I recently received a gift. Several gifts, really; my globetrotting parents spent the past week and a half in Paris and were generous (read: willing to shut me up) enough to bring me back some treats from a couple of the roughly 17 stores I recommended they visit*.
Now I'm not going to offer superlatives, or start ranking chocolatiers by country in any way (I'll let you know once I've tried every single chocolate in the world, and can confidently offer corresponding opinions), but what the French do with chocolate is transcendent. And while only a couple others who happened to be nearby when I tore into these treasures actually got to taste them, I wanted to share some of the fun here. This is what I got to experience from Debauve & Gallais, Patrick Roger, and Jean-Paul Hevin.
The Old School: Debauve & Gallais
Founded in 1800, Debauve & Gallais were appointed to make chocolate for French royalty back in the day. The history and experience is readily apparent, even in the mere eight truffles I had at my disposal—the range of shapes, sizes, patterns, and decorations (transfer sheets! Fleur-de-lis molds! Colorful tinfoil wrappers!) are mind-blowing. The packaging is also hypnotically shiny.
Flavor-wise, these were very classic, beautifully textured ganache in more standard flavors like coffee and straight dark or milk chocolate. As a new business owner, I can say with absolute certainty: if you've been in business for over 200 years, you clearly know what you're doing. Their 99 percent chocolate bonbon was a revelation: pure, intense, creamy, and not bitter in the least.
The New Standard: Patrick Roger
These tiny, rectangular gems came in a little green plastic bag-shaped container with a simple "Patrick Roger" on the front, and "Meilleur Ouvrier de France Chocolatier" on the back. When you see an MOF, you know you're in for something special.
These really demonstrate the ideal for classic French chocolates: itty-bitty and perfectly shaped, with paper-thin layers of chocolate couverture and centers of rich, silky, expertly flavored ganache. As my dad irritatedly pointed out (several times), "They didn't have a list of the flavors!" so I was left to guess. Luckily, they were so intense that not much guessing was involved. There was a lovely, fragrant Earl Grey; a nutty oat-infused number; a strip of perfectly candied enrobed orange peel; and my personal favorite, a zingy and surprising lemon-basil. I'm already plotting how to get my hands on some more of these. Anyone headed to Paris anytime soon?
The Modernist: Jean-Paul Hévin
I may have been the most excited about Jean-Paul Hévin (also an MOF, by the by). Know why? Cheese. These were bonbons with cheese in them. I'm a sucker for anything salty-sweet, and cheese is one of my favorite food groups, along with chocolate. So you can imagine the food-geeky froth I worked myself into on seeing what these were. And, oh man, were they good.
Four different cheeses were represented in the soft mousse centers of the bonbons, each with corresponding sprinkles of nuts and spices on top. There was a chèvre (fresh goat's cheese) with bits of hazelnut; Époisse (a stinky, soft, washed-rind cow's cheese) with cumin; Roquefort (a sheep's-milk blue) with some walnut; and Pont-l'Évêque (a soft cow's-milk cheese similar to a Brie or Camembert) with thyme.
Pretty savory, a little funky, utterly...well, French. They're definitely not for everybody, and one of my fellow tasters was too weirded out by the combo to take more than a nibble. But for the rest of us, they had us at bonjour.
Do you see the perfect shape and sheen? The beautiful presentation? How freaking thin the chocolate coating is? That's the mark of really insane perfectionism. If you've every worked in pastry or confectionery, or even dipped truffles at home for the heck of it, you know that not only a) it's pretty much impossible to do that, and b) once you do get it done, those things are delicate as hell. It takes really fine, fresh ingredients, years of expertise, dedicated specialty equipment, and an obsessive eye for detail and aesthetics to make all these things come together.
Where to Buy
The good news is that if you don't live in France, you can order chocolates from these producers online and have them shipped to you. The bad news is that it's gonna cost you. But hey—for fine, perishable goods, shipped from thousands of miles away? Not too surprising. Below are the websites for each, so you can peruse for yourself and learn more about the companies and their chocolatiers—though I can highly recommend doing what I did and sending friends or family members with a list. Just make sure you trust them to bring it all back to you.