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Le Tour du Chocolat

By Amy Thomas
December 14, 2008
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THE French have elevated many things to high art: fashion, flirting, foie gras. Chocolate is no exception. With boutiques that display truffles as rapturously as diamonds, the experience of visiting a Parisian chocolatier can be sublime.

The problem, of course, is squeezing in as many of these indulgent visits as possible while also giving the rest of the city its due. My solution: devote one full day to chocolate boutiques, and do it in style. So, on my last visit to Paris, I took to the city???s V??lib??? bike system and mastered a two-wheeled circuit of eight of the chocolatiers that had the best reputations and most glowing reviews in city guidebooks and online message boards. It was exhilarating and exhausting, not to mention decadent. It was a chocoholic???s dream ride.

The V??lib???s ??? industrial-looking road bikes that are already icons of Parisian-chic just a year and a half after the city initiated the program ??? made the moveable feast more fun. Progressing from pralines to pav??s, I spun by the Eiffel Tower, zipped across the Seine and careened through the spindly streets of St.-Germain-des-Pr??s alongside other bikers: Parisians in summer dresses and business suits, their front baskets toting briefcases, baguettes and sometimes even Jack Russell terriers.

Practically speaking, the bikes were all but essential. How else could I cover five arrondissements in as many hours, while simultaneously countering a day of debaucherous extremes?

The hedonism began in the center of town with the oldest master on my list, Michel Cluizel (201, rue St.-Honor??; 33-1-42-44-11-66; www.chocolatmichelcluizel-na.com), who has been making chocolate since 1948. A short distance from a V??lib??? station at the intersection of Rues de l???Echelle and St-Honor??, I passed luxury stores flaunting billowy gowns and four-inch Mary Janes and stepped inside what was just as divine: a store where molten chocolate spews from a fountain and the shelves are stocked with bars containing as much as 99 percent cacao.

Mr. Cluizel has a single American outpost, in Manhattan, at which I???ve indulged in hot cocoa made with a blend of five cocoa beans. At his Parisian shop, managed by his daughter Catherine, I discovered the macarolat (1.55 euros, or about $2 at $1.29 to the euro). A chocolate version of the macaroon, it has a dark chocolate shell filled with almond and hazelnut praline, the nuts ground coarsely to give a rich, grainy texture. It was two bites that combined creamy and crunchy, snap and subtlety. But it was just two bites; I wanted more.

A quick spin west landed me at the doors of Jean-Paul H??vin (231, rue St-Honor??, (33-1-55-35-35-96; www.jphevin.com). A modern blend of dark wood cabinetry, slate floors and backlit wall cubbies where cobalt-accented boxes of bonbons are displayed, the space would feel intimidating if not for the shopkeepers, who are both numerous and gracious as they juggle the crowds ogling mango coriander macaroons and Pyramide cakes. After considerable debate ??? would it be ridiculously gluttonous to have a ???choco passion,??? a cocoa cake with chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache and praline puff pastry, so early in the day? ??? I settled on a caramel b??che (3.20 euros). Larger than an individual bonbon but smaller than a Hershey bar, the silky caramel enrobed in delicate dark chocolate hit the sweet spot.

With the choco-salty taste lingering on my tongue, I picked up a bike outside the H??tel Costes, craning my neck to spy any A-listers ??? were Sting and Trudie in there? Beyonc?? and Jay-Z? ??? and set out for the 16th Arrondissement.

Just beyond the Place de la Concorde I veered onto Avenue Gabriel. It is a curving street that winds past both the United States Embassy and Pierre Cardin???s showcase for young artists, Espace, before eventually turning into a narrow cafe-lined passage where you have to weave around double-parked delivery trucks. Hoping to avoid throngs of wide-eyed tourists on the parallel Champs-??lys??es and cars haphazardly zigging and zagging on the rotary around the Arc de Triomphe, I took the residential backstreets to Avenue Victor Hugo.

It was on this street that I found the most eccentric chocolatier on my list: Patrick Roger (45, avenue Victor Hugo; 33-1-45-01-66-71; www.patrickroger.com). It???s not just the chocolate sculptures (a life-size farmer, for example), seasonal window displays (a family of penguins, also life-size) or snazzy aquamarine packaging he???s known for: his intensely flavored bonbons are as bold as they come.

???I do think Patrick Roger is outstanding since he combines new, unusual flavors,??? said David Lebovitz, an American chocolate connoisseur, author of ???The Great Book of Chocolate??? and a Paris resident. But, he added, Mr. Rogers ???isn???t doing weird flavors just to be trendy, like others tend to do in Paris nowadays.???

I sampled a few to confirm. The Jamaica has a rich coffee flavor from ground Arabica coffee beans; the Jacarepagua blends sharp lemon curd and fresh mint, and then there???s the Phantasme, made with ... oatmeal. Each costs less than 1 euro.

