Food and Drink: Time to launch the campaign for real chocolate: In France they are highly priced and prized; in Britain they are over-packaged and taste of sugar; Joanna Blythman compares Easter eggs

THERE is a hen nesting in the window of Bernachon, Lyons' top chocolatier. She sits about 2ft tall on a basket of straw. Around and underneath her you can see her eggs, some intact, some hatched. From the tip of her precisely etched beak, to the last carefully crafted strand of straw, she is constructed entirely from chocolate. Different shades of chocolate delineate each part of her. The undulating comb is a burnished dark chocolate with reddish tone, the eyes are almost black, a touch of white for her claws. Every feather is picked out in fine lines which lend a startling realism.

The window on the other side of the entrance is given over to another equally elaborate chocolate display. This time, it is shiny dolphins, their backs arched, on an ornamental fountain. Walk inside, and the unmistakable smell of excellent chocolate hits you: rich, dark and sophisticated.

A team of about 20 efficient assistants is slowly emptying the wallets of well-heeled Lyonnais. Easter is in the air, and every French person starts thinking about chocolate. There cannot be many offers for the window displays - they would cost hundreds of pounds - but the cabinets inside are a different story. Rabbits, swans, squirrels, cocks, ducks, eggs and bells of various dimensions share space with crocodiles, mackerel, flounder, lobster, scallop shells and tiny turtles. Most are of dark chocolate. Each is a work of art. Display packaging is minimal because they need no embellishing: just a loop of ribbon or a twist of raffia.

A 6in bell filled with truffles will set you back about pounds 18. That magnificent sea bass stuffed with roundels of shiny dark palets d'or (a rich ganache centre in shiny dark chocolate) will leave you little change from pounds 45. The best and biggest egg works out at pounds 75; the average spend is around pounds 25. Drop down in size to a mussel or a tiny dolphin with a simple praline filling, and you are talking pounds 2 for a couple of mouthfuls.

The thinking that prompts French people to part with a substantial sum for a one-off treat is this: like oysters and champagne at Christmas and new year, great chocolate is an Easter pleasure, a high point in the year.

A dark-chocolate Easter figure from Bernachon will be made from a couverture which contains around 70 per cent cocoa solids and very little sugar. The cocoa beans will have been selected from areas famed for their particular flavour and perfume. Each stage of the drying and grinding process will have been carried out with meticulous care. You can be sure there will be no unnatural additives, artificial aromas or vegetable fat.

This is a triumph of quality over quantity. The tradition in France is for children to be given a special Easter chocolate object. Children's expectations are modest: they expect one such object, not several. Grandparents are often the source, with parents adding painted eggs for the Easter egg hunt.

All French cities have 'names' such as Bernachon, which mark the pinnacle of the chocolatier's art. Paris, of course, has several. In addition, there are legions of smaller corner patissiers who make their own chocolate figures and objects just for Easter.

The supermarkets are making inroads into this specialist market. These days, more and more buyers are abandoning the high prices of the chocolatier for the cheaper Easter range to be had in 'les grandes surfaces'. By shopping there, you can cut the cost of your Easter purchase by half - but it is still steep compared with Britain. An 18in bunny will cost pounds 7- pounds 12. The chocolate will almost certainly be milk (about 30 per cent cocoa solids) and much of it will have been imported from Germany. As unemployment rises, purchasers try to convince themselves that its quality rivals the chocolatier's or that the kids cannot tell the difference anyway.

But the benchmark of the elegant chocolatier, working miracles on the finest raw materials, is still lodged in the French psyche. Their creations are not considered a rip-off, or elitist, just rapport qualite prix (value for money). And when French people can afford it, large numbers of them still regard it as money well spent.

