How many more heavy gold medals can Paris drape around its neck?
Acolytes claim the City of Light is the fashion and cultural capital of Europe, the West's greatest restaurant and food megapolis, a paradise for flaneurs, the mecca of hedonists and shop-till-you-drop materialists, the world's favorite city, period. Now, while the Swiss and Belgians weren't looking, Paris stole their milk cows and became the swaggering global capital of chic chocolate too.
Pundits quip that French president Nicolas Sarkozy set the stage. Elected in 2007, Sarkozy does not drink alcohol. He gobbles chocolat, the very best. His 24/7 excitability – some call it dynamism – are attributed in part to the capital's current choco-manie.
But everyone knows Theobroma cacao – especially the unadulterated dark variety containing at least 60 percent cocoa – is good for the health, the libido, the mind, the morale. It makes people happy, fills them with energy, lifts them out of depression, and cures everything from rabies and rashes to the common cold, without weight gain. Or so some boosters claim, with impressive if unproven scientific "evidence."
What better fuel for France's hyperactive, tea-tottling head of state, a man bent on seducing his rock star wife Carla Bruni and the famously difficult French masses?
Nice story. But the rise of chocolate in Paris predates and goes beyond Sarkozy's habit.
Chocoholics have followed the capital's gradual rise since the 1990s, from bitter darkness – Paris lived in the long shadow of Lyon – into the limelight. The annual Salon du Chocolat has done much to raise Paris's profile. Other factors have contributed equally, including the nationwide decrease in wine and liquor consumption symbolized by Sarkozy. Chocolate is the ideal, socially acceptable substitute.
But the main reason for the rise is simple: French chocolate has become exquisite in its simplest incarnations, and excitingly wild in its extreme expressions.
Ever since France's great pastry chefs began breaking away from the starred restaurants where they were employed, chocolate-making has slipped out of the grip of the industrial candy-makers, local bakeries-cum-pastry-and-chocolate-shops, and fuddy-duddy neighborhood chocolatiers.
New-wave Paris chocolate masters the likes of Jean-Paul Hevin, Pierre Hermé, Christian Constant, Patrick Roger, and Michel Chaudun are as dynamic as Sarkozy, have global reach, and get at least as much press as the predictable French foodie idols, the three-star brigade led by Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, et al. Many chocolate stars have shops in Japan; Chaudun's website is in Japanese.
Cult status for chocolatiers also derives from the fact that they're not mere artisans. They're artistes. Take Roger and Chaudun. Both sculpt chocolate. Roger is irreverent and fanciful – a master of kitsch Pop Art. Chaudun excels with Eiffel Towers, among his most popular creations.
Actually, "popular" is not quite right, given the price. Chaudun's and his peers' prices ensure their wares are for elites in a city slavish to exclusivity. A pound of their precious Theobroma easily tops hundreds of dollars.
There's nothing ordinary about chic Paris chocolates, from the cacao bean up. Some top practitioners import their highest-quality beans, roasting and transforming them. Most buy prepared chocolate "bases" from France's exclusive, persnickety, and expensive chocolate supplier, Valrhona. Typically, beans or bases are many times more expensive than those used by fine artisanal chocolate makers elsewhere.
Like it or not, for the most part luscious Belgian and Swiss chocolates are perceived as rich, fattening, sweet, milky, creamy and old-fashioned. French chocolates – especially those made in Paris – are seen as dark, lean, intense, avant-garde, surprising, disconcerting, sometimes silly or shocking. They're filled with everything from camembert to lavender honey and floral essences, liquorice to ginger, herbs and spices, and fine wine, sometimes in multiples of three, four or six unlikely combinations.
Chocolatiers and suppliers in Italy, America, Belgium and Switzerland have followed suit. But the sheer concentration of avant-garde masters in Paris is unrivaled. And few outside the French capital have comparable panache or draw. Who had ever heard of Pierre Marcolini, a Belgian choc-and-awe master, before he opened his chicissime boutique near the French Senate?
No wonder Hevin and Marcolini display their edible artworks as if they were jewels. While they won't set you back as much as a bauble from Cartier, you might think twice before ingesting them. Aesthetics are a big part of the experience.
It may well be this nexus of food and fashion that is driving Paris's current chocolate boom. Chocolat and haute couture meet on the runway, sometimes to the strains of opera, with chic chocolatiers daubing models with liquid chocolate, or hanging chocolate undies and necklaces in strategic locations.
As dozens of boring old mom-and-pop stores selling useful items continue to disappear from the 2nd, 6th, 7th, 8th and 16th arrondissements, or the inevitable Marais, they are often replaced by chocolate boutiques. Toss a euro coin and it will land on big-name or hungry provincial cacao magicians planting their tills in the last available floor space.
Ridiculous? Perhaps. But this is Paris, ça c'est Paris. Chaudin's chocolate Eiffel Towers might as well be emblazoned with the capital's latest moniker: "Paris, City of Chocolate."