Between the makers of gourmet dark chocolate and the more mainstream confiseurs-chocolatiers, there are more chocolate shops in the City of Light—the Paris phone directory lists more than 300—than in any other city in the world.
From high-end, “designer” artisan-chocolatiers, such as Jean-Paul Hévin, Christian Constant and Pierre Marcolini, to chains such as l’Atelier du Chocolat, Léonidas, and Jeff de Bruges to scores of smaller independent chocolatiers, they’re found in almost every neighbourhood in the city.
A visit to any supermarket provides ample evidence of the important place chocolate holds in the French diet —shelves are stocked from to bottom with an abundance of tablettes de chocolat in a wide range of cacao content and flavours.
So, you might wonder, was chocolate invented in France?
No, but as with wine and cheese, the French have simply refined the making of chocolate into an art.
It’s important to note that traditional French dark chocolate is unique in that it is the least sweetened chocolate in the world, with a typical cocoa content ranging from 62 per cent to 86 per cent or more.
But because the French use less butter, cream and sugar in their chocolates, French chocolate is also less fattening.
Indeed, much has been written on its health virtues: high-quality dark chocolate (with more than 70 per cent cacao content) is said to protect the cardiovascular system, lower bad cholesterol and aid digestion, to name but a few of its benefits.
How it all began
The French love affair with chocolate began nearly 400 years ago.
Cortes first introduced chocolate to Europeans in 1528 when he returned to Spain from Mexico with samples of cocoa beans, cultivated by the Aztecs for thousands of years and used in a ceremonial drink known as xocolatl.
Intrigued but put off by the bitter flavour of cacao, the Spanish created their own version of the Aztecs’ traditional chocolate drink by adding milk, sugar and vanilla.
A century later, in 1615, France’s King Louis XIII married Anne of Austria, daughter of the Spanish king, who introduced hot chocolate to the French court when she moved to her new husband’s country.
Some years later, King Louis XIV’s wife, Marie-Therèse of Austria, became the second French queen known for her love of chocolate.
Chocolate soon became fashionable in Versailles, and on 28 May 1659, Louis XIV appointed a valet in the Queen’s household, David Chaillou, to open the very first chocolate shop in Paris.
It was located on rue de l’Arbre Sec, in what is today’s 1st arrondissement.
Chaillou’s monopoly on the preparation and sale of chocolate beverages and sweets lasted nearly 30 years before competition arrived on the scene.
By 1689, other chocolatiers had set up shop in Paris: Rere, on rue Dauphine, Renard, on quai de Nesle (present-day quai de Conti). Others included Damaine, Labastide and Onfroy.
Chocolate really began to take off under King Louis XV, yet it remained very much an exclusive luxury enjoyed by the nobility, the rich and the famous.
It soon gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac, and 18th-century French art and literature was filled with erotic imagery inspired by chocolate.
In 1780, Marie-Antoinette even had her own private chocolatier.
But following the French Revolution, chocolate, like many other goods, became more accessible to the masses.
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