What are the French known for throughout the world? The first elements that come to mind are definitely a sense of style, culinary expertise and a certain art of living. France, for most people, is about large cups of café au lait, tender baguette, deep red wine and smelly cheese. Chocolate, however, is not generally regarded as one of our specialties: no one really talks of French chocolate especially when one considers that two of our close neighbors, Switzerland and Belgium, are world renowned for their gourmet chocolate. But French chocolate is just that: not very well known, not renowned at all... a delicious secret that the French have kept for themselves for decades.
Chocolate was first introduced to the country in the 17th century by a Spanish princess, Anne of Austria, when she wedded the King of France Louis XIII. Royal infatuation for the sweet and spicy beverage brought from Mesoamerica by Spanish conquistadors soon spread throughout the French court. In fact, this new ingredient became a topic of debate and controversy. Many attributed a myriad of therapeutic virtues to the cocoa bean and praised its digestive, restoring and aphrodisiac properties. Others denounced the consumption of the exotic bean as a dangerous vice. Chocolate's irresistible attraction, however, soon alleviated fears and the miracle food was sold in pharmacies in France.
At the onset of the Industrial Revolution, chocolate businesses were established making chocolate bars and cocoa beverages finally accessible to the masses. Chocolate was quickly to become a French passion... but not just any chocolate: the French pallet is as demanding with chocolate as it is with wine and has a definite preference for dark chocolate. Indeed, from hot cocoa cups sipped in a café to handcrafted bite size morsels, the French indulge in high quality dark chocolate. Each family has its favorite chocolate mousse and cake recipe that is passed down to the next generation. No family gathering is complete without that special chocolate cake that our grandmother used to bake.
But thanks to our skillful maitres chocolatiers, chocolate for the French is not solely a scrumptious mouthwatering childhood memory. Ever wonder why the French excel in romance? Chocolate, of course! Sensuous, spicy, bitter, sweet, surprising chocolate. Maitres chocolatiers throughout the country surpass themselves creating unique pieces, patiently and passionately just as an artist would. Each morsel is a delicate combination of pure origin chocolate (obtained from carefully chosen cocoa beans) and a variety of quality ingredients. Exotic fruits and spices from around the globe mingle with traditional scents and flavors creating delicate gems of culinary expertise.
What better way to represent, protect and promote this unique tradition than to found an academy? The French Academy of Chocolate and Candy Making, established in 1901, is composed of 40 chocolate “experts” such as maitres chocolatiers of course but also University professors, lawyers and writers who take their mission extremely seriously. The Academy edits a dictionary of chocolate which strives to define the vocabulary of French chocolate making. The ingredients, tools and techniques used by maitres chocolatiers can no longer remain a mystery for the bearer of this Bible of French chocolate. Furthermore, each year, the Prize of the Academy rewards a person dedicated to the endorsement of the tradition of French chocolate making. The Academy's undertakings may seem slightly futile, its members may seem trapped in their ivory tower. Fortunately, these are mere misconceptions. Their strong lobby against a European law enabling the use of certain vegetable fats other than pure cocoa butter in chocolate concerns all French chocolate lovers throughout the world.
“Life is like chocolate, it's the bitter that makes one appreciate the sweet”. Xavier Brebion Chocolate is referred to in countless French songs and novels as a symbol of desire, ranging from innocent pleasures to passionate lust. The similarities between the values evoked by chocolate and upheld by French culture, however, are perhaps best conveyed by the movie industry. After all, indulging in the good things in life seems to be a recurrent trait of French culture, be it cinema or chocolate! Recently, the movie "Chocolat", starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, celebrated the magical attributes of chocolate and even contributed to revitalizing chocolate sales in Europe and North America.
Chocolate is inevitably tied to French, sometimes lavish and extravagant, sense of style. This decadent union is celebrated once a year at the Salon du Chocolat (Chocolate Trade Show). This wonderful concept was founded about ten years back in Paris by Sylvie Douce and François Jeantet to create occasions to discover the incredible variety and uses of chocolate. The show is now held around the globe in Paris, New York, and Tokyo but also in Moscow, Dubai and Beijing. Maitres Chocolatiers exhibit and sell their products but there are also classes, dégustation (tasting), presentations and competitions. Armed with a pen, a notepad and a large bottle of water, one can stroll through the stands, learn, admire and even taste most of the mouthwatering creations. The possibilities of the magical cocoa bean simply seem unlimited, so much so that fashion designers and maitres chocolatiers have had the wondrous idea of bringing their expertise together. Indeed chocolate's ability to take different shapes and textures has inspired the fashion industry. At the Salon du Chocolat, on the catwalk, the models' dresses, hats and shoes are not just dazzling, they're scrumptious! Would you like a bite of what the world with a French touch has to offer?