'LOOK HOW many Easter eggs I've got] Come and see.' A small sticky hand drags you over to a display of gaudy packaged eggs and Easter confectionery, stacked high like a Lego construction. All adults know how to play the game. 'How many? Gosh] Twenty-six] Well, lucky old you]' This script has a standard plot. You will be expected to pick your favourite and discuss how it compares with his or her favourite. And as the enthusiastic babble moves on to the intricacies of that little fluffy chick versus the pink bow, you try to drift off, unobtrusively, to the adults. You do not want to be around to witness the sickening orgy of consumption which is about to follow.

For decades now at Easter time, Britain's children have been deluged with low-grade chocolate and clever packaging, given to them by indulgent family and friends, It is usually all familiar stuff - Buttons, Smarties, Roses chocolates - repackaged in tatty finery. Stripped of the foil, the bows, the coloured cardboard, it is just an expensive way to buy the same old thing; the sugary brown stuff the nation knows as chocolate.

Easter highlights an endemic British problem. We have never got to grips with understanding what good chocolate really is and it is about time we did. This is not some purist's plea for everyone to give up something they have always loved. Easter eggs are one of the few items that disappoint even children, with their stale, cardboardy taste.

Children cannot be expected to interpret the intricacies of good chocolate, but most adults ought to be able to grasp the basics. Just as we have embraced new, real foods such as fromage frais, orange juice and salad dressing, we need to rediscover chocolate. The basic rules are easily assimilated. Real chocolate is dark. It should have a high proportion of cocoa solids (50-70 per cent), and very little sugar. The list of ingredients should be a short one: cocoa mass and butter, sugar, lecithin (a natural emulsifier) and a litle natural aroma perhaps.

Then come the refinements. Is it shiny? Does it smell good? Does it make a satisfying cracking sound when you break it? How smooth is it on the palate?

Slightly more complicated is the variation of milk chocolate, where a good proportion of cocoa solids (35-44 per cent) is mixed with milk for a milder, more unctuous effect. Here the presence of the milk makes it harder to pick out the quality of the cocoa in the chocolate. Milk makes it cheaper to produce, and easier to adulterate with cheaper additions. That is why it has such a hold on the mass market.

Few of us ever think to read the ingredient list on a bar of chocolate or chocolate egg. Chocolate is just chocolate, after all. If we were interested, we would see that sugar was top of the list. There will then follow a list of items which have no place in any good chocolate, milk or plain: anonymous vegetable fat, butter, oil, artificial flavourings, even colour. As for the poor old cocoa pod in any form (the excuse for calling this candy-bar stuff 'chocolate'), it is not much in evidence. A Cadbury's Button egg, for example, has a cocoa solids content of only 20 per cent. A Thornton's milk-chocolate egg is only marginally better at 25 per cent. When the cocoa content drops this low, all we are tasting is sugar suspended with a vaguely chocolate flavour in vegetable fat.

The British Easter egg market has altered very little since the Fifties. But with a growing awareness that there is more to chocolate then we once realised, there is now room for new aspirational points of reference which embrace quality and genuine good value. This year, Safeway has successfully experimented with French supermarket-quality Easter chocolate lines, via its special relationship with a French supermarket chain, Casino. Top of the range is a large rabbit in a wicker basket, price pounds 10.98. The range offers a better deal than most British eggs, being less packaged. At 31 per cent cocoa solids, they are no great shakes, but still a cut above the competition.

Next year, Safeway plans to extend the range. 'We feel that consumers may be prepared to go up to pounds 15 even, for something eye-catching and innovative,' a spokeswoman says.

Relatively rare specialist chocolate shops in London such as Rococco in the King's Road are selling 2ft-tall dark chocolate bunnies in the French style. They contain 60 per cent cocoa solids and cost pounds 27. 'A bunny would feed a family for a week,' says Chantal Coady, the shop's director, to explain the price. There are also hand-piped, dark-chocolate quail's nests filled with eggs for pounds 7.95. But for shoppers who cannot or will not go beyond pounds 3, Rococo offers a real blown egg, filled with praline, for pounds 2.75.

'Our philosophy is: eat smaller amounts of chocolate and eat better stuff when you do,' says Ms Coady. It is a message that Britain needs to hear.

(Photograph omitted)

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