30 October 2009

Life is Sweet

Just after we moved to Paris, we attended the Salon des Vins, a convention of independent vintners offering generous tastings of their products to thousands of patrons. Aside from the food poisoning, a good time, for sure.

So when, a couple of weeks ago, we saw a billboard in a metro station for something called the Salon du Chocolat, we were totally on board. Paris has a dizzying number of high-quality chocolatiers, selling everything from pastries to bars to exquisite morsels of caramel or fruit or nuts wrapped in high quality chocolate. And like so many things in Paris, the presentation is as amazing as the flavors. So it seemed a reasonable bet that a show dedicated to chocolate in Paris would be pretty over-the-top.

So we went on the last day, a Sunday afternoon, where we encountered about half of the population of Paris. Turns out the Salon du Chocolat is in its 15th year and is anything but an intimate gathering. We waited half an hour to get in, wondering what waited inside. If at the Salon des Vins you get a tasting glass with your entry fee, what tasting implement one would get at the Salon du Chocolat? Maybe white gloves? Wishful thinking. Though rumors that a more liberal tasting environment prevailed on Thursday and Friday, when the crowd was smaller, the Sunday mob did not see a plethora of samples. And those booths that did offer samples more resembled a shark-feeding demonstration than a chocolate shop.

Exhibitors ranged from groups representing growers of cacao to those who makers, blend, and ultimately use chocolate for nearly any use. There were chocolate bars, candies, truffles, jarred sauces, cakes, pastries, and even liqueurs, all of it for sale. Booth sizes ranged from relatively one- or two-person stands offering just a few products to stylish mini-pavilions from some of the big chocolatiers such as La Maison du Chocolat, Lenotre, Jeff de Bruges, and Pierre Marcolini. Exhibitors came mostly from France and its near neighbors, but also from further-flung places such as the US (Chocovision, a company that makes equipment for industrial chocolate production), Japan (Tokyo Chocolate Co, a chocolatier disappointingly offering tastes of cliched chocolates dusted in green tea powder), and Madagascar (Cinagra, whose website, the first I've ever typed with a .mg address, doesn't work). There was also a stage in the center of the hall for elaborate performances of native cultures from cacao-growing regions, demonstration areas for cooking with chocolate, lectures on everything from chocolate history to the science of its taste to chocolate myths and legends (Le chocolat est-il aphrodisiaque?), and this being Paris, a crowded hall of fashion, the clothes all made from chocolate.

We stuck to the eating. And whereas the sample rate was maybe 1 in 6 exhibitors, it's surprising how quickly a series of small chocolate tastings can overwhelm. We had a couple of opportunities to compare chocolate made from beans from different sources, and just like coffee or wine, the flavor differences were immense and fascinating. There were some superb dark chocolate-covered sauterne grapes: super-intense fruit, hard to identify even as grapes, with prominent mango- and tropical fruit flavors mingling with the chocolate. We had some delicious chocolate wafers filled with spiced caramels (ginger, cardamom, etc). And our favorite of the day was an intense classic truffle that just dissolved luxuriously on your tongue, made by Pascal Le Gac, a chocolatier in St Germain-en-Laye, a picturesque town on a hill top just outside of Paris.

Given the mob inside, we were shocked on our way out to see that the line was probably 10 times longer than when we waited to get in. That was hard to explain, since the event closed in just 90 min. Maybe the long line wasn't actually to get into the event-- maybe they were autograph seekers waiting to mob the chocolatiers when they exited. Or better yet, maybe the exhibitors stand on the balcony and toss the rest of their samples out to the crowds below. Kind of like trick-or-treating.

Speaking of which, it's nearly Halloween. I wasn't so surprised to see EuroDisney billboards with a Halloween theme in the metro in the past month. But on several rides in the countryside recently, I've seen Halloween-like decorations on fences and houses. What gives? Halloween isn't a traditional French holiday. A friend here recalled that when France Telecom bought the Orange brand for its mobile networks and internet about 8 years ago, they did a Halloween tie-in that kind of stuck. That perception meshes with a broader explanation here. Regardless, it seems it's celebrated by little kids, especially outside of Paris, and young adults looking for an excuse to party. No word on whether, given the French fondness for setting cars afire, they also celebrate Devil's Night. But just in case, I'm bringing a fire extinguisher to dinner tonight.

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