Behind the French Menu gives a tasty background to French cuisine, French dishes, how they are made and how they should be served.
Where there is a story behind a dish's creation and
that story may aid the diner's enjoyment then that will also be included. Bon appétit!
Chocolate and France. Visiting a Chocolatier, a real chocolate maker.
Behind the French Menu.
Photograph courtesy of Longhorndave
Pieces of chocolate, bars of chocolate, chocolate in powder form and chocolate the drink.
Surprisingly, France is not in the top five of the world’s per capita consumers of chocolate.The French view chocolate as a product that depends on quality, not quantity. Quality chocolate is an expensive habit.
Chocolatiers - specialized chocolate shops
France has modern and traditional versions of chocolatiers.. The best chocolatiers make their own chocolates with unique flavors, fillings, and shapes. Many chocolatiers have amazing window displays that show their owner’s abilities to create sculptures in chocolate.Some of these displays can leave you standing there for half-an-hour or more.
The work of a chocolatier. Maison Georges Larnicol, Toulouse, France.
The first time I visited a chocolate emporium in the company of knowledgeable chocoholics was an amazing experience. These were serious consumers who had done the same in Switzerland and Belgium. However, here on their first visit to France and their first exposure to the top chocolatiers of Paris it knocked their socks off! The artistic creations amused these chocolate experts, but what really had them asking for encores was the special chocolate tastes. The chocolate combinations, the range of tastes, the matching of chocolate with fillings they had never considered before and the different textures added so many new tastes that they returned every day for a week!
If you are into chocolate, and in France, ask at your hotel for the nearest chocolatier.Even medium sized towns still support at least one. Visiting a French chocolatier will be a very different experience to purchasing chocolates at home.
Few of today’s chocolatiers can today afford to produce their own chocolate directly from the bean. They buy the chocolate base and from that produce unique chocolates tailored to individual tastes and very special chocolate creations.
The largest high-quality chocolate manufacturer in France is Valrhona.Valhrona does make their chocolates from the bean on up. More on Valhrona later on.
Chocolate desserts in French restaurants.
In France’s best restaurants, they employ a Maître Pâtissier, an expert pastry chef. He or she will be a graduate of a three years cooking school, and for the top levelrestaurants will have five or more years’ experience.These pastry chefs must also be experts in chocolate desserts. In France, all serious dessert menus include at least one or two chocolate offerings. In smaller restaurants, the owner/chef or head chef or sous chef mayspecialize in the dessert menus. Buying in your dessert offerings, as many small restaurants do will forever ruin a chef’s and his or her restaurant's reputation.
Photograph courtesy ofken yee
Chocolate desserts on French menus:
Boules de Glace au Sauce Chocolat - Scoops of ice cream with a chocolate sauce.
La Tartelette Chocolat-café, Glace Vanille Bourbon -A coffee and chocolate tart served with a Bourbon-vanilla ice cream.
A split vanilla bean pod.
Photograph courtesy of Terence T.S. Tam2
Vanilla is another New World discovery. Christopher Columbus and his conquistadors in 1502 could not pronounce the native nametlilxochilt so they chose a name related to the vanilla pod's appearance. For its Spanish name, the conquistadors used word vaina, which means a sheath, like a sword and its sheath.When the conquistadors arrived home vaina became vainilla in Spanish, vanille in French and vanilla in English. The vanilla the conquistadors brought home was wild vanilla. Vanilla continued to remain wild and expensive for 400 years. Vanilla began to becultivated in the 19th-century and its cultivation is still a work in progress. Vanilla requires a great deal of hand labor and so it is not inexpensive. The major growers are Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico, and China.The cultivated black vanilla pods from around the town of Sambava in the North of Madagascar are considered the best of the best and you will pay a lot for those. Luckily the majority of the world's vanilla crop is the Bourbon or Madagascar-Bourbon vanilla. The Bourbon in the Bourbon vanilla's name is linked to the name of the ex-king and queens of France. That; however, is another story.
