[Here we see master chocolatier Michel Richart with the charming cookbook author and man-about-the-town, David Lebovitz.]
Michel Richart and Patrick Roger are opposite ends of the street, both geographically and metaphorically. Roger's shop on the boulevard St. Germain is near the Latin Quarter, student end of the boulevard. Richart is in the upscale end near the Eiffel Tower. Roger has two shops and a third planned; Richart has two in his natal city of Lyon and others scattered through Europe, Asia and North America. As you can see in the photo, M. Richart has the air of a genial family father and indeed he repeatedly referred to the chocolates as his bébés. But despite this family feeling towards his product, his shop has the air of an exclusive spa or vendor of beauty products, with clean lines, gleaming white and neat boxes on every wall. These are chocolates which are well treated and command respect.
Like a fashion designer, M. Richart brings out a new collection of chocolates twice yearly. He told us he spends "not long, only two or three weeks" developping each of his new babies. For each collection there is a theme and this year it is based on the Mediterranean region, Itinéraire des Beaux Jours: olives, thyme, figs and clementine oranges all figure in his chocolates. One of the biggest treats we had on any of our visits was the opportunity to try three from his upcoming collection. The nigella/saffron combination had my mouth watering and my fingers itching until he finally came to pass that one around to us all. What is interesting to me about some of these chocolates - the saffron/nigella here and the lemongrass one in the previous visit - is how they open up the possibility of serving chocolate after so many exotic dinners where you wouldn't normally do so. After a rich Indian meal, what could be nicer than to have a tasty little chocolate - nothing heavy on the belly - in the same flavour family as the meal?
In addition to the season's collection, his shops also sell several other lines of chocolates. There are the seven flavour families, each with seven different varieties of chocolate (Balsamics, Toasted, Fruity, Tonic, Herbal, Floral and Spiced). We tasted several of these over the course of the visit and I can't remember them all. I do remember, however, the first one I tasted, which had the most intense rose flavour I've ever encountered. If you had asked me in advance I would have assumed I would hate it, and yet (this is a theme running through all the visits) in fact it was very tasty. The rose did not have that chemical taste that flower extracts often suffer from and its effect on the chocolate was subtle and complex. The taste of both the chocolate and the rose stayed in your mouth for a long while (or until the next chocolate in my case).
Another collection, and a project dear to M. Richart's heart, has to do with real, not metaphorical, children. The Chocolats ludiques are the result of a yearly contest for children, held in Richart's shops around the world, for the right to have one's design reproduced on a chocolate. Ludique is a term you hear frequently in France about anything to do with children. I've always taken it to mean "fun/surprising/childlike/amusing", but when I looked it up in the dictionary for the first time today I found the translation to be "relating to a game". If anyone else has a better translation for this term, I'd love to know it. In any case, the chocolates are adorable and this fond mother had to think several times before - regretfully - deciding not to purchase a big box. This is the 14th year that M. Richart has run the contest and 3000 children around the world participated for a chance to have his or her drawing on one of the 14 final chocolates.
M. Richart seemed to twinkle with good will throughout our visit, enthusiastically expounding the virtues of small chocolates ("just a very little, if the flavour is intense, is enough, no more") and the importance of promoting artistic ambitions in the young. However, the excitement and sense of glee moved to a new level when he brought out his masterpiece contribution to the world of chocolate. A chocolate armoire, the chocolate equivalent of a humidor, with temperature and humidity shown on the door. Great service to chocolate, but also it is a demonstration of this man's marketing genius. The shelves in the beautifully glossy case are built to the size of M. Richart's small white boxes, which can be slid into place and carefully preserved. (To me this genius is apparent throughout his shop, in the darling children's drawings, the Seven Families which is a popular children's game, and also in the presentation of beautiful white boxes of colorful chocolates.)
The armoire brought our discussion to the question of how to store and serve chocolates. If you really want to impress the chocolate afficionados in your neighborhood, do tell them that your good friend M. Richart recommends 12 degrees Celsius for storage and a gentle rise to a room temperature of 22 degrees before serving. We asked if - in the absence of his wonderful cabinet - it would be advisable to store his chocolates in the refrigerator? "Ideally, no," was the answer. The odors of other foods in the refrigerator would tend to invade the chocolate and ruin their delicate flavours. Also, of course, a refrigerator is usually colder than 12 degrees Celsius. However, given the recent heat wave in Paris, he told us we could and should put our chocolates in the refrigerator. If we wanted to keep them "pure", though, it would be a good idea to put them in an airtight container first. (Note: the remains of mine are still in the box, no airtight containter, in our fridge and so far I haven't noticed any deterioration. Obviously, I do not have M. Richart's fine palate!)
The reason I still have any chocolates left is that when we left M. Richart generously presented each of us with a box of 36 chocolates, all of them the three new chocolates from his collection to be released in November of this year. (Mr. Slugworth, are you reading this? Meet me behind the old oak at midnight...and bring cash...)
M. Richart is a lovely man and we really enjoyed our talk with him. He's very charming and articulate and though he speaks glowingly of the Art of Chocolate-making and other such lofty matters, he does not appear pompous or snobbish. He speaks English extremely well, so if you are ever in his shop in Lyon or catch sight of him here in Paris (now that you know what he looks like) do say hello and ask if he'd like to discuss chocolate. I'm sure he'll be happy to do so.
Michel Richart Paris
258 bd St Germain
Tel 01 45 55 66 00
Metro : Solférino
For other locations or to order online, see www.chocolats-richart.ccom