Not long ago The Daily Candy wrote a piece about my chocolates entitled "Forget Paris." Having spent two years on a film, Kings of Pastry for which I was treated to (or endured, depending on your stamina) the confections of French chocolatiers with the coveted title of "Best Craftsmen in France" (or "MOF" to the French), I was naturally flattered.
But, I was skeptical, even if I, myself, had spent the better part of the summer trying to write about home-grown, "stay-cation" sweets -- those that matched the quality of French chocolates without the airfare. Now that I am turning out my own hand-made artisan chocolates daily rather than observing others, I wondered if my decision to attend the recent Salon du Chocolat in Paris would confirm the idea that we can really "forget Paris." After all, even some of the legendary chefs of France, such as Paul Bocuse, have been trying to prove that America has finally arrived as a culinary force.
With New York's own Chocolate Show coming up soon -- same organizers, different vendors -- I am compelled to report that for confections, France is still "vaut le voyage," or worth the trip to borrow the language of the Michelin Guide. Unlike its New York sister, whose exhibitors are more a mixture of "rustic" confectioners, chocolate bar makers, and industrial fabricators like Leonides and Baci, the annual chocolate salon in Paris is a veritable "who's who" of France's leading artisan chocolatiers.
To be sure, the assembly of MOFs, recognizable by their blue, white and red collars, is a function, at least in part, of the concurrent "World Chocolate Masters" competition held during the Salon. Visitors at the recently concluded Salon could sample the fine confections of the everyone from the eminences grises of the craft like Jacques Bellanger, who earned the MOF title nearly three decades ago, and Jean-Paul Hevin, awarded the title three years after Bellanger, to younger MOFs like Franck Kestener from the Lorraine region and Parisian Arnaud Larher, awarded the title by Nicolas Sarkozy in the most recent competition.
The show offered the occasional item the French head of my pastry school used to call "food strange" -- cigar ganache from Swedish chocolatiers Malarchocolaterie has replaced the now more pedestrian bacon truffle of the American Vosges chocolate makers. The new Japanese force on the Paris chocolate scene, Sadaharu Aoki, showcased his make-up line, pinky-length ganache resembling a department store lipstick palette.
And chocolate lovers who are satisfied with a simple square of chocolate had a dizzying array of tablettes or bars to choose from -- everything from the sublime "Atlantique" of Kestener, with 66 percent cacao from Venezuela, to the single-origin chocolates of Francois Pralus, selected this year by Gault Millau as the Best Chocolatier in Paris.
But for the most part, the Salon was a study in finesse -- the tenderness of ganache, the subtlety of the flavor infusions, and the delicacy of the layering. Even the simplest items betrayed a technical mastery that we still rarely see in American-made chocolates. Take, for example, Kestener's Atlantique, on the surface just a chocolate bar. Hiding within, however, was a layering of chocolate, paper thin butter cookie, caramel, and fleur de sel. Learning to create layers of texture and flavor this fine takes years, according to my friend Franck Fresson, a MOF pastry chef and chocolatier from Metz.
Where are these so-called sorcerers of chocolate when the New York Chocolate show rolls around? Many pack up their wares to go half-way around the world to the Tokyo Salon du Chocolat, but as a display of pure talent, the New York Chocolate show still trails far behind. I have been searching for some evidence to shatter my timeless rationale -- the unrivalled quality of the sweets -- for travelling to France. But the recent Salon du Chocolat, with its dazzling display of chocolate virtuosity, did little to confirm that we can yet "forget Paris."