Profiteroles aux 3 Chocolats – Profiteroles covered in three different types of chocolate.
Feuillantine Chocolat aux Fruits Frais – Thin leaves of puff pastry separated by chocolate and fresh fruits.
The most important professional patisserie competition in the world is the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie, the world pastry cup.Every competition includes at least one chocolate cake per team. The Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie is held every two years, in Lyon, France, under the auspices of the President of France.In 2015 there were twenty-one countries as finalists and the final or finals Italy won. Each country that made the final sent a team that included a pastry chef, a chocolate maker, and an ice specialist. The competitors each had nine hours to produce a whole range of desserts.
The 2015 winning chocolate cake.
Photograph courtesy Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie
The origin of the cocoa bean
Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean and the beans originated in South America. For at least one thousand years before the conquistadors arrived, chocolate had already been a popular and even then, a relatively expensive drink. Drinking chocolate was also part of Aztec religious ceremonies. By the time the conquistadors arrived cocoa beans had already been exported from the South American mainland and were being grown in the Caribbean Islands and in areas that include parts of modern Mexico.
Photograph courtesy ofJonathan Reyes
The conquistadors themselves, they did not find chocolate very appealing; they viewed it as a bitter native drink.Despite their opinions the conquistadors brought everything they foundhome, every plant, every animal; anything that grew and much that did not. The story of the conquistadors bringing home cocoa, according to tradition, has Christopher Columbus finding a canoe full of native South Americans who had their canoe filled to overflowing with cocoa beans. Columbus apologized for not bringing his credit card, but collected all the cocoa available and promised to send a check in the mail. I believe that the owners are still waiting for the check. However, when Christopher Columbus returned home in 1502 Spain had chocolate and a member of the canoe’s crew to instruct on the preparation of the chocolate drink.
To the surprise of the Conquistadors, the bitter chocolate drink they thought was a waste of space was found to be very tasty when mixed with honey, and it became a hit among the Spanish aristocracy.. Sugar, by the way, until the 17th century, was much more expensive than honey.
Until the late 1500’s, nearly 100 years after the bean’s discovery in South America, Spain monopolized the world’s supply of chocolate. In the early years of their monopoly, Spain sold chocolate at prices only the very very rich could afford.
Chocolate enters France.
Chocolate entered France from Spain through the Pays de Basque, that is the Basque country on the French side of the Pyrenees.The city of Bayonne is the capital of the Pays de Basque and in 1492 and 1497 Bayonne saw the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese Jews escaping the Inquisition. A number of those refugees were expert bakers and in Bayonne they became experts at working with chocolate.They made chocolate cakes, called tortas. Making these chocolate cakes had been discovered by Portuguese Jewish bakers who had escaped from Portugal, but rather than traveling to Bayonnethey had traveled to Livorno, the Italian port city. These Livorno bakers sent their family members in Bayonne the recipe for tortas which became an instant success. In France, the chocolate cakes sold well alongside sweetened chocolate drinks.
The Spanish chocolate monopoly did not last, and neither did the Jewish chocolatiers in Bayonne.The Bayonne locals learned how to make chocolate cakes from the Jews, who openly shared their knowledge. Them the locals founded a chocolate making guild that banned anyone who was Jewish from working with chocolate in Bayonne. The Jewish bakers and chocolate makers of Bayonne had to leave and went elsewhere to buy the beans while avoiding the Spanish monopoly. They began to buy cocoa beans from plantations that had been set up in the Caribbean. In addition to cocoa, they also began importing sugar and vanilla from the Dutch who also had set up other plantations.
Now chocolate became a product for the growing French middle classes; however, that is not the end of the story. King Louis XIV, for financial reasons, probably related to one of the never-ending French wars with the English, entered the picture.King Louis issued a French Royal Patent, a grant of amonopoly, limiting the production of any chocolate products in France. Fromthe 28 May 1659 a Monsieur Chaillou in Paris received a 29-year monopoly on the supply, manufacture and sale of chocolate. Then, if you wanted chocolate in France, at least chocolate that was not smuggled in, you could only buy it from Monsieur Chaillou. The good Christian chocolatiers of Bayonnecould still make chocolate products, but now they had to buy their chocolate from Monsieur Chaillou. Once again, chocolate was very expensive in France.
