Combine Eliza Dolittle with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and you have the Salon du Chocolat in Paris.
About 200,000 visitors descend annually, barge past chocolate recreations of the Eiffel Tower, Sphinx, Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa… to reach the hundred million stalls offering a hundred million chocolate samples.
The ultimate chocolate exhibition. And absolute madness. But at the Salon you learn about the imagination, innovation and perfection involved in fashioning the finest chocolates. Indeed, to the chocolatier his creations are art.
The Salon aims to provoke healthy (a word inappropriate when talking about chocolate?) competition between chocolatiers, but furious rivalry results in super sophisticated production technique. Refinement in chocolate quality now teeters on the absurd to any non-connoisseur of chocolate. The finest chocolate is of cru (cultivated like gastronomic wines of cépage).
But the Salon is principally a place of indulgence and decadence for hopeless chocoholics, including French ministers (some rather important ones), who dismay not at being captured shamelessly demolishing masses of chocolate. What else can one do when convened under one roof are the mightiest names in chocolate from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Russia, Japan, China, Syria…
|All made of chocolate: The Eiffel Tower.
Pic by Samir Mody
And French regional chocolatiers whose specialities include Côte d’Azur’s Papaline- an extravagance made with essences of sixty plant extracts from Mont Ventoux. Succumb one must to the dernières creations of multifarious chocolatiers, pâtissiers, confiseurs… What extraordinary innovations, inspired by the creativity and perhaps eccentricity of maîtres chocolatiers. Discover ever more astonishing associations of ingredients.
The ganache (filling of the chocolate) is often a wildly whimsical hybrid mix of spices (cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, Madras Curry Powder… ), liqueurs, teas, coffees, nuts, plant extracts, herbs (mint, fennel, coriander, thyme, tea, vervienne…), flowers ( lavender, rose, violet, iris, jasmine, mimosa, frangipani, ylang ylang …), fruit (pear, passion, pineapple, apricot, mango, lime, lemon, fruits of the forest, avocado…), vegetables (peas, mushrooms…), seeds (poppy, sesame…), honey (flavoured with chestnut/ birch/fir bark), pastry, cake, bread (crème brûlé, strudel, macaroon, ginger bread…).… But like in fashion, some of the stranger creations are to shock and aren’t necessarily nice.
Shock is the initial reaction of the first-time visitor to the Salon du Chocolat. The profusion of chocolate, in inconceivable forms, is more than decadent. It is downright debauch. It is also shockingly, choc-ingly chic. Because trends may come and go, but chocolate has never gone out of fashion. Always associated with luxury, chocolate is now linked with glamour, extravagance and fashion.
The Salon du Chocolat’s Chocolate Fashion Show is becoming increasingly more exuberant. Maitres chocolatiers replicate identically in chocolate Haute Couture creations from the biggest names in fashion. Top models parade down the catwalk wearing these astonishing re-creations of designer dresses, which are also exhibited on mannequins for closer inspection of the art and craft that goes into the faithful duplication of drapes, swirls, twirls of fabric. The highlight of the Salon is this spectacular chocolate fashion.
And then there is also a showroom of chocolate shoes…
Chocolate was originally consumed as a drink (which disgusted Columbus). The Salon exhibits chocolate drinks including crazy champagne cocktails- say champagne, dark chocolate and ginger à la Casanova.
Chocolate has insidiously infiltrated savoury gastronomy as star chefs explore and experiment with combining traditionally ‘contradictory’ flavours: chocolate with game, meat, fish... Available at the Salon are chocolate pastes and sauces containing wild rabbit to accompany foie gras, pasta…
The Salon’s Chocolate Museum takes one on a whirlwind waltz through the 2600-year-old history of chocolate. The Mayas and Aztecs discovered the cacao tree, which they called the ‘Tree of Paradise’. We learn that cacao has always been precious and was used as a currency: a rabbit cost 10 cacao beans and the going rate for a slave was 100 beans…
Chocolate workshops teach children to paint and sculpt with chocolate, whilst their daddies enjoy watching exotic, often skimpily-clad ladies perform the Choco Dance, dating from the ceremonial dance of Maya sovereigns to demonstrate cocoa’s spiritual energy. Mummies relax at the chocolate spa… wallowing in unctuous chocolate body butter, en vogue chocolate cosmetics etc…
Other live spectacles involve a troop from the Côte d’Ivoire enacting plantation life in ‘Ivorian’ ambience. Their frenzied dancing to vociferous incantations once left a little girl in tears.
