Last week, I had the great good luck to be offered a visit with three of the best chocolatiers of Paris. I can't tell you who I was with or why I was there (in the words of my friend Jonathan, would-be International Man of Mystery, "If I did, I'd have to kill you."). But I can tell you what I saw and who I met and - more importantly what I tasted. Chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate.
The day started at in the morning at the St. Michel fountain and finished as evening rush hour was beginning, with time out for lunch. In that time, I took hundreds of photos, posed hundreds of questions and tasted the most interesting variety of chocolates this conservative girl has ever seen. Over the next few days I'm going to write up each of the shops individually, starting today with the first of the day, Monsieur Patrick Roger. Next, it will be Michel Richart's turn and after that hopefully you'll still be in the mood for chocolate, with the talented Jean-Charles Rochoux.
Patrick Roger arrived at the shop which bears his name as we were admiring the window display, roaring up on a motorcycle. Unshaven, unkempt, he gives the impression of being the bad-boy of the chocolate world. And yet. Do you notice the little bleu, blanc et rouge collar on his immaculate white tunic? That collar is the coveted sign of one of the meilleurs ouvriers de France. This award is presented every three years to three artisans who are judged by their peers to be the best in the industry. It does not come easily. M. Roger told us that the award is not nearly as well-regarded in France as it is in the US. I suspect this comment has more to do with cultural prejudices and attitudes than fact; the French tend to be embarrassed by ostentatious awards or anything smacking of self-promotion. Those are American traits.
But M. Roger has worked hard for to reach this point in his career, with a shop on the very chic (and expensive) Boulevard St. Germain and one in the suburb of Sceaux, where the chocolates are made. In September he's planning on opening another shop in the equally expensive and elegant place Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondisement. At 37 years of age, he has been in the business now for 21 years. Yes, that's right, he started at 16 as an apprentice in a bakery and patisserie shop. This is actually not unusual in France even today. Most people know at that age more or less the path that stands before them, whether it's an apprenticeship in a trade or a university career in a specific subject. So he worked hard and he learned all the tricks of his trade.
What's more, he started to innovate. The first chocolate we tried was his signature one, the green ones pictured above. He advised us to pop the whole thing in our mouths at once as they have liquid centers. We did and chomped down on them. An explosion of citrus is how I would describe the experience. The green shell did not lie: these were vibrant, exciting chocolates. I'm not a fan of citrus (usually orange, isn't it?) with chocolate but these were exceptional, the chocolate just bitter enough to offset the sharp sour lime flavour. It was a fantastic opening to our day of tasting chocolates and we eyed the trays looking for more treasures.
The next chocolate up, which was even better in my opinion, was a beautiful salt caramel covered with chocolate and accented with a few delicate crystals of guérande salt. It's amazing to me how big a difference those tiny crystals could make in the flavour, turning a nice little chocolate and caramel piece into something extraordinary. Next up, M. Roger suggested a chocolate and oatmeal combination, an idea that excited me not a little. As regular readers of our blog may have noticed, I'm something of a fan of the oatmeal and chocolate combination. Here the oatmeal flavour was more subtle. It was a nice little chocolate, but if the truth is to be told I prefer my chocolate oatmeal cookies. Over the course of the next hour we had chocolates crackling with nougat, biting with Szechuan peppercorns and tantalising us with sharp lemongrass. Each chocolate was an experience, a surprise. I asked him how long it took him, generally, to develop an idea and he responded "five minutes". Surprised, I asked him out of, for example, five new ideas how many would he keep? "Four" came the answer. However, he went on to explain that his establishment doesn't yet have the size to be continually developping new chocolates. He will bring out two or three new ones in a year, because after that initial development there is all the work in developping a way to produce mass quantities.
When we asked M. Roger where he found his inspiration for the imaginative chocolate combinations he simply replied "le terroir". This is what nearly every master of food in France will tell you when asked that question. It can be translated as terrain, soil, land, ground or earth. But for a Frenchman it means all these things and more: it's the land he comes from, the fruit and vegetables it produces, the characteristic wind coming down from the Northeast, the smell of the people. In the case of M. Roger, the terroir is physically located in Le Poislay, which is in the Centre region. And more specifically, he said he often found it in the products of his morther's garden and her cooking. And then, a bit embarrassed, he glanced at his sister (pictured above) and corrected himself, "our mother". I asked Corinne whether she participated in the chocolate making process and she looked slightly alarmed, as though I'd asked her to take up ballet dancing or tight-rope walking. She works in the shop, promoting her brother's chocolates, making up the boxes, washing the windows and generally keeping the shop on an even keel.
This book, on display in the shop, shows M. Roger with the most remarkable item in his window: a life-sized chocolate sculpture of a farmer with a large cocoa pod in his hands. When you see the statue, you don't realise that it IS life sized; it's seeing M. Roger crouching next to it in the photo that brings it home. Before you start drooling, though, at the concept of going cannibalistic, I have to warn you that the statue in the window was bronzed. The sculpture certainly shows M. Roger's artistic ability; if this man had not wandered into chocolate making he could have been selling his works in an art gallery.
Here you see a more whimsical side to his artistry. Below the fish were strange sticks sticking out of the "ground". I think he said they were carrots - that terroir creeping in again! When we asked where he bought his chocolate, he was a bit coy with us, listing countries not companies. Apparently the sources of chocolate (for those chocolatiers who do not make their own) is usually a big trade secret and one they don't like to discuss.
So there you have it, my morning with Patrick Roger. I didn't think I would want to taste chocolates that early in the morning, but they were so good that we left with having bought loads of chocolate and eager for the next stop on our chocolate day!
108 bd St Germain 75006 Paris
+33 (1) 43 29 38 42