In the 11th arrondissement of Paris, better known for the storming of the Bastille in the 18th century than any gastronomic revolutions, I twice walked right past Alain Ducasse’s unassuming first efforts as a 21st-century Willy Wonka. In fact, for the first two months after its February opening, I postponed going at all, doubtful that the French capital, or I, really needed yet another superstar chocolatier.
My scepticism grew along with the burgeoning hype among both Paris-based and bound foodies, who raved about the exotic origins of the ingredients – Peru, São Tomé and Trinidad – and the raw-as-cacao decor. The exposed brick and stone interior of the former mechanic’s garage-turned-beans-boutique, with its rectangles of chocolate encased in a steel display salvaged from the Banque de France (second picture), left me rather cold. I remained unfazed even after peering through the glass panels while Ducasse’s young chocolatiers poured 150kg to 200kg batches of beans into roasters and winnowers (which blow the thin skins off the roasted beans).
They work under Ducasse’s business partner Nicolas Berger, executive head pastry chef for the entire Ducasse culinary empire. The son of a chocolatier from Lyon, Berger trained at top Paris chocolate shops Jean-Paul Hévin, Peltier and Ladurée. Ducasse’s past, too, is rich in this sweet stuff. In 1975, he apprenticed under chocolatier Michel Chaudun for legendary French chef Gaston Lenôtre.
All the right boxes under pedigree and decor had been checked, yet I was left wondering: how does it taste?
I bypassed bonbons endowed with Sicilian pistachios, coconut-passionfruit and even peanut butter – that American import once considered the very antithesis of French gourmet fare – as well as chocolate pralines (third picture). Instead, to maximise the potential for palate satisfaction, I loaded up on the bars (first picture, €6) Ducasse himself professes to prefer – those made with 75 per cent cacao and single-origin versions from Vietnam and Papua New Guinea. Back home, I unwrapped each plain brown wrapper; what I felt was the nonchalant Gallic shrug to Willy Wonka’s gaudy gilded gesticulations.
While the 75 per cent bar was a little too intense for my milk-chocolate-raised palate, the other extreme, an extra-milky 35 per cent slab made with beans from the Ivory Coast was too far at the opposite end of the spectrum. This tale’s happy ending was, for me, found in the 45 per cent chocolate from Madagascar – serious but not too sweet.