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I think I’m pretty easy going when it comes to my chocolate. I like it dark; very dark (my favorite); milk; white; with nuts; with fruit; cream filled…well, you get the picture. But what is it that attracts me (or anyone) to the chocolate or pastry? Is it the brightly colored packaging with the beautiful bows or the intricate dusted designs on the tops of glossy chocolates? Is it the perfectly molded chocolate with the nut or fruit garnish that hints of the flavors inside? Or could it be the luxurious textures of chocolate and confections that are assembled like a glorious piece of art?
I was on a journey to figure out just what it is (or isn’t) that draws me into a chocolate candy shop or bakery. I wanted to find out what makes me yearn for the confection. What better place to conduct such an experiment than in France?
One of the first shops that pulls me in is one in which the windows are filled with square shaped fruit tarts topped with juicy red raspberries and strawberries in perfect rows, delicately dusted with powdered sugar, chocolate shavings and a couple of pistachio macaroons. Next to these are glistening chocolate cakes that are edged with fan shapes of chocolate and topped with rolled chocolate cylinders. I am captivated by the rich and colorful textures and can immediately imagine what each decadent confection might taste like. These are they desserts that dreams are made of…one that I would proudly present at a fancy dinner party. Since a fancy dinner party isn’t in my near future, I opt to save my 28 Euros (about $38) and not splurge on the cake. I would undoubtedly end up eating it all myself anyways. The yearning was definitely found in this shop!
There is certainly no shortage of chocolateries nor patisseries in France and I find that my research is both time consuming and a bit overwhelming, as I have a tendency to struggle with self restraint. I have to remind myself this is an exploratory mission, not a tasting one.
I find that I am being drawn into virtually every shop that has the rich dark brown delicacies in the windows. From solid chocolate bars to chocolate on a stick, I am pulled in one boutique at a time. Autumn has arrived and there are now beautiful displays featuring rich and intoxicating colors of burnt oranges and deep purples that pair so well with the molded chocolate in shapes of mushrooms, leaves and pumpkins. Flavors such as apple ganache with bits of hazelnut, dark chocolate with cognac and praline with chocolate mousse arouse my senses.
One of my favorite patisseries that I came across was Bouché, located in Beaune, a town in the Burgundy wine region of France. The fall vineyard and wine themed windows with various chocolates and pastries captivated me. What I found inside was my dessert nirvana. There were dense dark chocolate tortes and creamy layered mousses with chocolate meringue logs that made my knees weak. Then there was the chocolate glazed Ópera cake-an almond sponge cake with espresso buttercream and chocolate ganache layers; the mille-feuille, “thousand leaves”, made of flaky buttery puff pastry with layers of chocolate cream and topped with a vanilla glaze; and chocolate hazelnut dacquoise, layers of meringue and cream, topped with fresh raspberries. Everywhere I looked there were lovely desserts that seemed to fulfill my chocolate fantasies.
It seemed as though I was never going to meet a chocolate shop that I didn’t adore. That is, until one sunny day in the French Riviera. There it was: a shop window with cheeses and raviolis and fish all placed on garish blue velvet. Above the window it was clearly marked as a chocolate creations shop. I stood in awe and needed to fully understand what was before me. A chocolate shop that had no appeal to me! Quelle horreur! The goat and brie cheeses that lie before me were made from chocolate. My brain couldn’t grasp the inconsistencies and I felt nothing. I simply had no desire to slice off a piece of grey molded chevre and consume the chocolate it was concealing. The idea of savoring the chocolate just wasn’t there. Then saw the salmon colored marzipan fish next to the flour dusted raviolis. Hmmm. I just then realized the Mediterranean theme they were going for-clever, but just not my taste.
Then there was the chocolate shop in the Marais neighborhood of Paris-carefully crafted and molded pieces of art created from chocolate. There was an electric guitar, checkered mugs, Italian press coffee pots and shoes. I was instantly drawn to the windows, but questions loomed. How would I eat a chocolate shoe? Would I bite off the toe first, as I do with the ears of a chocolate bunny? What would the shoestrings taste like? Should I remove them before eating? How would an Italian press coffee pot look on the center of the table at a dinner party? The craftsmanship was wonderful, but it just didn’t seem to inspire me to want to eat the chocolate.
I believe I had finally come to my conclusion. It was the whole package that stimulated my senses and desire. Presentation of the pastries, flavor combinations of the chocolates, and the ability for my brain to tell my senses what I might be tasting- the smoothness of the chocolate, the tartness and aroma of a raspberry, the sweetness of a cream.
After weeks of chocolate moderation (really!), I ended this journey with total decadence. In a little pastry shop located in the Canal St. Martin neighborhood of Paris, I resisted no more. I fully enjoyed a tart with a butter cookie crust topped with peanuts and hazelnuts, chocolate whipping cream atop the nuts and a third and final layer of a solid chunk of chocolate that was filled with noisette –hazelnut- cream. It was pure indulgence and a perfect way to end this very pleasurable experience.