Let Them Eat Chocolate
by Mark Kurlansky
Travel Holiday, 2/99
Imposters be damned! In this revolution, there's only one true Kingdom of Sweets -- France.
In Paris's 7th Arrondissement, a neighborhood known for government buildings, wealth, and power, stands a tiny storefront. Peering into its window, I can see shelves lined with the kind of dusty, one-of-a-kind items you'd find in an old curiosity shop, but without the dust: the bust of an Egyptian pharaoh, sepia-colored etchings, a miniature Statue of Liberty. Then I look a bit closer. Almost every curiosity is made of chocolate, and not just any chocolate -- it's that lean, bitter, nearly pure French chocolate.
Inside, I find a hen with each feather finely sculpted. A rabbit crouched on a fallen log. And, in the very front, the latest creation by master chocolatier Michel Chaudun: a national medal of honor complete with blue ribbon. One customer, a chic Parisienne, asks if the ribbon is edible. Chaudun claims it is but refuses to reveal the ingredients. He can keep a secret.
Another secret, however, is about to slip out. The French -- not, as you might think, the Swiss or the Belgians -- are the best chocolate makers in the world. What has finally, well, spilled the beans, is the European Union, whose 13 members are standardizing everything from currencies to auto safety requirements. Even regulations for chocolate are in dispute. For 25 years this innocent confection has pitted French tastes against British and British against Belgian, and recently it has sparked a minor war in the European Parliament.
All this furor has to make you think: What traditions do people have to give up to become citizens of the new, unified Europe? In the case of the French, one of those traditions maybe chocolate, or at least what they call chocolate. Artisans here consider British (and Danish and Irish and Austrian) chocolate to be so different from their own that "if they call theirs chocolate," says Chaudun, "we will have to make up a new word. But ours is chocolate. They should find a new word."
Ever since the cocoa bean was brought to Europe from South America by Christopher Columbus in 1502, chocolate tastes have differed from nation to nation. Originally, most people thought of it as exotic and mixed it with other exotic imports like cloves, hot pepper, and vanilla. Eventually, though, "chocolate" came to include only a few ingredients. Two of them are part of the cocoa bean: the chocolate solid that lends a distinctly bitter flavor, and the fat, or cocoa butter, that creates texture. However, some sugar is needed; pure chocolate is virtually inedible without it. Vanilla is also added, to bring out flavor, as are stabilizers, which keep chocolate froth crumbling.
What distinguishes French chocolate is the French love of purity, which translates into a taste as close to the natural bean as possible. But these beans are also very acidic and, without enough sugar, can be almost clawing in the throat. Even so, the French prefer a higher percentage of cocoa bean and butter (60-85 percent) in their chocolate than almost anyone else.
"I always say a beautiful woman does not need makeup," says Christian Constant, who creates chocolate that is 80 percent pure cocoa bean and cocoa butter. Each of Constant's confections--sold at a fashionable white and glass store near the Luxembourg Gardens -- is small and delicate, and perfumed with exotic spices or teas. They are striking in their intensity, yet the chocolate coating, or couverture, around each filling is almost as thin as tissue.
On the other hand, Robert Linxe, owner of the Maison du Chocolat mini empire, tells me that 68 percent is as high as he goes. More than that is "too aggressive for the palate. Too strong, acidic, acrid." He opens his mouth and points to the roof. "Here it is terrible," he says, adding a choking noise.
Linxe, who has five stores in Paris, claims, "Everything must be in balance." He won't even add sugar to his fillings; the sugar in the chocolate provides the sweetness. Like most Parisian chocolates, his contain either a ganache, a blend of cream and chocolate with flavors added, or a praline -- a combination of chocolate with hazelnuts, almonds, or both. "Try this," he says in a hushed voice. "It's Sylvia." Sylvia is a vaporous milk chocolate ganache named for the Leo Delibes ballet. He hands me another, a chocolate dome with rum ganache inside. "This is Faust, the first opera I ever saw." Rigoletto is milk chocolate over caramelized butter -- like its Verdi namesake, very buttery. "Americans like this one," Linxe says. "Americans like things unctuous [his favorite word], rich. The French like things hard. Americans have fun. The French don't know how anymore."
