If chocolate is the food of the gods, as its botanical name, Theobroma cacao, indicates, then Paris is today’s Mount Olympus. Where once Lenôtre, Léonidas and La Maison du Chocolat reigned supreme, a new tribe of artisan chocolatiers has arrived, each one passionately devoted to transforming cacao into some of the most delicious bonbons (filled chocolates), tablettes (bars) and truffes available anywhere. Rethinking traditional recipes and rivaling each other in creativity, they have turned Paris into a chocolate lover’s paradise. Jean-Paul Hévin, one of the city’s finest, is unequivocal on the subject: “The best chocolate in the world is now being made in France.”
Today’s French bonbons are prized for the shine and snap of their delicate couverture (coating), the silkiness of their ganache (creamy chocolate filling, with or without other flavors), the subtlety of their taste combinations and the finesse and balance with which it’s all put together.
The new crop of chocolatiers has raised the bar, not only for quality but also for originality of presentation—Michel Chaudun’s amazing shop overflows with trompe l’oeil creations from sausages to gargoyles, Hévin’s shelves hold chocolate high-heeled pumps, and Patrick Roger’s window, in honor of the Rugby World Cup, recently displayed a life-size chocolate sculpture of a rugby player in the nude.
Roger, with his slightly scruffy good looks, eye-popping seasonal window displays and prize-winning chocolates, is currently the brightest of a whole constellation of chocolate stars in St-Germain-des-Prés. His marvelous chocolates, silky in texture and intensely flavorful, come in a huge variety, but his palet d’or, a square of dark chocolate ganache enveloped in a thin couverture garnished with gold leaf, is a masterpiece of lingering, spicy flavors.
Buying a tablette here involved a lengthy consultation and gave me a glimpse into the recent trend for single-origin chocolates: What percentage (of cocoa paste to cocoa butter) would I like? Rather high, I thought. Seventy-five percent was suggested, which narrowed it down to several single-origin bars. Did I want my chocolate fruité? épicé (spicy)? fumé (smoky)? Opting for épicé, I ended up with a delicious bar from Ghana.
A few blocks from Roger’s shop, top Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini produces annual summer, winter and Christmas collections. While Belgian chocolates are usually heavier in couverture and creamier in filling than the French variety, Marcolini’s are all Gallic refinement. His thin couverture has a satisfying crunch, yielding unctuous ganaches such as a refreshing thyme-orange combination; other fillings include Earl Grey tea and violet.
Nearby is Gérard Mulot, primarily a pâtissier whose busy boutique also carries prepared foods and a wonderful selection of chocolates. Seasonal fillings here include the succulent mûre-mûres (blackberry), pineapple, and a spearmint so fresh-tasting it’s like nibbling on a mint leaf. Mulot also makes traditional chocolate bells at Easter filled with smaller sweet treasures.
Near the church of St-Sulpice is the hyperchic shop of Pierre Hermé, another pâtissier with a passion for chocolate. There’s usually a line snaking out the door and down rue Bonaparte, but it’s worth the wait—his chocolate macarons are dazzling, especially the limited-edition Plénitude, a dream of dark chocolate, caramel and fleur de sel (the ultimate sea salt). Noteworthy among his bonbons are the Mogador—passion fruit ganache covered in milk chocolate—and the Makassar, a frothy mousse of salted, buttery caramel coated in dark chocolate.
On the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens, three more chocolatiers are wowing Parisian chocophiles. On Rue Vavin is Jean-Paul Hévin, who has several other shops, including a lunchroom and salon de thé on rue St-Honoré. At all of them, you’ll find the finest chocolate—Hévin is a fanatic for the quality of his ingredients—transformed into some of the most imaginative shapes in town. It’s hard to beat the charm of his coeur en dentelle, a lacy webbing of chocolate in two parts that forms a heart-shaped box for filled bonbons. Other specialties include chocolats dynamiques, with such unusual flavorings as chiles, Szechuan pepper and tonka beans.
A few blocks from Hévin on rue d’Assas is the shop of Christian Constant, where prepared foods and baked goods occupy most of the space. But Constant—not to be confused with the one-star chef of the same name—is such a chocolate fan that he’s written two books about it, and this is the only place where you’ll find his bonbons, including the not-to-be-missed Vanille de Tahiti and an assortment of subtle flower flavors such as frangipani, jasmine and neroli.