About 90 minutes in, I had tasted creamy, salty and tart and had traversed a good stretch of the city. I was high ??? on Paris and sugar ??? coasting beneath Avenue Kl??ber???s towering chestnut and plane trees toward the Place du Trocad??ro in the 16th Arrondissement. Winding my way down the steep hills of the Rue Benjamin Franklin and the Boulevard Delessert, past romantic cafes and limestone edifices, alternately beige and gray depending on the light, I felt as though I was in a quaint Gallic village, not the capital city. That is until I was spit out across the river from the grandest Parisian landmark of all: the Eiffel Tower.

Digital cameras flashed, souvenirs were hawked and regiments of tour buses idled in one big mechanical whir. It was as if every foreigner had descended on the monument at that very moment. I didn???t exhale until I entered the quietly sophisticated Seventh Arrondissement.

Michel Chaudun (149, rue de l???Universit??, 33-1-47-53-74-40) is wildly talented as an artist and chocolate sculptor (his watercolors decorate the store along with chocolate Faberg?? eggs and African statues), to say nothing of his reputation for being one of the world???s best chocolatiers. After 22 years of turning cacao into sublime bonbons, he???s responsible for influencing many of the city???s newer generation of chocolatiers.

His pav??s are particularly worshipped. They???re sugar cube-size squares of cocoa-dusted ganache that you deftly spear from the box with a toothpick and then allow to melt a little on your tongue a little before biting into the rich creaminess. Fresh and luscious, they???re also hypersensitive to warm temperatures. Which meant ??? tant pis ??? if I tried to save any for later, they would wind up a choco-puddle.

Hopping on and off the V??lib???s so often courted a certain amount of trouble. Parisian cynicism reared its head when a disgusted man at a station told me that 90 percent of the bikes don???t work. I wouldn???t say the defective bicycles were that frequent, but I learned an essential checklist: Are the tires inflated? The rims, straight? Is the front basket intact? Do the gears work? Is the chain attached? With these things checked, you???re good to go, as I was after savoring the last pav?? from my modest box of six (3.40 euros).

Cutting across the square fields in front of Les Invalides I glided by college students throwing Frisbees and old men playing p??tanque. To my right, the gilded dome of Les Invalides; to my left, more gold crowning the ornate Alexandre III bridge. This was a decadent journey indeed.

Finally, in the Sixth Arrondissement, it seemed I could toss an M & M in any direction and hit a world-class chocolatier. There was the whimsical Jean-Charles Rochoux (16, rue d???Assas, 33-1-42-84-29-45; www.jcrochoux.fr), where gaudy chocolate sculptures of garden gnomes belie the serious artistry of his Maker???s Mark truffles.

Christian Constant (37, rue d???Assas, 33-1-53-63-15-15), a Michelin-starred chef and award-winning chocolatier, excels at such spicy and floral notes as saffron and ylang-ylang. Pierre Marcolini (89, rue de Seine, 33-1-4407-3907; www.marcolini.be), the lone Belgian of the group, offers 75 percent dark chocolate from seven South American and African regions. Buzzing, I intended to finish the circuit in grand style.

The line snaking out of Pierre Herm?????s slim boutique (72, rue Bonaparte, 33-1-43-54-47-77; www.pierreherme.com) told me I was doing the right thing. When I made it inside the snapping automatic doors, it was (forgive me!) like being a kid in a candy store: pristine rows of cakes adorned with fresh berries, coffee beans and dark chocolate shavings.

???Un Pl??nitude, s???il vous plait.???

I took my treasure to a nearby park and tucked into the dome-shaped cake filled with chocolate mousse and ganache, crunchy caramel and fleur de sel. I relished the fluffy whipped richness, the bite of dark chocolate and the tang of salt. Had I died and gone to heaven? No, it was just a rapturous day in the City of Light and dark chocolate.

PEDALING FOR PAV??S

After doubling the number bicycles since the program started last summer to 20,600, Paris??? V??lib?????? (www.velib.paris.fr) is now the largest free bike program in France. There are 1,451 stations in the city, or one approximately every 900 feet. Each station has about 15 to 20 bikes. The bikes are simple: three speeds, an adjustable seat, a bell and basket and a headlight.

By purchasing a one-day or weeklong pass at the kiosk located at a station, you can hop on any bicycle and drop it at your next destination. To unlock a bike, you punch in your personal access code at the kiosk.

Though it???s called a free bike program (V??lib??? is short for v??lo libre, or free bike), a day pass costs 1 euro. The first half-hour on the bike is no additional charge, the second half-hour is 1 euro, and the third half-hour is 2 euros. After that, it???s 4 euros every half-hour. The shorter your trips, the lower the cost. My total cost for five hours was 12.60 euros, or about $16.15 at $1.29 to the euro.

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