One summer day in Paris I stood on a street corner waiting to meet my friend Sarah. She was late, and I busied myself by watching the cars drive by. When she finally arrived, she held out her hand and gave me a piece of candy. "I'm sorry I'm late," she said, "but just taste this." The wrapper was egg-yolk yellow and read madeleines
, a cake-y cookie made famous in France, and particularly in the town of Commercy.
I peeled away the wrapper and found a hard candy inside. I wrinkled my nose and peered up at Sarah. I was not in the mood for a sickly sweet rock of a bonbon. She sighed, fatigued by my intransigence, and gave me a look that said I had better try it. I popped the golden nugget into my mouth and then took a bite.
I tasted, first, sugar. No, not sugar, caramel. Not caramel, no, but something buttery. Something sweet and buttery. But there was a granularity to it, something crumbly. I took a deep breath and all of a sudden I was in a bakery, the scent of madeleines
engulfing me, whispers of vanilla dancing all around me. I was a million miles away, suspended in a daydream of of pure happiness.
And then I was back on the street corner, staring at Sarah.
"I know." She said, smiling. "Let me take you to Le Bonbon au Palais. You need to meet Georges."
When Georges was only eight years old, he dreamed of owning a candy store. Born into a humble background, he was keenly aware of the simple pleasure afforded by a piece of candy. One day, he received a present of five francs from his uncle, who gave him permission to spend it as he pleased. Georges bought 500 pieces of candy (which were at the time only one centime each) and shared them with his brothers and sisters. As they feasted on the sweets before them, Georges looked up at his mother and promised her: "When I grow up I'm going to have the most beautiful candy shop in the world."
Many years later, Le Bonbon au Palais sits at 19 rue Monge in Paris's Latin Quarter, an homage to the artistry of candy making in France. Georges opened his store six years ago, after a long career in luxury restaurant management and many months of research in the candy-making villages of France.
France has more than 200 registered artisans who have dedicated their lives to making poetry out of sugar. Georges has visited most of them, and selected 70 of them to showcase in his Paris boutique. There are the calissons de Saint-Rémy de Provence, crystallized squares of sugared almonds, cooked and ground into a delicately perfumed paste. There is la tomme de Savoie
, which resembles a mini-version of its namesake, a well-known cheese, but is in fact a sugar-dusted dark chocolate ganache surrounding a brilliant wild blueberry coulis
. There are sugared violets, rose petals, and mint leaves; clementines confites
, soaked in sugar syrup for weeks on end; and les coussins de Lyon, shaped like silk cushions and made of cocoa, blanched almonds, and curaçao liqueur
Georges takes pride in his store. Many of the sweets, such as the papalines d'Avignon, cannot be found outside of their regions-- except at Le Bonbon au Palais. (In the case of the papalines, the confrerie
, or brotherhood, of candymakers in Avignon debated for weeks until conferring upon George the honor of distributing their bonbons outside the village.)
As you may have guessed, Sarah did take me to visit Georges. I tried more madeleines
, and marshmallows, and licorice, and the nutty-chocolate-y mehnirs de Bretagne. I spent an hour in the petite boutique, and as soon as I left I wondered when I could return again.
Just after opening his store, before he had a chance to tell her about it, Georges's mother came to Paris for a visit. He took her out on rue Monge and, as they walked down the street, Le Bonbon au Palais caught her eye. She peered through the glass, in awe of the treasures inside. Georges smiled at her admiration and discreetly pulled out his keys. As he opened the door, his eight-year-old self alive in his mind, he announced to his mother that he finally had the most beautiful candy shop in the world.
75005 Paris, France