Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Adventures in Chocolate Tasting



Don’t think just anybody could review Paris’s Salon du Chocolat and prove a trustworthy source of information. I have credentials: I’ve been kicked out of the factory of Swiss chocolate maker Cailler after going a bit overboard in the tasting room, and once, during my poor student days, I spent nearly an hour outside a chocolate factory debating whether it would be bad karma to steal a small box of chocolate eggs left outside to be shipped.

Criminal tendencies or an obsessive love of chocolate? I vote for the latter, and it was with the thought of passing on my love and expertise to Bonjour Paris readers that I agreed to tackle the opening night of Paris’ 9th Salon du Chocolat.

The Good

Now let’s get your most important question out of the way: are there chocolate samples?

Yes, yes, and yes. Tons of them, and with more variety than in previous years, when samples were often little more than chocolate chunks of various types. This year you’ve got fruit-dipped chocolate and chocolate éclairs and melted chocolate and chocolate truffles and chocolate macaroons and hot chocolate and chocolate bread and…you get the picture.

Of course, the exhibitors are also hoping that you’ll purchase some of their wares, and here, the offerings become even more creative, including chocolate sausages and asparagus, chocolate busts of your loved one, and chocolate calendars.

In addition to the massive amounts of chocolate, there are also several sideshow events, such as cooking demonstrations, cocoa beauty care, and an exhibit of chocolate renditions of famous Louvre artworks. (The rendering of Mona Lisa’s face in white chocolate is breathtaking.)

On the agenda for the inauguration was an additional event: a special fashion show, in which models were to show off the finest in chocolate couture. However, I decided to bypass the show: to someone who cried upon discovering that Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory only existed in the movies, this was a truly tragic waste of chocolate.

Navigating the crowded Salon du Chocolat requires planning, and I decided to apply a trusty amusement park strategy: when visitors flocked towards the parade of models, I took advantage of smaller lines to visit the most popular chocolate booths, where I sampled Grand Marnier crêpes, freshly-made Bernard Callebaut chocolates, and melted Toblerone-fruit cups.

The Bad


Of course, no event is perfect, and the Salon du Chocolat has its share of…distasteful moments.

Take, for example, the culinary challenge offered by Madame Setsuko Tokyo’s, which served up ball-shaped green tea things as its samples.

“It tastes like creamy powder,” I said to my partner-in-crime.

“Yes,” she answered, after a moment of serious reflection. “Or maybe powdery cream,” she answered.

In the name of honing our epicurian vocabulary, we hailed a Madame Setsuko employee, who told us in Japo-Frenglish that the dessert was a combination of cream, kirsch, green tea, and roughly five other ingredients that apparently have no name in English or French. Those five ingredients would be good to know, however, as I would advise you all to never use them in your pastry cooking. (To Madame Setsuko’s credit, the rest of her offerings—which were not available for sampling—looked quite delicious.)

But the adventure in Japanese “chocolate” was not the only incongruous element of the Salon du Chocolat. Someone at the Lays potato chip company must have confused the word sucré for salé on the exhibitor sign-up sheet, because bags of Lays potato chips could be found throughout the salon at tables manned by men serving Caribbean punch and tomato juice.

The Ugly

As this was the inaugural night of the Salon du Chocolat, the guest-list only crowd was full of guest-list types, each one more fashionable and important than the next.

In line to enter the Salon, I admired the technique of the mink coated, beehived woman who managed to work her way from the back of the line to the front by pushing her young daughter ahead of her, jamming the girl’s nose into the backs of those ahead. I tried the same technique with my friend (a slight bit shorter than me), but apparently there’s an age after which running your nose into people’s backs is no longer acceptable.

Once inside, we continually crossed paths with a party of pasty old men, whose fawning entourage made it clear that these were not just “Very Important Chocolate Lovers” but “Very Important People” as well. Whoever they were, I was peeved when they managed to block my access to a plate of chocolate hearts, and glared at the cameras and journalists taking down every word coming from these faux chocolate lovers.

In the midst of such fanfare over VIPs and scantily-clad models, it seemed as if we had lost sight of the higher purpose of this gathering.

“What about the chocolate?!?” I wailed to my friend, a true chocolate lover who, like me, had only gotten into the event because of her press credentials. “This is about the bean! Without the bean there would be no chocolate! Imagine: no chocolate sculptures, no chocolate models, no chocolate beauty care!”

I looked over to the booth of the Union of Chocolate Makers—surely they would understand; surely they would know what it was like to see their passion reduced to a dark chocolate negligee or white chocolate Mona Lisa. In fact, the union workers had deserted their booth! Perhaps they had gone on strike out of deference to the cocoa bean.

Alas, further investigation proved that this was not at all the case. The workers—the representatives of the Bean—were off across the hall watching the fashion show.

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