French chocolates

Feature, February 1991

“It flatters you for a while,” wrote Madame de Sévigne, a.k.a. ‘la Marquise de Chocolat.’ “It warms you for an instant, then all of a sudden it kindles a mortal fever in you.”

Not much has changed since the venerable Marquise inserted one of the first references to chocolate into French literature. Outrageous claims for chocolate have been made throughout the centuries – everything from curing dysentery to stimulating sexual prowess. The latter is not as far-fetched as it seems: researchers recently announced that eating chocolate causes phenylethylamaine, a chemical associated with sensuality and eroticism, to be released into the brain. Other scientists have declared that consuming chocolate causes a “high,” but Christian Constant, a.k.a. “the Chocolate Prince,” says that’s impossible. “To get the high would require more chocolate than anybody could stomach.”

It depends on what kind of high you’re talking about, however, as the delicacies available at Constant’s shop at 26, rue du Bac induce a response which falls nothing short of ecstasy. My favorites include la ganache aux framboise, la ganache au café, and his sorbet au chocolat amer which would exalt even a sluggish palate to gustatory bliss. Constant is a man with a mission. In his laboratory, he not only transforms the bitter beans into luscious confections, he also pursues an elusive aim – the perfectly pungent, low-sugar blend. Constant has come close to finding his Grail with his “Bitter Plus” and “Pure Pate Sans Sucre,” both of which have a devoted following among purists.

The sugar quotient has always been a major issue – ever since Cortez first drank a primitive chocolate concoction out of a golden goblet in Montezuma’s court. The ensuing Spanish monopoly on chocolate lasted over a hundred years, until royal marriage and peripatetic monks spilled the beans throughout the rest of Europe; the first chocolate house was opened in London by a French chocolatier in 1657. Along the way techniques improved, but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that chocolate began to resemble the luscious form it has today.

The Spanish popularized chocolate, but it took the French to perfect it. French chocolate is not the stuff from which Mars bars are made. American chocolate does more than just pale by comparison, with its (gasp) powdered milk and margarine. The Swiss, while having the best manufacturing techniques, don’t always use the best ingredients. Belgian chocolates are distinctive, but a little too heavy and sweet for the French palate. Leave it to the country of haute couture to also invent haute chocolat.

At La Maison du Chocolat, Robert Linxe has the same package designer as the ubiquitous Hermés. Certainly such heavenly marvels as Andalou deserve, at the very least, an elegant gift box (if not a ten-gun salute). Linxe opened the first Maison du Chocolat in 1977; in 1990, he has three branches in Paris, one in Cannes and one in New York. “Chocolate,” says Linxe, “is the most difficult, the most defiant substance. It doesn’t follow obediently like other ingredients. But when you capture it, you have it right there, alive, where you want it.”

The best place to put it is, of course, in your mouth. To get the most out of your bonbon, follow the technique de dégustation. First, hold the chocolate in your mouth and let it melt a little while you relish the fragrance and flavor. Next, chew it five to ten times, breaking plain chocolate into tiny pieces in order to increase surface contact (if it’s a chocolate cream, chew three to five times in order to mix the center with the envelope). Then, let it melt slowly, and using your tongue, gently rub the pabulum against the palette before swallowing. Finally, consider the lingering flavor.

Chocolate experts aver that if you follow this technique, you’ll not only increase your enjoyment, you’ll also avoid over-eating.

Chocolate Hot Spots

Christian Constant, 26, rue du Bac.

La Maison du Chocolat, 225, Fg. St. Honoré; 52, rue Françoise; 8, bd. de la Madeleine.

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