On the same street, Jean-Charles Rochoux is a new arrival, opening his shop in November 2004 after working for years with Michel Chaudun and other masters. Whimsical molded chocolate figurines including cows and garden gnomes fill his windows and shelves, but he also creates 40 bonbons (his basil ganache is a prizewinner), and among his 22 tablettes is an utterly delicious bar filled with whole hazelnuts encased in crunchy caramel. His latest creation is a collaboration with the American bourbon Maker’s Mark, a perfect marriage of bourbon and dark chocolate ganache, each bonbon garnished with a tiny red-seal logo.
Just across the border into the seventh arrondissement, Patrice Chapon’s boutique is a delightful throwback to old-fashioned candy shops. One wall is covered with chocolate molds, while copper melting pots and other utensils are tucked under old wooden counters, and the packaging recreates a turn-of-the-century advertising poster. In addition to a full range of ganaches and pralinés, Chapon’s pâte d’amande (almond paste) bonbons are flavored with tangerines and pears.
While Parisian chocolate shops range in style from Marcolini’s chic modernism to Chapon’s temple to nostalgia, one shop remains a timeless world of wonders. On a quiet corner of the rue de l’Université, Michel Chaudun has for years produced some of the city’s most exquisite chocolates. Chaudun is an artist—you can see some of the lovely drawings and watercolors he created as a child, displayed in a charming shop window that includes his report cards and school pictures. Besides traditionally shaped chocolates, the shop is filled from floor to ceiling with trompe l’oeil délices including an Hermès Kelly bag and a remarkable glossy chocolate chestnut bursting out of its handpainted prickly marzipan hull. Two of his finest creations have been widely copied: dark chocolate pastilles filled with éclats de fève (crunchy bits of cocoa bean), and pavés, luscious little cubes of cocoa-dusted ganache. Let one of Chaudun’s pavés melt on your tongue, and you’d swear that Linnaeus tasted one before he named chocolate “food of the gods.”
CHOCOLATE LOVER’S NOTEBOOK
Patrick Roger 108 blvd St-Germain, 6th, Métro: Odéon, 01.43.29.38.42, www.patrickroger.com
Pierre Marcolini 89 rue de Seine, 6th, Métro: Mabillon, 01.44.07.39.07, www.marcolini.com
Gérard Mulot 76 rue de Seine, 6th, Métro: Odéon, 01.43.26.85.77, www.gerardmulot.com
Pierre Hermé 72 rue Bonaparte, 6th, 01.43.54.47.77, Métro: St-Sulpice, www.pierreherme.com
Jean-Paul Hévin 3 rue Vavin, 6th, Métro: Vavin, 01.43.54.09.85.
Tea salon: 231 rue St-Honoré, 1st, Métro: Concorde, Tuileries, 01.55.35.35.96, www.jphevin.com
Christian Constant 37 rue d’Assas, 6th, Métro: Notre-Dame-des-Champs, 01.53.63.15.15, www.christianconstant.com
Jean-Charles Rochoux 16 rue d’Assas, 6th, Métro: Rennes, 01.42.84.29.45, www.jcrochoux.fr
Patrice Chapon 69 rue du Bac, 7th, Métro: Rue du Bac, 01.42.22.95.98, www.chocolat-chapon.com
Michel Chaudun 149 rue de l’Université, 7th, Métro: La Tour-Maubourg, 01.47.53.74.40
La Maison du Chocolat The renowned chocolate-maker, with many locations around town, also offers a Parcours Initiatique tasting session several times a month. In French, available in English for groups; reserve in advance. 52 rue François 1er, 8th, Métro: George V, 01.47.23.38.25, www.lamaisonduchocolat.com
Michel Cluizel Chocolatier Cluizel, who transforms cocoa from bean to bar, runs the Chocolatrium chocolate museum and shop in Damville, Normandy (Avenue de Conches, 02.32.35.20.75). His daughter Catherine runs the Paris boutique, where a copper fountain overflows with molten chocolate. 201 rue St-Honoré, 1st, Métro: Tuileries, 01.42.44.11.66, www.cluizel.com
Richart Self-designated “chocolate designer” Michel Richart divides his chocolates into seven aromatic families. His jewel-like bonbons are color coded to match, and often include such unusual flavors as star anise, fennel and curry. 258 blvd St-Germain, 7th, Métro: Solférino, 01.45.55.66.00, www.richart.com
Debauve & Gallais Balzac, Proust and Brillat-Savarin bought their bonbons at Paris’s oldest chocolate shop, a gorgeous historical monument founded over 200 years ago. 30 rue des Sts-Pères, 7th, Métro: St-Germain-des-Prés, 01.45.48.54.67, www.debauve-et-gallais.com
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of France Today