Friday, February 21, 2014

Le Chocolat!

The word "chocolate" is almost as synonymous with the word Paris as the word "amour" is -- there are chocolate shops everywhere you look, and creamy, whipped "chocolat chaud" is the favorite "gouter" of most youngsters here . We have four chocolate shops just on our little rue Montorgeuil: Jeff de Bruges, À la Mère de Famille (founded in 1791), l'Atelier du Chocolat, and Charles Chocolatier with its elegant facade and smart blue awning.

They each offer endless variations on the basic ingredient, enough to delight and satisfy every palate!

Not too surprisingly, there is also a Chocolate Museum in Paris, Le Musée Gourmand du Chocolat, tucked away on Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, just up the street from us.  We recently paid a visit, and learned a whole lot about the 4000 year old history of chocolate from the Olmec civilization to the present day.

I'm sure I've seen botanical prints of the cocoa plant, with its delicate flowers and giant fruits.

But I'd certainly never seen inside a cocoa seed, never knew the beans run down the centre so neatly! Its Latin name used to be "amygdala pecunaria" up until 1737, when Linnaeus gave it the scientific name Theobroma cacao, which means "food of the gods" in Greek!

Even under its old name, the cocoa plant was already considered worthy of sanctity, as this Guatamalan Cocoa Goddess from about 300 AD attests.

Not only was the cocoa bean worshipped, it was also highly valued by the Maya as currency: you could buy a rabbit for 10 cocoa beans, a healthy slave for 100. Heavily guarded porters transported the beans throughout Mesoamerica.

It took some effort to grind the beans into powder using a metate, always adding ground hot peppers, and then hot water. The name "chocolate" is thought to come from the Nahuatl language and their word "cacahuatl". During Mayan and Aztec time, it was a hot and spicy drink. The Aztecs also colored it red and mixed it with blood as an offering to the gods.

If the idea of a highly spiced hot chocolate drink appeals, maybe you want to try out this recipe. I know a certain member of our family who would just love it (hint, his family is from the Yucatan!)

After the arrival of Cortés in Mexico, hot spicy cocoa became the favorite drink of the Spaniards living and fighting there. Before long, goblets were fashioned from the husks of the cocoa fruit, some of them beautifully decorated with silver.

It wasn't until 1528 that Cortés took a shipment of cocoa beans back to Spain, along with a secret recipe that, for the first time, included sugar as well as pepper pods. It took until 1580, though, for the first chocolate shop to open in Spain. Only then were there regular deliveries of cocoa beans. Even so, Spain virtually held the monopoly on the product, jealously guarding it within its boundaries.

Eventually, through royal marriages and changing frontiers, the gates were open, and the drinking of chocolate spread fast throughout Europe. When Anne of Austria (the daughter of Philippe III of Spain) married Louis XIII in 1615 and moved to France, she brought her maid, her "molina", who was an expert at preparing this new chocolate drink. It didn't take long for exquisite containers to flood the Courts and private homes, like these silver chocolate servers, some with swizzle sticks poking through the lid. By twirling these "molinillos", you could create a layer of chocolate foam on top!

 These pretty porcelain bits would have graced many an 18th century parlor.

Artists of the period, documented the new craze, like Jean-Etienne Liotard and his La Belle Chocolatière" from 1743.

As all chocolate lovers know, there are many curative properties in the cacao bean as well as great pleasure! In the 1800s, for example, headaches, chest colds, and digestive problems could be helped by mixing one third cocoa, one third sugar and one third magnesia. For serious fatigue, chocolate was mixed in with raw meat, and cocoa butter was used as an ointment to treat burns and wounds.

It wasn't until the 19th century that an emulsification process was developed to create the "modern" solid chocolate bar. Suddenly, all those pretty china "bonbonnières" that had previously held hard candy, were now jammed with chocolates!

 Other delicate containers included these gorgeous painted glass chocolate boxes.

Molds in all sizes and shapes appeared. I rather liked this giant Santa, imagining its centre being filled with creamy dark chocolate!

It didn't take long for mass production to produce brand names and advertisements that still exist today.

 In the basement of the museum, a young chef gave a demonstration of how liquid chocolate is poured into molds, with all but a thin layer removed. The remaining thin layer spends fifteen minutes in the refrigerator to harden, before a caramel filling is piped into each mold. Back in the fridge for another fifteen minutes. A final topping is added, chilled once more, and a superb soft-centered, mouth-watering goodie emerges:

By now, I was ready to do some serious chocolate sampling. With my usual great good fortune, I had been invited to join some members of the American Women's Group, Paris to a hot chocolate tasting at Le Bristol, the super-posh hotel on rue Fauberg-St.-Honoré, recently famous as the Midnight in Paris hotel.

Here, in the elegant Tea Room, with its pretty pink marble columns and bedecked with beautiful bouquets of fresh flowers, nine of us gathered to sample what the menu described as a recipe full of "l'onctuousité et la puissance d'un chocolat Grand Cru Pur Caraïbe".

I trust your mouths are watering at the sight of this unctuous, powerful liquid! Ours certainly were, and it did not disappoint.


Vive le chocolat!

À bientôt!


  1. My favorite food in the whole world! Great to have some history to go with it, Janet.

  2. So happy to have caught up with your blog again. This post had my mouth watering, thank you! Susan

  3. Dear Janet,

    Oh my...sigh.


  4. Just how much chocolate another great blog