Traditionally, the chocolatier is a man, and while he creates the chocolate and pastry confections, his wife serves behind the counter, advising, selling and wrapping. The patissier will have set to work at least six weeks before Easter. The result is an assortment of rabbits, chicks, baskets, shells, bells, balls and eggs of every size - from a wren's to an ostrich's - all in shades of chocolate gradating from creamy white to black coffee. These, along with the usual cakes and pastries, appear in shop windows only at the end of Lent: the French still take their feasts and festivals in due and proper order.
Sarlat, my local French market town, is swollen from April to September by a huge influx of tourists to the Dordogne. In the best position on its main street stands a shop named after its owner, M Roland Mertz. Its window is a colourful, imaginative display of a score of different varieties of cakes and tarts.
But the real excitement is inside. Arranged below the glass counter and along the shelves on the opposite side of the shop are the Easter offerings. The centrepiece is a dark chocolate scallop shell at least a foot across, over which are scattered starfish and sardines, a mixture of smaller chocolate shells and a whole shoal of tiny, scaly fish. It is for sale for Fr500 (about pounds 60), but Madame Mertz - sober and businesslike in her black velvet dress - doubts whether anyone will fork out that kind of money to buy it. More probably her husband will melt it down later.
I ask how many kilos of chocolate he has prepared and she disappears into the fragrant recesses of the shop to find out. 'Three to four hundred,' she says. All on his own? 'He made all the chocolate; but he has three young assistants who take over the cakes and pastries.' Is he training them? Certainly not, she says. They have all completed their basic three-year study in pastry, chocolate and ice-cream making. Now they are getting practical experience. They may go on to specialise in one branch of the art, or to open their own shops.
I go to the shelves to make my selection. There are chocolate Easter bunnies pulling baskets on wheels filled with eggs and fluffy yellow chicks; chocolate bells, eggs in nests, and a zoo of coloured marzipan animals. An assistant pulls open a drawer to reveal boxes of all sizes in silver, gold or sober dark brown with the M R monogram. I spend Fr234.50 (nearly pounds 30) on a modest order of mixed eggs and chicks. Delicious indulgence doesn't come cheap.
Gourdon, in the next departement, Lot, is a smaller town, but its main confectioner has created just as splendid a show for Easter. His name is on the door: B Deviers, Chocolatier, Matre Artisan. The biggest eggs in his window cost Fr139 and are set against a background of brilliantly dyed ostrich feathers. In addition to the usual Easter chicks and bunnies there are miniature hatboxes with bonneted bunnies offering each other baskets of carrots, inside which you can pile your own selection of handmade chocolates. There is, for variety, a Fr42 tortoise (half a chocolate egg, with one end broken off to let the round head protrude) and several scaly fish, for Fr71.50.
Inside the shop I asked Madame Deviers whether the fish are a Christian symbol. No, she says; just poissons d'avril for 1 April. And what about the tortoise? 'C'est son petit fantaisie.'
Her husband has been preparing his Easter display since early March. She estimates that he's made 'environs de 250kg de chocolat - pour le tout Gourdon, et les vacanciers.'
As well as white and dark he has a sort of dappled chocolate in the shape of eggs, fish, shells, as well as a huge array of realistically coloured marzipan fruit: apples, pears, bananas, lemons, pineapples, figs, even kiwi fruit.
I tell her that English children have to make do with mass-produced eggs in cardboard boxes and she looks at me aghast. 'They don't complain?' No, I tell her, they don't know any better. She smiles, pityingly.Reuse content