The French have become very serious-about chocolate, at least. In traditional meccas of chocolate like Switzerland, where the craft developed, industrial makers have edged out true artisans. And Belgium is known more for dramatic fillings like creme fraiche than for chocolate itself. But Pads has 30 top chocolatiers, more than in any other city in the world. People come from all over -- Europe, America, Japan-spending about $40 a pound for this premium chocolate. Five clubs exist solely for Parisians to discuss and rate chocolates.
Naturally, passions run high, especially as the "official" ingredients are being challenged. The six original members of the European Community (as the EU was then called) -- France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Italy--agreed on the same list of ingredients. Since joining in 1973, Great Britain, Ireland, and Denmark have been allowed to use vegetable fats, too, which are cheaper than cocoa butter, as long they didn't sell the products in member nations. But recently, they and newer members have been pushing to sell their lower-grade chocolate throughout the EU, arguing their case in the European Parliament. So far (as in so many issues), however, nothing has been resolved.
If Europe is going to be one free market, all members have to adopt identical standards -- it's hard to sell a German car to a French person, say, if the car's headlights are illegal in France. The same thing goes for chocolate -- the EU just can't have more than one definition of the word. Since it's unlikely that the British or the Danes will suddenly become high-quality chocolate makers, their definition might prevail -- even if it lowers the standard for everyone. This wouldn't force the French into making bad chocolate. They can continue to make as good a product as ever--for people willing to pay for it.
But artisans do not want sweet, bland vegetable-fat products (usually only 25 to 50 percent cocoa bean and butter) to be confused with their pride and joy. Defending their cause in the European Parliament is Jean Tomas Nordmann, a French delegate from the Radical Party -- a far more moderate one than its name suggests. "It is just like butter and margarine," he says. "You can have both, but they must have different names."
"It is really a question of principle," says Christian Constant. "Chocolate is chocolate. You put something else in and it isn't chocolate anymore." Like a German beer maker who may have to change his 500-year-old techniques, he and other artisans aren't necessarily worried about their businesses. They're worried about identity and years of tradition. While the headlines scream about common currencies and exchange rates, Europe's disputes are being fought in day-to-day terms, over sugar and fat, hops and yeast, what-my-grandfather-did versus what-your-grandfather-did.
There are health concerns, too. "It will increase cholesterol!" Linxe says. "If chocolate has all that fat, it will make you feel sick! You can eat 15 of my chocolates and feel fine." After 13 of his chocolates, however, I begin to doubt this claim.
To clarify what's at stake, I return to the battlefield -- the streets of Paris. My first stop is Fouquet in the 9th Arrondissement, a somber part of Paris filled with insurance offices and everyday businesses. Owner Christophe Chambeau's great-grandfather founded this shop in 1852. It looks much the same now as then: wooden cases, long counters, and high ceilings. A woman piles chocolates -- coffee caramels, a croustillant with a crunchy, cookie-like center-into an elaborate 19th-century-style box, which she ties with ribbons. Fouquet also sells buttery caramels and an array of hard candies flavored with fresh fruit juices. All these are made in the back with hand-cranked machines -- most of them so old no one remembers when they were bought.
It's easy to understand what fancy chocolate is when you are in a fancy shop. But one thing that makes Paris special is the unsung artisan, that neighborhood monsieur who serves worldclass products from a tiny shop on your corner. Montmartre is one of the last of the city's old-time neighborhoods. Algerians and Senegalese, immigrants and French, working class and bourgeois mix in a friendly, gossipy quarter. On a plain street there, you'll find Le Peche Mignon, or The Cute Little Sin.
Inside this tiny store, I'm nearly overcome with the aroma not of chocolate but of butter. Arnaud Larher is a pastry chef, but his chocolates are fast gaining a reputation. His ganaches are light and, as Linxe would say, unctuous, in flavors like tea and raspberry. "I want them to explode in the mouth," he declares as he stands over a chocolate pot, dunking two at a time, occasionally firing up his heat gun -- a hair-dryer-like device designed for paint stripping -- to keep the chocolate warm.
Unlike his more famous peers, Lather is just a foot soldier in the fight to save French chocolate. He might not be quoted in the newspapers or official reports to the EU, but he defends his craft. He simply practices it -- and wins a victory with every mouth that tastes his dark, pure art of perfection.
By Mark Kurlansky
© Travel Holiday and Hachette Filipacchi Magazines 2/99