Expect demonstrations (including Japanese calligraphy on chocolate), lectures on chocolate, crowning of “Miss Cocoa” and the Award Ceremony, before a live audience treated to samples. Annually, the same chocolatiers win: Those with biggest budgets (Maison du Chocolat, Jean-Paul Hévin…) who dispense the biggest hampers to judges… The most exciting young artisanal chocolatiers like Noel Jovy from the Loire Valley, without marketing budgets, never win.
But connoisseurs concur his ganache à la fenouille (fennel) is fantastic. But then so are his chocolates with lime & thyme and chataigner honey and actually all his collection. Seek out also Quernon d’Ardoiseband, Jacques Bellanger and Sebastien Broacard. New Japanese chocolatier Miki can out-French the French and Swedish M’A’LARCHOCOLATERIE does super horseradish chocolate. Bassam Ghraoui whom I met in Damascus once won “Best Foreign Chocolatier” for Ghraoui’s oriental exotica like dark chocolate filled with almond-pistachio-orange paste.
I ask one artisan where I could buy their exquisite chocolates from again. He replies, “Next year’s Salon du Chocolat- unless you come find us in Alsace.”
Annually, after five days at the Salon du Chocolat and three dozen bags of chocolates (at least…), I promise NEVER to attend the Salon again…
Chocolanté: Colombo’s one-stop-chocolate-shop. Extraordinary!
A 125-year-old bungalow converts into a cocoon of coco. Terraces open onto charming fountained courtyards. I am meeting CEO Sriantha De Alwis. I arrive with a book hoping he is late so that I can bask in the setting. Alas, SDA is punctual.
And he immediately avows his obsession with perfection. I decide we’ll get on... He next declares, “Everyone does the same thing in town. We wanted to create a difference.” And he whisks me to explore the terrains of temptation.
An arrayal of handmade chocolate leads one from temptation to temptation. Oscar Wilde said, “The only way to resist temptation is to succumb to it.” But Wilde wouldn’t have imagined just how much succumbing Chocolanté demands of us frail mortals...
|Simply irresistible: Two cakes from the cake counter at Chocolante (above and top right, inset) and its own array of homemade chocolates (bottom, right inset)
Ganache of rum, arrack, Turkish Delight... Sugar-free pralines particularly impress. Soon they will implement an interactive open kitchen or a “chocolate bar” modelled on sandwich bars: Choose your chocolate base and have it filled with ganache of your choice as you would a sandwich whilst you sip on chocolate at their liquid chocolate bar in another enclave. Astonishing. And unique. No parallel in all my travels, not even in the world’s chocolate capitals.
Chocolanté also offers smouldering, dark chocolate fondue. Dip with fruit, marshmallow and, here the difference, milk shortbread. Simmer away, until you get the cold shoulder with their homemade ice cream, currently chocolate, chocolate-almond and stunner, sugar-free dark chocolate sorbet. Enjoy it before they distract you with soon-to-launch twelve flavours, including plain, sugar-free, and dark chocolate... Until then, submerge in sundaes crunched in homemade cookies (chocolate fudge the must-do).
But the cake counter hijacks me. Chocolate mud cake, chocolate intensified, looks irresistible. And what looks good tastes good. Sultry, sensuous, sumptuous so disturbingly. The palate is swirled in utterly buttery churns (without that ubiquitous-in-Colombo offensive cream or grease). Panic. I guess there is pure cocoa butter. But butter too? SDA smiles affirmatively, “We don’t use margarine- why would you want to consume edible plastic?” Chunky Choc and chocolate brownies (two types, rich and raunchy or slender slices) offer that same unctuous luxury. Cupcakes and muffins (both in duplicate flavours) are dainty- as they should be. White chocolate I despise (yes, that’s the word) but Chocolanté’s white cupcake enclosing lemon mousse under white chocolate snow is a delight, although the cupcakes, like the chocolate, could be more tender. But I admit myself ravished by their liqueur-laced three-tiered chocolate mousse cake. Devouringly good. Phenomenal feel. How? “It’s not rocket science,” SDA says enigmatically....
