Monday, January 26, 2009

Heaven in Paris - Our Tour de Chocolat

Parisians are world-renowned for their richness in taste. Bread, cheese, wine, chocolate, these are all items found in abundance. Despite the fact that “boulangeries”, “fromageries” and “chocolateries” are frequently seen on street corners, there is no sacrifice on quality. As my host mother said, “we don’t eat a lot of food, or food in big portions, but the food that we do eat is very rich”.

I’ve learned that it is not possible to resist the call of my sweet-tooth, and after reading a New York Times article by Amy Thomas on a self-guided Tour de Chocolat, I succumbed to the temptation! Tammy, Michael and I, chose three chocolate shops recommended in the article, all in the Montparnasse area, and all a close walk from one another.

The first, called Christian Constant, was visible from a distance with its white marble façade and black lettering. When we entered inside, the aroma of chocolate filled my nostrils as I saw a glass display case (similar to those in most bakeries here) filled with rows of chocolate. Bottles of wine lined the walls on one end, while white canisters of tea blended into the walls on the other; the décor was simple, but classy.

The selection of chocolate was quite extensive compared to that in North America. Apart from the typical nut and caramel flavors, truffles, and fruit filled interiors, there was also a selection of tea flavors, flower essences and selections inspired by international spices.

The third store we went to (I will leave the second for last), Jean-Charles Rochoux, was similar to the first in terms of selection. Chocolate figurines lined the store windows. The clutter in the glass displays and on the countertops led to a tackier and less refined store appearance. In this particular boutique, we weren’t allowed to touch anything, including the pre-wrapped boxes. This measure seemed a little counterintuitive, especially given the lack of free counter space. We were encouraged to ask questions, and when I inquired about a chocolate containing an infusion of different peppers, the notion of nuance in taste was very much a common thread.

The second “chocolaterie”, Pierre Marcolini, was in a class of its own. Its appearance reminded me more of an exclusive art gallery than a chocolate store. The display in the window consisted of five sculpture stands, all equidistant, and containing a selection of one to five chocolates enclosed in a glass case. My first instinct was to lower my voice upon entering the boutique, and unlike in Jean-Charles Rochaux, I had no desire to touch anything before me. Rather than the baker and patisserie-type display casing seen in the other chocolate shops, this particular store showcased the chocolate in a counter similar to those in most jewelry stores. We had to walk up to the counter in order to be able to see what was contained underneath the glass.

The chocolate selection not only included that of the other stores, but also consisted of some unique additions, such as Violette, “a pure square chocolate infused with violet”. Each chocolate had a memorable appearance. Four metallic colors dissected the upper layer of Quatre Epices, while the tea flavored chocolates had their name inscribed in dainty gold lettering on the surface. When we proceeded to pay for our selections at this store, we were ushered to the cash register in a private nook in the boutique. The royal blue carpet, dark walls, and minimalist décor, accentuated the chic appearance and contributed to a sense of exclusivity.

I waited until going home to taste the chocolates from each location. Those from Christian Constant and Jean-Charles Rochaux were of similar quality and taste, but perhaps my taste-buds are not refined enough to notice the difference! The ganaches that I tried were dark and rich, a hard shell enveloping a smooth and creamy filling. Upon first bite, a powerful cocoa flavor burst into my mouth, leaving as its only remnant, a bitter sensation on my tongue. The Earl Grey flavor would have been difficult to recognize had I not been expecting it. The same can be said for the Calvaro flavor, in which I was not able to taste anything other than the dark chocolate (but was supposed to be able to detect an assortment of spices). Subtlety only acts as a powerful agent when the fusion of flavors within can be distinguished from those of the base ingredient.

Unlike the other stores, each chocolate that I tasted from Pierre Marcolini paid tribute to the flavor that it highlighted, and I hope that the stunning décor at this boutique did not impact my ability to be a judge of taste! The coffee ganache, round in shape, was half covered on the surface with a thin layer of cocoa bean shavings. In addition to defining the appearance of the chocolate itself, it also provided a change in texture, a crunch permeating the creamy coffee interior.

The Earl Gray and Citron Tea flavors were clearly distinguishable but did not clash with the cocoa itself. The violet flavor was subtle upon first bite, providing a hint of something foreign but not out of place. The proportions of each ingredient within the Pierre Marcolini chocolates seemed to me, to be well thought out and correctly determined.

Although I am no connoisseur, my first taste of Parisian chocolate provided satisfaction to my sweet tooth, at least until I look into the next patisserie window! We only had an opportunity to sample three chocolateries, but before I leave Paris, I hope to see if I am able to find one that beats Pierre Marcolini.

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