No-one knows and loves chocolate like the French. They have made it an art form, and rightly so. The French have known for centuries that chocolate is not just food, it’s sustenance for the soul and an essential element of la joie de vivre.
Chocolate’s French origins, so the story goes, can be attributed to Christopher Columbus who discovered it in his travels and introduced it to the court of Spain. From there it was smuggled across the border into France in 1615 where Anne of Austria, the wife of King Louis XIII, got her hands on some. Realising the unique qualities of this new food, or perhaps believing the rumours that it was an aphrodisiac, she gave some to the King in the form of a hot chocolate. Louis, being enchanted by the taste and not a person to keep good news to himself, spread the word to the rest of the French court. From there it was only a matter of time until chocolate fever seized all of Paris and then spread to the whole country. No Frenchman could get enough of the stuff, an obsession that has carried on through the generations. Of course the French have not kept the secret to themselves and these days chocolate in all its forms is high on the list of most people’s favourite food.
There’s something about French chocolate that makes it unique and especially delicious. It’s not as sweet as its better known Belgian and Swiss counterparts and it has a more subtle taste and very creamy texture.
Chocolate shops are everywhere in Paris, but as with fashion, they are small, specialist boutiques where you’ll find only superior products, exclusive, expensive and beautifully presented. On our recent visit, we were walking back to our apartment one day when we stumbled across the amazing shop of Jean Charles Rochoux.
It’s impossible to pass by without stopping to gaze in awe at the window display. Chocolate sculptures of everything from animals to muscled torsos are just one example of this chocolatier’s stunning artistry. All the chocolates are made in a workshop on the premises, so the shop is not only visually glorious but filled with the heady aroma of chocolate and caramel.
I don’t need to remind you that chocolate is not health food. There have been vague and possibly spurious claims that a certain amount (nowhere near enough for a chocolate lover) of dark chocolate is good for you. Like similar claims made about red wine, as anyone knows who can’t live without either of these staples, the word moderation never makes a lot of sense in this context. Because once you start, the headiness of consumption obliterates all common sense. So in terms of nutritional value, forget it. But emotionally, psychically, soulfully and in every other way that can’t be measured, indulging in some of the world’s glorious consumables is essential to your happiness. Once you’ve decided chocolate is the thing you need, you must simply go for it and put all that energy sapping guilt aside. There will always be time later to enjoy a tasty salad. That time is just not now.
One of my favourite ways to enjoy chocolate is chocolate brownies. There are many variations of these and although I’ve never tried one I didn’t enjoy, I think the best version is a fudgy, melt in your mouth texture with a crisp, crusty exterior. Here’s a recipe passed on to me by a friend which incorporates toasted almonds, but you could use any nuts (macadamias are very good). It’s really easy to make and they freeze well in the unlikely event you don’t eat them all at once.
- 300g (10 oz) dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
- 250g (9 oz) unsalted butter
- 400g (14 oz) light muscovado sugar (or soft brown sugar)
- 5 large free range eggs
- 100g (4 oz) almonds, toasted
- 200g (7 oz) plain flour
- 1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
- Line an 8x8 inch (or 20x20cm) baking dish or tin with baking paper or alfoil
- Preheat oven to 180C or 160C fan-forced
- Melt chocolate and butter in a large heavy saucepan over a low heat
- When melted, stir in the sugar, then the eggs, one by one, stirring well
- Fold in the nuts, flour and salt and then transfer to the prepared dish or tin
- Bake in the centre of the oven for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out coated with damp crumbs
- Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the container
- When cool slice into squares with a sharp knife warmed in hot water
If you’re a brownie connoisseur and want concise instructions on how to make the best brownie, depending on whether you prefer them fudgy or cakey, have a look at this video, in which the delicious treats are explained by the equally delicious Thomas Joseph.
by Anne Green