Valentine's Day is a day that celebrates love, both of the romantic kind as well as the Platonic. The holiday has a few specific icons associated with it including Cupid, red roses and not least amongst them, chocolate. I happen to love chocolate and it is my favorite icon of all those associated with Valentine's Day.
Though it originated in Central and South America, quality chocolate today comes from all over the tropical world. The beans themselves tend to come from tropical regions, most typically from Central and South America and Africa. As with many items, the origin of the beans tends to impart a particular terroir, which may or may not be highlighted by a particular chocolate maker. The Belgians and Swiss have developed reputations over the years as makers of superb chocolate and I have enjoyed wonderful chocolate made in the United States, Spain, Italy and Japan, but for my money, the best chocolate in the world comes from France. In particular from the city of Lyon on the Rhone river in the Southeast of France not far from Switzerland. Lyon boasts of an incredible concentration of chocolatiers with seemingly a small chocolate shop on every corner.
Arguably the top chocolate company in the world when it comes to a combination of quality, availability and innovation, Valrhona, remains a small, family owned company located just outside of Lyon. As might be expected, their presence at SIRHA, the large biennial culinary trade show that takes place just outside of Lyon and is the home of the Bocuse d'Or and World Pastry Championships is considerable. A major sponsor, they maintain a booth in the VIP section of SIRHA that creates and serves delicious savory and dessert items to lucky attendees. In the past they have served savory items created by their esteemed chef Frederic Bau using their chocolate as well as wonderful desserts. This year, the savories were still wonderful, but they were made without chocolate. The desserts, though, still incorporated a variety of their amazing products. Located immediately outside their booth was the winning Spanish team's creations – one of chocolate and one of sugar. Unfortunately, I did not get to visit the Valrhona factory on this trip, but that remains a priority for a future visit to Lyon.
For more photos see here.
Maison Weiss is a small chocolatier with a number of shops throughout eastern France based in St. Etienne not far from Lyon. Their shop in Lyon located on Presque Isle at 50 Rue de Brest between Bellecouer and the Hotel de Ville. The shop is stylish and small with colors dominated by browns, pinks and purples along with splashes of other hues. Weiss is one of the few chocolatiers left who make their own chocolate from beans sourced from some of the finest cacao growers in the world, taking the beans through the entire process from selection to roasting to grinding to conching and beyond. Visiting with my friends Lucy and Bonjwing we enjoyed tasting a wide variety of their luscious products from single origins like Ibaria 67% with orange peel and Tribago 64% and Aciragua 70% with cacao nibs to some of their specialty products like orangettes and chocolate coated candied ginger and their white chocolate with crisp red fruits amongst others. The chocolate was deep, rich, elegant and distinctive with the single origins showing terroir. The darker chocolates remained true to their quality without excess or unpleasant levels of bitterness. The ingredients used to supplement or augment the chocolate were all of superb quality. To partake of the chocolates of Maison Weiss is to partake of pleasure.
As wonderful as Maison Weiss and some other Lyon chocolate shops like Bernard Dufoux are, the highlight of my Lyon chocolate experience was a visit to and tour of Maison Bernachon at 42 Cours Franklin Roosevelt on the east side of Lyon. The shop is a throwback to days when craftsmanship was paramount. I gathered along with my friends Lucy and Bonjwing, my son, Andrew and a small group of French patisserie students for a tour of the production area behind the shop. We were met by our guide, a long time Bernachon employee, who took us back to another world. We entered into a pastry area, where multinational employees were decorating cakes and quickly moved to where orange peels are meticulously prepared and slowly simmered to candy perfection. Bernachon is known for the quality of the products and the maintainence of their very specialized equipment, much of which has been in use for decades.As fascinating as the first glimpses of our tour were, it wasn't until we stepped through the doors of the chocolate room, that we were hit with the full magnitude of the glory that is Bernachon. The overwhelming and arousing aroma of fresh chocolate stopped me in my tracks as we began our foray into the hows of making chocolate. Like Maison Weiss, Bernachon is one of the few small chocolate makers that follow the process from the beginning, carefully selecting their cacao beans from choice producers around the world. Most of the chocolate at Bernachon winds up as a blend. The only single origin chocolate they produce is Chuao from Venezuala, a very small and select designation, where the sole occupation of the community is to grow cacao.
Within the chocolate room the beans are hand selected with any detritus removed. From there the raw cacao beans are roasted. At Bernachon, the beans are always roasted in small batches then the brittle roasted beans are cracked in a winnowing machine with the unusable husks removed, leaving the nibs, which are winnowed by size. The next step is to separate the cocao butter and cacao solids from the nibs. This is done with a heavy milling process that through pressure and heat winds up liquefying the nibs leaving a chocolate liquor (without the alcohol!). The liquor is then mixed and refined by crushing it to a point that the individual particles are sensed as smooth and not grainy or particulate. The chocolate then undergoes further grinding, mixing, agitating and kneading in a process called "conching," which has a tendency to round out the chocolate flavor. The last step before the chocolate is used to make various confections is tempering, a process of heating and cooling chocolate repeatedly and results in proper melting properties and the characteristic glossy sheen.
Continuing through the Bernachon factory, we saw truffles, Valentines and Easter chocolates and chocolate bars being made, all by hand. Once back in the shop at the end of the tour, how could I resist buying as much as I dared carry? After some difficult decisions (I wanted to buy everything, but just couldn't), we retired next door to the Bernachon Cafe for chocolat chaud and a pain au chocolat. Ummm, heaven!
Happy Valentine's Day!