Foodie holidays: Chocolate in the streets of Paris

Patricia Cleveland-Peck sets out in search of the best chocolates in Paris
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The Independent Travel

Paris is where I first fell in love; my feelings for the man diminished, but for the city, never. If the present long-standing-love-of-my life wants to please me he knows he only has to suggest a few days là-bas. His weakness is chocolate; the real thing, bitter, dark and intense. I had acquired some insider information myself from a previous visit to the Paris-based Club des Croqueurs du Chocolat - a very serious institution composed of lawyers, politicians, writers and designers who meet solemnly for chocolate tasting and evaluation.

Paris is where I first fell in love; my feelings for the man diminished, but for the city, never. If the present long-standing-love-of-my life wants to please me he knows he only has to suggest a few days là-bas. His weakness is chocolate; the real thing, bitter, dark and intense. I had acquired some insider information myself from a previous visit to the Paris-based Club des Croqueurs du Chocolat - a very serious institution composed of lawyers, politicians, writers and designers who meet solemnly for chocolate tasting and evaluation.

I had bought a copy of Edmund White's new book Le Flâneur for the train journey to Paris. A good read, full of quirky information about the capital, it celebrates the activity of strolling idly through the city. Although we had a definite quest, chocolate, we were, essentially my chocoholic husband and I, flâneurs, open to every experience that the streets of Paris had to offer. Nevertheless, we made our way directly to La Maison du Chocolat at 52 rue Francois 1er.

Here Robert Linxe creates melt-in-the-mouth ganaches filled with crÿme fraîche and chocolate mixture and flavouring: Maiko, with ginger, Andalousie, with fresh lemons, Zagora with mint, and Garrigua flavoured with fennel. Just down the road at number 22 is the old-established house of Fouquet where not only are the chocolates slabs or palets, tea or grapefruit-flavoured, scattered with gold leaf - made by hand, but even the round boxes are hand-crimped to a pie-crust finish.

Passing elegant window displays of haute couture and perfume, we next made our way to Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt and Jadis et Gourmande at 49 bis, famous for their tresses à l'orange - strands of crystallised orange, almond and nougat in bitter chocolate, irregular in appearance, but delectable. From here it was not far to Fauchon, Place de la Madeleine, perhaps the best-known temple to gastronomy in the capital. There we were introduced to Auguste, a cake created by Sebastian Gaudard, which consists of five segments of chocolate-coated ganache flavoured respectively with Darjeeling tea, Provençal honey, morello cherry, coffee from Zimbabwe and Java pepper. The curved pieces fit together to form a single cake which nevertheless offers your guests a choice.

Do not, however, imagine for one moment that we had been gobbling down our cakes and chocolates as we walked. No, they remained in their smart carrier bags. The dégustation du chocolat is not to be taken lightly. As the writer Marie Dubosc counsels: "Choose a moment when your palate is neutral - 11 in the morning for example; sit comfortably with a little background music - piano rather than violin; eat alone or with a discreet companion so that you can concentrate; place the chocolates on an attractive plate and use a good knife; have still water and a little bread to hand; first select a chocolate with your eyes, then sniff it gently; cut it in two, appreciating the colour, the coating and the density of the filling; finally place it in your mouth and let it melt slowly so that the different notes are revealed successively; never consume chocolates one after another, drink some water or eat a little bread in between."

The first actual taste of chocolate to pass our lips that morning was at Angelina's tea room at 226 rue du Rivoli, where we ordered cups of the famous hot chocolate. Made to a secret recipe, this delectable drink of a velvety texture and sumptuous mahogany colour, is served from porcelain jugs with a bowl of whipped cream and a carafe of water on the side.

I had been given the names of the three most creative chocolatiers in the city, and one of these, Jean-Paul Hévin, winner of many prizes (and somewhat controversial for inventing the "apéritif chocolate" filled with goats' cheese) was to be found in nearby in rue St Honoré. The window display, a giant chocolate dinosaur and a copper pan full of marron-glacés, was stunning, and inside were hundreds of chocolates, 15 types of cake and eight bars of grand cru chocolate (each made with a different cocoa bean) laid out on the counter. Breathtaking. A romantic touch is the anthology of poetry from which customers can select a verse to add to their box of chocolates or cakes.

The next day we took the métro to the Pont d'Alma and crossed the river to the left bank to visit the other two master craftsman. The first, Michel Chaudon, who also has two shops in Japan, welcomed us with great enthusiasm. He creates a new chocolate each year: Merida, delicately flavoured with orange blossom, has just joined a range which includes Esmerelda, an all-chocolate truffle which balances a velvety texture with bitterness, Oceana, flavoured with seven spices, Sarawak with a hint of pepper and, most unexpected but seductively refreshing, San Yago, flavoured with basil.

Also on the left bank, in rue des Saints Pÿres, is Debauve & Gallais, founded in 1800 by two chemists and worth a visit for the antique décor of the interior. Once frequented by Baudelaire and Brillat-Savarin, this house originally marketed chocolate for medicinal purposes. In fact, a friend of mine remembers his grandfather, a country doctor buying stocks of its granules to build up poorly villagers - granules which he as a child loved devouring by the spoonful. A new range of "healthy chocolates" takes up this medicinal mantle, but the old pistoles de Marie Antoinette, flavoured with double vanilla, orgeat, coffee and orange blossom, and les incroyables, balls of nougatine in dark chocolate, still sell more than any other.

Our last call, to our third master chocolatier, was perhaps the most inspiring. Christian Constant's shop at 37 rue d'Assas is a sleekly elegant poem in white, black and grey. A tray of China tea accompanied by a dark chocolate cake flavoured delicately with lemon was set before us, for M Constant is a prize-winning patissier as well as a chocolatier. His Soleil Noir, a bomb-shaped cake bitter chocolate flavoured with cinnamon, is world famous. He also probably knows more about chocolate than anyone living, having written six books on the subject, visited plantations across the world, and studied the botany and history of chocolate as well, as perfecting the techniques of working with it.

Each type of cocoa bean absorbs the floral notes of its environment in rather the same way as honey, and each grand cru bean should be used in the best way. He favours the fine criollo bean, and his selection, which includes jasmin du Yemen et thé vert, vanille de Tahiti, rose et raisins de Corinth and ylang-ylang des Comores, has incredible finesse.

The following day we had time for lunch at Le Grand Véfour, our favourite restaurant. Frequented by Napoleon and Josephine, and Colette, it is everything a great restaurant should be. Dating from 1785, it is grand but not intimidating, hushed but exciting (wonderful for people-watching) with an attractive painted and mirrored décor. Guy Martin, the chef, cooks sublimely and the staff, under the lovely maître d', Christian David, treat the customers with a degree of courtesy rarely experienced.

I ate a wonderful parmentier of queue de boeuf aux truffles (great bowls of truffles are brought round for the customers to sniff), but for my companion what could have been better than triple cÿtes d'agneau, jus café-chocolat - three lamb chops with coffee-chocolate sauce?

For pudding Guy Martin's very special selection of sweet vegetables, tourte d'artichaut et légumes confit, was served with bitter almond sorbet, while he made his final révérence to the food of the gods with palet au chocolat au lait, glace caramel brun et prise de sel de Guérande. Replete but happy, we returned to reality, and Waterloo.

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