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Mad About Chocolate

by Stephanie Curtis

"Chocolate is health," asserted the 19th century French gastronomic chronicler, Brillat-Savarin. Like Voltaire, who drank 12 cups of the heady elixir a day, Brillat-Savarin had a passion for chocolate. He prescribed it for many ills and conditions from lethargy to hangovers long before the therapeutic qualities of this magnesium-rich delicacy were confirmed by science.

If the French can't claim to have discovered the cocoa bean -- a native of Central and South America imported to Spain by Hernando Cortez in the 1500's -- they can be applauded for having popularized its use throughout Europe. In the early 1600's, Jewish immigrants driven out of Spain brought chocolate to the port city of Bayonne in Southwest France. A few years later, the 14-year-old Spanish princess betrothed to France's Louis XIV, introduced Spanish chocolate to the French court in Paris. Since that time, French artisans have never ceased to perfect chocolate-making, raising it to the fine art it is today.

"Chocolate has never been better," exclaims Christian Constant, owner of the Paris chocolate shop that bears his name. "Today, techniques are at their height, the master recipe that marries the ordinary Forastero bean with the fine Criollo bean is familiar to all connoisseurs." Nevertheless, he adds that the quality of European chocolate in general could suffer due to new Common Market regulations authorizing the use of vegetable fat in chocolate, a practice currently prohibited in France.

As in so many matters relating to gastronomy, the French government strictly legislates the production of chocolate. Regulations prohibit the use of any vegetable or animal fat in French chocolate: Only pure cocoa butter is authorized. In addition, French chocolates must contain at least 43 percent cocoa liquor, and a minimum of 26 percent pure cocoa butter. Most French chocolates now contain well above the government's minimum of cocoa liquor. The best bonbons boast up to 80 percent of this rich, dark substance. And since it is the cocoa liquor that imparts the taste to all chocolates, it's not surprising that French chocolates have a remarkably intense flavor.

The flavor nuances of French chocolate also depend on the quality and origin of the cocoa beans used to make it. The best chocolates are an artful blend of four or more different beans, each with its own flavor, force and persistance -- each from a different geographical origin: Venezuela, Brazil, the Ivory Coast, Madagascar. Robert Linxe, owner of Paris' Maison du Chocolat, elaborates on the characteristics of different cocoa beans as a vintner praises the qualities of different grape varieties and "crus." For him, the "Ariba" bean from Central America is the finest of all cocoa beans due to its pronounced character and intense flavor.

A heightened understanding of different "crus" of beans has spurred a trend in recent years toward labeling chocolates by the origin of their predominate bean. For the real chocolate connoisseur, the appellations "dark chocolate" and "milk chocolate" seem as vague as "red wine" and "white wine." Fans of French chocolate now look for references such as "Guanaja", "Manjari", "Pur Caraibe" or "Guayaquil" on their chocolate bars.

French consumers rank among the world's most discriminating when it comes to chocolate. Parisians are particularly picky, and for good reason: What other metropolis offers such an impressive array of chocolate marvels from the world's most delicate and costly bonbons, to the most mouth-watering chocolate cakes and tarts imaginable?

Paris is, undisputably, a chocolate-lover's paradise. The following is a guide to some of the city's best sources of chocolate delicacies.

La Maison du Chocolate
225 rue du Faubourg Saint-HonorČ, Paris 75008

Robert Linxe, high priest of Paris chocolate, holds court in this and five other chocolate-covered boutiques by the same name, all of which specialize in his incomporable chocolate products. He is particularly known for jewel-like chocolate bonbons flavored with raspberry, fennel, lemon or thyme, to name only a few of his original fillings. A yummy, moist chocolate cake called "Pleyel" and a luscious chocolate macaroon are also quite memorable.

Michel Chaudun
149 rue de l'Universite, Paris 75007

A former employee of La Maison du Chocolate, Michel Caudun set out on his own a few years ago, opening a pristine little corner shop on Rue de l'Universite. According to one well-known Parisian food critic, Chaudun's product now equals that of his mentor, Robert Linxe, in both quality and creativity. His base chocolate, a blend of chocolates from nine sources, is rich and complex. His shop's repertoire includes over twenty-five creations, the latest of which is a crunchy, dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa liquor) flavored with toasted, crushed cocoa beans.

26 place de la Madeleine, Paris 75008

A visit to this gourmet showplace located behind the Madeleine church is a must for any food-lover. Chocoholic's head directly for the pastry counter of the sprawling three-shop complex to sample extraordinary chocolate cakes including the "Marigny", "Manjari", "Rive Gauche" and "Prelat." The latest addition to this glittering line-up of chocolate creations is a stunning triangle of milk chocolate ganache and hazelnut dacquoise coiffed with a candied cherry and called "La cerise sur le gateau" -- the cherry on the cake.

16 rue Royale, Paris 75008

Elegant tea salon and pastry shop located between Place Concorde and the Madeleine, LadurČe is reputed for making the best chocolate macaroon in Paris. According to legend, this creation dates to 1943 when Jean Laduree's nephew and successor, Paul Desfontaines, decided to improve on the simple chocolate macaroon by filling it with a rich, moist chocolate ganache. (Macaroon's of other flavors including vanilla, coffee and pistachio are also well worth tasting!) With the arrival in January 1997 of Pierre HermČ, former pastry chef of Fauchon and passionate chocophile, gourmets can now count on new chocolate creations and the opening of new LaudrČe boutiques in Paris.

101 rue du Fauborg Saint Honore, Paris 75008

Founded in 1802, this traditional Parisian patisserie has managed to maintain a high level of quality despite its expansion of retail outlets and diversification into the catering business. Among its chocolate specialties are "L'Opera" -- a delicate layering of dark chocolate, coffee butter cream and almond sponge cake -- and the "Mogador" -- a rich chocolate cake layered with chocolate mousse and raspberry jam.

5 boulevard Baumarchais, Paris 75003

The controversy continues as to whether this old-fashioned pastry shop and tea room located at the Bastille first created what's now generically called the "Opera" cake (called "le Clichy" here) or if it was an invention of competitor Dalloyau. Both make excellent versions of the Parisian favorite. Also worth trying here are the mendiants -- rounds of dark chocolate studded with walnuts, raisins and hazelnuts.

51 rue Montorgueil, Paris 75002

One of Paris' most historic shops, this tiny, sparkling patisserie near Les Halles (once the "belly of France") was founded in 1730 by the pastry chef of Louis XV's father-in-law, Stanislas Leczinski, former king of Poland. Among other claims to fame, Stohrer created the original chocolate "religieuse" -- a now classic individual pastry composed of double-decker cream puffs filled with chocolate cream and decorated with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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