A ticket to Germany, a sudden spring break blizzard and my own badly battered heart conspired to propel me to Paris in 2007. This April Fool’s Day prank left me itching from fleas at my last-minute guesthouse and itching to explore my Montmartre surrounds.
I wandered for hours past Paris’s springtime petticoats of blooming peonies, tulips, roses and lilies that spilled copiously from around her usual attire of architectural grandeur. Seated in the crisp air of the cobblestone hillside cafe upon my return, I caught my breath for the first time in years.
Sounds of passing Peugeots and well-heeled walkers mingled with the French chatter of nearby patrons while wafts of cigarette smoke and espresso invaded my lungs. As the sun made its daily retreat, the cooling air nipped at my fingers and the empty cup they cradled. I headed down rue des Abbesses toward my humble lodgings for a jacket but paused before turning the corner: a neatly kept shop’s charming gardening wares filled the window and flowed out onto the stoop.
An impressive but welcoming curation of teas, spices, oils, wines and more lured me into the century-plus-old Ets Lion. I nodded shyly at the silver-haired proprietor before getting lost in the mesmerizing array. I confess my high-school-level French skills and my similarly amateur product knowledge left me reluctant to ask for help. Everything looked precious, but I wanted something special. Ultimately, the chocolate display beckoned.
Chocolate had been a particularly comforting pleasure of late, but my US finds hadn’t reached past Chocolove’s Strong Dark bars. I’d figured there must be something more, something better, but in that moment it occurred to me that I had no idea of what specifically made a chocolate “good.” It also occurred to me that here, in Paris and in this very shop, might be the place to begin learning.
I stood before the collection of European-made chocolate bars and confections and awkwardly cleared my throat. The proprietor came over with a gentle smile to assist. I asked him for the best chocolate bar he had, admittedly a silly question but the only one I could reasonably articulate in French.
“Well,” he replied in stilted English, “I think this could be the one,” as he pointed to one of the many large white bars with “Chocolat Bonnat” scrolled across its width.
“Chuao, cacao 75%” was written in the corner. On the back, I noted just three ingredients: cacao, cacao butter and sugar, and even with limited language skills the description of Chuao was clear: “incontestable numéro 1.” I was in. And I realized I’d be a fool not to ask for more.
“Is there another that’s unique?”
“This…but maybe it’s only for people a little bit crazy.”
Perfect. I picked up the Bonnat 100% bar, wrapped in scarlet red to warn of its potency. I thanked the man for his help and made my purchase. Crushing disappointment of late left me aching with hope that I’d just been given some kind of magic. Could it really be?
That night, I pulled out the chocolate to accompany my evening tipple. First, the Chuao. I slid the silver-wrapped bar from the white label. A rich, earthy and subtly fruity fragrance filled my nostrils. After two thunderous snaps, a small rectangular piece slid across my tongue.
Cocoa butter luxuriously coated my palate with potent, unexpected aromas. The pleasure induced by this alchemic moment escalated as anandamide triggered my heart to swoon, just a little, for the first time in a very long time.
Enchanted and excited, I reached for the 100% bar and eagerly popped a piece. A recklessly powerful blast of roasted creamy darkness filled my mouth. Well conditioned to upheaval of late, I clung to my chair while riding intensely flavored phenylethylamine waves that quickened my pulse. Theobromine soon soothed me into a blissful endorphin hum.
Une petite mort.
Love at first bite.