean city,” says Berger, “So Parisians proudly share a culture of connoisseurship, along with an insatiable curiosity about all and any fine food stuffs.” Like chocolate.
This explains why Ducasse’s new bean-to-bar operation was so immediately tantalizing to Parisian chocolate-lovers. To launch the atelier, Berger shopped for antique chocolate-making machinery all over Europe—many of the machines best-suited to small-scaled quality chocolate manufacturing are no longer made—and then scouted suppliers of the world’s finest and rarest cocoa beans. Now he roasts his own cocoa beans daily on the premises, joining a tiny elite band of French producers who start from scratch, including Ber- nachon in Lyon and Stéphane Bonnat in Voiron, a village outside of Grenoble. “Cocoa beans have the same gastronomic eloquence as grapes, which means that they offer a powerful expression of the land and climate from which they come,” explains Berger.
Evaluating the production of Ducasse’s new atelier during a comprehensive tasting of their ganaches (a mixture of chocolate and cream), dark chocolate and milk chocolate in September 2013, the esteemed Le Club des Croqueurs de Chocolat, a very serious association of Parisian chocolate lovers founded in 1981 by food critic Claude Lebey, rated the new atelier’s chocolate as “very promising.” Ducasse’s single-origin chocolates have also received high marks from such exigent Paris-based chocolate experts as cookbook writer Trish Deseine and blogger David Lebovitz.
Indigenous to Central America and first introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, who discovered it during their conquest of the Aztec empire in what is now Mexico, chocolate is generally believed to have been brought to France by the Spanish-born Princess Anne of Austria when she married King Louis XIII in 1615. Consumed in both liquid and solid form, it immediately became a favorite delicacy of the French court for its taste, rarity and reputed aphrodisiac qualities.
Bayonne in southwestern France was the original center of French chocolate production when Jewish chocolate makers and merchants fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition of 1536 settled there, but it was in Paris that chocolate emerged as a luxurious public indulgence. Louis XIV appointed a valet in the Queen’s household, David Chaillou, to open the very first chocolate shop in Paris on May 28, 1659.
Located on the rue de l’Arbre Sec in the 1st Arrondissement, Chaillou’s shop enjoyed a monopoly on the preparation and sale of chocolate beverages and sweets that lasted nearly 30 years before competition arrived on the scene. By 1689, other pioneering chocolate shops had opened in the heart of the city, including Rere on the rue Dauphine and Renard on the present-day quai de Conti.
Even as its popularity grew in the court of King Louis XV, where Queen Marie-Antoinette had her very own private chocolatier (chocolate-maker), chocolate retained its rarified status as an elite luxury until after the French Revolution. With the end of French court life, chocolate, along with many other luxury goods and services, suddenly became more widely available to the general public.
In 1800, Sulpice Debauve, the former royal pharmacist to King Louis XVI and the personal chocolatier to King Charles X, opened a chocolate shop on rue Saint-Dominique, in Saint-German-des-Prés. It’s still around today: Debauve moved to its present location on rue des Saints-Pères in the 7th Arrondissement in 1818. That same year, Debauve began a partnership with his nephew, August Gallais, also a chemist. Together they produced and sold “health chocolates,” which were variously made with almond milk, vanilla and orange-blossom water, or ingredients like Icelandic lichen, a combination believed to be beneficial for treating chest ailments.
In the early 19th century, chocolate was often used to make bitter medicines more palatable and was widely believed to bring good health and vitality to those who ate it regularly. So widespread was the Gallic association between chocolate and good health at the beginning of the 19th century that the famous French epicure Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin puckishly summed up his country’s love of chocolate with the adage, “What is health? It is chocolate!”
Industrial advances in chocolate manufacturing and the expansion of cocoa-bean production in France’s vast African colonial empire—the Ivory Coast, a former French colony, remains the world’s largest cocoa bean-producing country today with almost 40 percent of the world’s annual crop—made chocolate an affordable daily pleasure for the French by the end of the 19th century. Paris, however, maintained its proud tradition of elegant chocolatiers of the highest quality, including such still existing producers as Foucher, which was founded in 1819 and is still excellent, and La Marquise de Sévigné, which was born in the Auvergnat spa town of Royat and today is more commercial than artisanal.
Deprived of good chocolate during World War II, Parisians fell in love with it all over again during the 30 years of post-war French prosperity known as Les Trente Glorieuses, the 30 glorious years. It was against this backdrop of an insatiable hunger for luxury that chocolatier Robert Linxe, the French Basque chocolate maker whom many consider to be the father of modern French chocolate, opened the estimable but now gone Marquis de Presles boutique in 1955.
Serious chocolate eating in Paris had previously been largely confined to the Christmas and Easter holidays, but Linxe made the pleasure mainstream by creating a line of boldly flavored ganache chocolates, including his signature Zagora (flavored with fresh mint leaves). His idea was that eating quality chocolate should be an accessible year-round pleasure. After selling his Marquis de Presles business to caterer Gastron Le Nôtre in 1977, Linxe opened his first La Maison du Chocolat the same year, ushering in the new era of craft chocolate in Paris.
La Maison du Chocolat, which re-codified Parisian chocolate as a daily luxury in both gastronomic and visual terms—its packaging is as elegant as its Paris boutiques—is now under the direction of pastry chef and chocolatier Nicolas Cloiseau, who became head chef of the group in 2012. And now Alain Ducasse has raised the local chocolate bar with his Right Bank atelier and just opened Left Bank boutique in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Bon appetit.