Monsieur Chaillou’s chocolate monopoly finally ended, but by then the French market had been already been opened up by English and French smugglers. The English were now growing cocoa on their island colony of Jamaica; just another proof that monopolies do not work in the long term. By the end of Monsieur Chaillou’s agreement, the English were also producing chocolate, the drink, and the cakes, in England. Elsewhere the Dutch, who had previously created a market for brandy and Cognac from France, had also become involved in chocolate production and its export.
Chocolate in the 18th century.
By the beginning of the 18th century, many countries were in the chocolate business; however, they all were limited in their knowledge.They only knew how to produce plain chocolate confectionery and chocolate drinks. Even in the 18th century there were no plain chocolate bars and milk chocolate was not even dreamed of.
Then in 1828, a Dutch chocolate-maker Conrad J. van Houten invented a way to make a cocoa powder.Following on that in1849 an Englishman called Joseph Fry with his wife Anna mixed sugar and cocoa butter using the Dutch invention; voila, they produced the first plain chocolate bar.By 1907 the Fry’s already employed over 4,000 people and in 1919 they merged with another company called Cadburys.
Old Cadbury's poster found in a Dublin, Ireland, train station.
Milk chocolate bars would have to waittwenty-five year from the creation of the first plain chocolate bar until 1875; then Daniel Peter a small chocolate manufacturer in Vevey, near Lausanne, Switzerland, entered the picture.Daniel produced the first bar of milk chocolate using a condensed milk developed by a Swiss milk product manufacturer Henry Nestlé.Nestlé until then had specialized in milk for babies.When milk chocolate bars became available Daniel Peter’s discovery turned the cacao bean from an important commodity into a super commodity.
In 1929, the descendants of Daniel Peter merged their business with Nestlé.Today Nestlé is the world’s largest producer of raw processed chocolate and many world-famous chocolatiers buy processed chocolate from Nestlé.If your needs are big enough Nestlé will produce a special chocolate for you and deliver it to you in huge 15 kg plus slabs.How you flavor and differentiate your product, and how you identify your market is your decision.
Buying chocolate when visiting France
Chocochino - Chocochino. A hot chocolate drink made like a cappuccino with froth on top; hence Chocochino.Most Chocochinos will have powdered chocolate sprinkled on top for effect.
Chocolat Amer or Amère - Bitter chocolate. Amer or Amère may well be on your dessert menu describing dishes made with bitter chocolate.
Chocolat au Lait – Milk chocolate.
Chocolat Blanc – White chocolate.
Chocolat Bonbons – Chocolate sweets, candies.There are ahuge number of different names for chocolate candies used by French chocolate producers.Far too manyfor even the book behind this blog.
Chocolat Liégeois – A chocolate version of Café Liégeois, a dessert. This is a cold dessert; it is not a variation on a cup of coffee. This is chocolate, ice cream and whipped cream, all made into a thick and creamy dessert. Sometimes it will come with added liquor for that extra punch. Your menu may also offer the original coffeebased version..
Crêpe au Chocolat – A crepe served with chocolate spread; this is a favorite of street stalls that offer crepes, but it will also be on the menu in crêperies.
A chocolate fudge wedding cake. Photograph courtesy of Andy Ciordia
Chocolate Mi-Amer – A slightly bitter chocolate; not as bitter as chocolat amer.
Chocolate Noir - Black or bitter chocolate.
Chocolat (tablette) or Tablette de Chocolat – A bar of chocolate; a bar of milk chocolate is a tablette de chocolat au lait.
Milkshake au Chocolat – A chocolate milkshake; a successful import from North America.
Mousse au Chocolat Amère – A mousse made with bitter chocolate.
Tarte au Chocolat Amer – A chocolate tart made with bitter chocolate.