Stupendous though his repertoire, he is restless: the cakes must match the multitudinous chocolates variety. Further, he anticipates, soon others will be replicating their products. Me thinks he’ll stay ahead...
Chocolanté’s are amongst the finest chocolate cakes in Colombo. True, they could be a lot less sweet. I suggest low-sugar options. They apparently flirted with low-sugar and sugar-free ranges. But SDA says, “If we launched it, you’d be the only consumer.” Lankans want SWEET. They haven’t grasped the paradox that a sweet must never be sweet.
When next we meet SDA reveals he is effecting low-sugar alternatives. I suppose I am relentless in my low-sugar crusade.
SDA is pleased his product pleased me. If it didn’t I’d have said so, I say. He laughs, “I’m told you would...” He has heard my reviews are brutally honest. “But I like that,” he says. I decide we’ll get on...I can’t imagine a more delicious way to Saturday away than getting a book from the British Council (conveniently opposite Chocolanté) and languishing in chocolate. Freeze time with Chocolanté frozen hot chocolate (what this remarkable mystery creation is we’ll let you discover). And make that a big book!
Chocolates by Gerard Mendis (Fine Things): Gerard Mendis is the country’s most elusive chef. But track him down we had to. For he is the one man who understands sugar in Sri Lanka. He learned to make pastries in Vienna, has won more international medals than we can enumerate and just acquired another qualification in crafting luxury chocolate.
If the just-concluded Paris Salon du Chocolat obsessed about “sugar free,” then Gerard Mendis just launched sugar-free handmade chocolates and even created an exclusive and ornate dark chocolate collection (available on special order from Fine Things). Chef Gerard accomplishes those near-impossible soft-coated textures. Very French, but Lankan flavour pervades Coconut & Orange Sensation, Coconut Peak, Coconut & Orange Bar... Marzipan chocolates are little marvels whilst liqueur ganache (Fresh strawberries in Grand Marnier, Red cherries in Cointreau, Rum and Raisin) that squirt in your mouth are ebrious exquisiteness. I’m still recovering from Coffee Rollers.
His melt-at-touch truffles (honey, strawberry or unusual peanut) alone conform to the definition in Colombo. Fine things? The finest. If sometimes the chocolates seem too sweet, he admits the pastry kitchen tries to be over-adventurous and improve upon the master’s strictly sugar-controlled recipes. Perhaps Sri Lanka should tax sugar as in Europe to curtail such saccharine audacities…
Coco Veranda: Everything evokes chocolate. Deep, dark chocolate tables, counter, classy cake cabinet, milk chocolate chairs. Temptation is to start eating the furniture. But save your appetite for their new hot chocolate. You’ll need it- they have eight sorts! The ‘Sri Lankan” hot chocolate (two kinds, with or without molten marshmallow) comprises 70% of their hot chocolate business (it’s called Sri Lankan hot chocolate simply because it’s sweeter, bigger and therefore appeals to locals, although made with Cadburys).
|Chef Gerard’s near-impossible soft-coat-textured homemade chocolates
New Italian Filicori Zecchini hot chocolate, however, has expats wallowing in a drinkable mud bath. Operations Manager Mr. Nawaz confesses this is for people who have experienced “real hot chocolate” in Europe. I rigorously recommend plain dark chocolate. Ask for young new recruit Nuwan who attains with precision of temperature and milk quantum, an indulgence as thick as a wall and as rich as a king. Savouring slowly, I’m almost transported back to Paris’s legendary Laduré. Spice Hot Chocolate rather recreates the drink the Aztecs originally consumed. Almond Hot Chocolate, quintessentially Italian amaretto-infused, I adore. But Italians prefer hazelnut. I think all one can pair with hot chocolate is iced water. But the choc-choked match Hazelnut Hot Chocolate with Italian-style Hazelnut Torte, which Coco Veranda offers exclusively and excellently.
Peanut chocolate cake, another exclusive offering, pimpled in peanuts and in drapes of peanut butterscotch, best complements creamy Caramel Hot Chocolate, whilst the new chocolate chip cookies and chocolate muffins populous with robust chocolate cubes accompany Vanilla Hot Chocolate. Teasing Orange Hot Chocolate bowled over Mahela Jayawardane, but Bollywood star John Abraham declared the white hot chocolate seduced him. This custardy semi-solid isn’t quite to my taste. But then, neither is Bipasha Basu...