Chocolate in Paris is serious business. One can hardly walk from the Louvre to the Left Bank without bumping into a chocolate boutique. Hot spots such as Patrick Roger and La Maison du Chocolat tend to be found on "best" lists, but there are scores of smaller shops too, testimony to the Parisian love affair with gourmet chocolate. Here are just a few worth a taste:
Jacques Genin: As I entered the room, the familiar aroma — pulpy, tart and fruity — overwhelmed me. "Passion fruit," I said, holding my hands to my heart. The proprietor, Jacques Genin, responded with a boyish smile and said, "Fruit de la passion," as he pointed his hands to the heavens as if to thank them for placing such a divine delicacy here on Earth.
Long considered one of the finest chocolatiers in Paris, Genin has been providing chocolates to luxury hotels in the city (including George V) for years from his private workshop in the 15th arrondissement, near the Eiffel Tower.
But in 2008, Genin opened the doors to his first boutique in the Marais district. Located at the end of an unassuming street, the sparsely elegant and modern décor of white counters and blond wood floors seemed designed to let the chocolates be the stars of the show.
Here, perfectly arranged chocolates, in a seductive square shape, and simply decorated with a few squiggles or lines, dots or dashes, are reminiscent of abstract paintings hanging in a museum.
The outside of Genin's chocolates may be subtle, but the insides show off an exotic blend of flavors, including Passionnément, a milk chocolate made with passion fruit; Bergame, a dark chocolate with bergamot (an aromatic oil); and Orient Express, a dark chocolate combination of the spice cardamom and coffee.
Genin, an affable man, offered his work with pride. He escorted me to a display of caramels and handed me a small, citron-colored candy. The tastes of pure passion fruit, butter, cream and sugar all melded together in my mouth.
I immediately bought a box of mixed caramels: mango, almond, coffee, ginger, pistachio and passion fruit, as well as a selection of chocolates — all respectfully placed in Genin's signature brushed silver-colored metal box ($1.50 a chocolate and $125 a pound for the caramels).
Jean-Charles Rochoux: If Genin's chocolate boutique is a model of modern minimalism, Jean-Charles Rochoux has the whimsical side of the street covered. Rochoux's tiny 6-year-old shop in the heart of fashionable St.-Germain-des-Prés is lined with large chocolate sculptures, including an alligator hatching from an egg and garden gnomes at play. "I've made one major chocolate creation for every year since we opened the shop," Rochoux said.
But whimsy aside, it's Rochoux's 40 different flavors of bonbons that are gaining him a reputation as a master of his culinary craft. "Rochoux is still flying a bit under the radar," said David Lebovitz, author of "Ready for Dessert." "But he's also making some of the best chocolates in the city, and word is getting out."
It's not just the quality of Rochoux's chocolates that is getting him noticed but his inventiveness as well. A cheerful man with a round face and slightly receding hairline, Rochoux spoke with respect as he described how he got some of his best ideas.
For example, one of Rochoux's signature chocolates — the Habanos Cigare, a combination of Cuban, Dominican and Nicaraguan cigar tobacco — was inspired by a customer who said, "I like to smoke cigars, and I like to eat chocolate. Why not combine the two?" "Why not?" thought Rochoux, who then went on to create the popular bonbon, with actual tobacco that gives it an unexpectedly friendly, sweet-smoky flavor and salty aftertaste.
I also sampled two of Rochoux's other unusual chocolates: Ayora Poivre, made with various peppers, and Louise Basilic, a dark chocolate filled with basil. Before leaving, I bought a big box of bonbons to take home to California. They never made it.
Cacao et Chocolat: In addition to Rochoux and Genin, which are making their mark as sole proprietors, countless other small, multi-location shops can be found throughout Paris, although they often are missing from the guidebooks.
One such purveyor is Cacao et Chocolat, with three shops throughout Paris. The stores have a boutique look and feel and are uniquely organized. One section is dedicated to gift chocolates — with its lime-green boxes in striking contrast to the deep-melon-colored walls — another part of the store offers chocolate products for cooking. A separate area contains chocolates for snacking, and there's a sit-down bar where patrons can sip hot chocolate and order treats.
The brainchild of an architect, an entrepreneur and a chocolate maker, the stores mirror a shared passion to make the shops friendly and educational places dedicated to all aspects of chocolate. Of the dozen chocolate and pastry shops I visited in Paris, Cacao et Chocolat had the most relaxed atmosphere. The staff was decidedly unstuffy, freely offered samples and enthusiastically answered questions.
As for the bonbons themselves, the ganaches run the gamut from fruity to floral and include the Palenque, a dark chocolate with Chinese ginger; Zope with honey and cayenne pepper; Kerala, a dark chocolate infused with cardamom; and Toci, made with Peruvian mango.
The beautiful packaging makes these a great gift to bring home — $35 to $60 for a 1-pound box. But buyer beware. Because it's part of the company philosophy to maintain the authenticity of the bean's flavor in its recipes, the chocolates sold here are strong in taste. But for any chocoholic worth his or her cocoa powder, this only adds to the allure.
Servant: The out-in-the-open, burnt-orange and egg-yolk-yellow French baking dishes filled to the brim with confections signal that I'm in a different kind of sweet shop. Although most of the chocolate boutiques in Paris keep their wares safely tucked behind a pristine glass case, many of the goods at Servant are boldly out on display for all to see.
Servant, which has been serving sugary delicacies for more than 100 years, has four storefronts that offer hard candies and chocolate bonbons, but goes a step further by making and selling traditional confections from throughout France.
The young woman assisting me patiently explained about each candy's origin, history and ingredients, including Cousin de Lyon, a chocolate ganache flavored with Curaçao and enrobed in a pale, emerald green marzipan, and Calisson from Aix-en-Provence, a polished sugar covering almond paste and crystallized fruit that was first made famous in 1454 during a royal wedding.
Prices here are about $24 for a one-third pound of traditional confections.
As I paid for my box of hand-picked traditional French confections, the saleswoman noticed my Rochoux bag and said, "He makes very good chocolate. I shop there often."
I asked her how she manages to stay so thin working near all this chocolate. "Of course, I eat chocolate all the time," she said. "But I walk to and from work every day." I thought about my own waistline over the last week and realized that, despite snacking on dark chocolate bonbons and nibbling on coffee caramels, I'd also walked from shop to shop and hadn't gained a pound. Perhaps I'd become more Parisian in my approach to chocolate.
That afternoon, I passed two independent chocolate shops not on my list. I dutifully stopped in each to sample their wares, and then take the long way back to my hotel — it's just what the chocolatier ordered.
If you go
Some shops have multiple locations.
Jacques Genin, 133 Rue de Turenne, Paris; 1-4577-2901
Jean-Charles Rochoux, 16 Rue d' Assas, Paris; 1-4284-2945, http://www.jcrochoux.fr
Cacao et Chocolat, 63 Rue Saint Louis en L'lle, Paris; 1-4633-3333, http://www.cacaoetchocolat.com
Servant, 5 Rue de Sèvres, Paris; 1-4548-8360, http://www.chocolaterie-servant.com