Tartine et Chocolat – Bread or a sliced baguette spread with chocolate spread; many a French child’s breakfast favorite.
Chocolaterie – A shop that sells chocolates. These shops may sell good chocolates, but they are not selling their own product; that would be a chocolatier. Note the difference between the words Chocolatier and Chocolaterie.
The best chocolate in France
and definitely one of the best chocolates in the world
The best chocolate in France is the chocolate madeby a company called Valrhona. Valrhona call their product the Grand Cru Chocolat. It will be on many French dessert menus by name. Valrhona will also be on many other menus throughout the world.My ownValrhona chocolate surprise came when I saw a Valrhona chocolate based dessert in a least expected California destination.A restaurant at the Big Sur, California,USA. has a Valrhona dessert on its menu.Even in the Big Sur they had chosen the best.
Valrhona’s factory is in the small and attractive town of Tain-L’hermitage in the Rhone Valley. The owners of Valrhonatook the name for their chocolate from French words for valley, vallée, plus Rhone. Taken together they account for the name Valrhona.When in the area you may take a factory tour and see how their chocolate is made.At the end of the tour, you may taste their product, and they will, not unsurprisingly, allow you to buy some. To buy Valrhona chocolate in France and elsewhere, click on the Valrhona multi-language website below:
Many visitors coming to the Valrhona chocolate factory are not tourists; many are training to be chefs or are already experienced professional chefs studying new techniques. They will be spending their time at the École du Grand Chocolat Valrhona, the School of the Grand Chocolate of Valrhona.
Valrhona runs two other chocolate schools, one is in Versailles, just outside Paris, and the other in Tokyo, Japan. At these schools, chefs come to take advanced courses in the use and preparation of chocolate. These are very intensive 2-4 day courses that take place throughout the year. Their courses cover an amazing number of subjects, all connected to chocolate.Also visiting will be a number of France’s top chefs either as visiting professors to demonstrate their craft or to experiment with new chocolates.
Student chefs training at the Valrhona École du Grand Chocolat .
Photograph courtesy of Valhrona.
If you came to Tain l'Hermitage to visit the chocolate factory make sure to leave time to explore the local route de vins, the local wine road. Tain l'Hermitage is a wonderful place to make your base camp from where you may enjoy tastings of the Côtes du Rhône, AOP wines. The Côtes du Rhône vineyards are all around the town and the town and immediate area has many excellent restaurants.
The town of Tain L'Hermitage has an annual Salon des Vins de Tain, an exhibition of wines from the whole area with over 80 vintners participating.This exhibition lasts for four days and begins on the last Friday in February. At this wine salon Valrhona brings their chocolates to add to the celebrations. The exhibition takes place together with Tain L'Hermitage's sister town of Tournon (Tournon-sur-Rhône) on the other side of the River Rhône.
Click on, or copy/paste the French language below website and use Google or Bing translate:
Then you will know where to go and what to consider trying.
These are the appellations from the Rhone Valley that will be on show.
These towns of Tain L'Hermitage and Tournon needed boats to cross over and meet with their neighbors and family until 1825. Then they were connected by a double wire suspension bridge designed by Marc Seguin (1786-1875). Marc Seguin, among his many other achievements, invented the wire suspension bridge and built nearly similar 200bridges in France alone. In 1847 Seguin built another bridge between the two towns; that pedestrian bridge is still used and isnow the oldest wire-cable suspension bridge in the world. Since then, of course, a more heavily traveled road bridge connects the two towns.
The oldest double-wire suspension bridge in the world.
Tain L'Hermitage's Fête des Vendanges is a wine festival that celebrates only their own wines.That celebration lasts for three days, beginning the second Friday in September. Their English language website is:
Where isTain L'Hermitage
Tain L'Hermitage is in the department of Drôme in the Rhone-Alps; it is 85 kms from Avignon and 75 kms from Lyon. Its sister town of Touron (Tournon-sur-Rhône) is in the department of Ardeche, also in the Rhone-Alps.
The French language web site for the Tain L'Hermitage Tourist Information Office is: