Rowan Pelling: In a small French town, a man with dark, unsmiling eyes makes magic

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The Independent Online

As a member of the Ide Hill Brownie pack in the Seventies, I was told I should always carry a two-penny piece, a bit of string and a plaster. With these tools, Brown Owl implied, you were equipped to deal with anything, from a stubbed toe to armed terrorists. As an adult in this brave new century I now know that I should always carry a book and some chocolate. Experience has taught me that you cannot avoid catastrophe with a 12-inch piece of string but you should at least die happy with something diverting in your hand and 70 per cent cocoa solids melting on your tongue.

When I flew to France a fortnight ago, my Godiva pralines were fortified by a paperback copy of Joanne Harris's best-seller, Chocolat. The book describes the redemptive effect that a chocolate-maker with a sorceress's skills has on a parochial French village. This theme flowed from fiction into life: I was on the trail of a chocolatier, Joel Durand, who pursues his craft in the unlikely small-town setting of St Rémy de Provence. Spookier yet, M Durand suggests his art owes something to necromancy. His brochure declares, "L'alchimie du chocolat est ma passion."

M Durand first came to my notice when the Erotic Review's literary editor, Christopher Hart, went to Provence to interview Maxime de la Falaise, matriarch of three generations of couture models. He found M Durand's velvety chocolates were the best method of cajoling secrets from the heart of this capricious, Irish-born aristocrat who once made whoopee with Max Ernst. Then some girlfriends of mine visited the shop. "Monsieur," they reported, "not only creates slices of heaven – he is heaven." The novelist Clare Naylor was so overcome that she sent me a short story in which the heroine is ravished by a chocolatier on his worktable. I began to gird my loins for a pilgrimage to St Rémy.

Fact and fiction finally parted company when I stepped inside M Durand's shop. The chocolatier is a man so devoted to his art that it's impossible to imagine him sullying his work-surface with bodily fluids. His dark, unsmiling eyes bore into yours as he assesses your commitment to the cause. M Durand has more kinship with the anti-hero of Chocolat, the repressive village priest, than its exotic heroine, Vianne Rocher. His shop presents a model of focused austerity, with stainless-steel surfaces and assistants in white lab coats. No nipples of Venus or marzipan pigs here. The only display is one counter of identically shaped square chocolates.

Not that this shop isn't sexy. It's sexy in the manner of a woman who knows a well-cut shirt beats a PVC bustier. I have never tasted chocolates as mouth-watering as these. They release M Durand's alchemy in a slow flood over the palate. Each is stencilled with gold numerals to indicate its flavour, and a menu outlines the 32 varieties. Number 28, "depending on season", is "fresh rose petals or Provence almond praline and safran en pistil from Camargue". This is not excess – this is sensuality brought to its exact biting point.

The chocolatier reinforced the qualms I'd had about Chocolat's location. Could anyone in France be redeemed by a shop that is a temple to sensual excess? Surely that's preaching to the long-converted. What underlies French sensibility if not an understanding of epicurean culture? And the French know that quality speaks for itself: the better the shop, the plainer the display. Furthermore, would a Catholic priest rage about a chocolate shop? Who understands the moral necessity for temptation better than the Catholic Church?

No, there's one fundamental flaw with Chocolat: it should be set in Britain. Only a Protestant zealot of the type who bans "Jerusalem" from weddings could forcefully oppose such harmless pleasure. Only a country that has gorged itself on confectionery made from vegetable fat could be redeemed by the taste of properly blended cocoa solids. Look at me: I've been saved. When I was a Brownie my dearest fantasy was to win a lifetime supply of Mars bars. Now I'm an adult, my fantasy sits beside me: a box of chocolates hand-picked by M Durand for their erotic powers. I recommend black chocolate and anise blossom.

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