Chocolate - Bayonne, France
Photos & Text by Harris Gaffin
Summary: Coverage of the annual chocolate festival where free samples are given out by world class chocolatiers
Bayonne, France – Where is the marching band? I’ve come for the annual chocolate festival and I expect to see throngs of crowds, big parades, bunches of balloons and of course, tons of chocolate.
Ce n’est pas evident. But there are no throngs. And there are no balloons. No goofy kids or parents dressed like chocolate bars. It is quite unsettling.
In fact, I am so discouraged that I stop at what appears to be a coffee house but turns out to be a chocolate shop. It’s name is Cazenave which sounds more Spanish than French and it’s been here since 1890.
Inside, rows of delicate, beautiful, sensual chocolates are laid out along a refined counter. The shop lady eyes me as if doubting that I could appreciate the high quality here. Being in a chocolate shop in Bayonne is like being in a jewelry shop anywhere else.
The tourist office may be promoting a chocolate festival. And the locals may have humored the government by agreeing to tolerate the masses and curiosity seekers. But do not forget that we are still in France where God was born, where cuisine is King and the shop owner, not the customer, is always right.
And Bayonne has been the center of chocolate for centuries.
The lady at the counter steers me away from a coffee and towards a hot chocolate. She allows me to purchase a delicate chocolate bar which is lovingly wrapped in bright colorful tissue.
I take a bite and the flavor explodes to the farthest corners of my skull. Oh this is fantastic chocolate. It is silky and at once smooth and sweet and creamy without any trace of being milky or sugary.
My hot chocolate is served in a pastel flower decorated porcelain cup and saucer with a dollop of real whipped cream on the side. The froth does not peak over the hot liquid. It bubbles up way over the cup and doesn’t dare spill. It looks like a child’s bubble bath in a tea cup. Suddenly I feel like the richest man in the world, having the luxury of a Bayonne hot chocolate. Madam Bimboire, the proprietor, nods approvingly.
As I am sitting inside more than consoling myself over the lack of a marching band and balloons, outside, an artisan sets up a make shift studio and begins sculpting an entire cityscape. You guessed it, the sculpture is being made from chocolate. The artisan works quietly and methodically. On occasion a passerby stops to watch. On occasion, he glances up and smiles.
Well, there doesn’t seem to be any particular program or schedule of events. But one by one, artisans and vendors start setting up little stands in the most unpretentious manner. No one is shouting. No loud music is playing.
Outside one shop, a man is dipping chocolate ganache into a big bowl of heated chocolate. He pulls them out and lays them on a small table nearby to dry. One by one, a gathering crowd discreetly edge forward and wait to be offered a sample which no one turns down.
On the last weekend in May every year, the city of Bayonne hosts what it calls a ‘Chocolate Days’ festival. But as the French are not in general the kind of people to do much in groups except for striking for a shorter work week, the event is handled in about as low key a manner as one can imagine.
Outside the Raux Chocolatier, a young man wearing a white chefs outfit is offering passersby a chocolate dipped strawberry. The man is not an assistant. He is Lionel Raux, the owner and gourmet chef of his own business. He is under 30 years old and there he is offering candy like he is a grandpa and we are his kids. Of course I grab that chocolate covered strawberry. And of course it is fabulous.
Who cares about balloons and a marching band? Who cares about a throng of masses. Let them eat gourmet chocolate.
The cocoa bean is native to Central and South America. It was first brought to Europe via Spain by Hernando Cortez in the 1500s and Jewish artisans developed the bean into chocolate where it became a local specialty enjoyed by Spanish royalty.
During the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish immigrants fled Spain with their lives. And their knowledge of making chocolate. First, they went to Portugal and with them went Spain’s chocolate making secrets. A century or two later, many found their way to France, particularly Bayonne-St. Esprit, forced to live in a ghetto across the river from the city.
The leaders of Bayonne high society considered chocolate making a lowly craft and so chocolate was barred. However, the regions reputation reached connoisseurs across the continent. Those who wanted ‘evil’ chocolate, simply had to cross the river by going over the bridge to score a hit.
After the French Revolution in 1789 full citizenship was granted to people of all religions. Jews moved into town and Bayonne has been famous for chocolate ever since.
Today, there is an Academie du chocolat de Bayonne. And the city boasts a number of world ranked chocolatiers.
Valerie et Christophe Puyodebat have their own shop and have built a museum in the basement. They are experimenting with orange and fruits, creating waves of thin break off and bit sections. World-ranked patissier Thierry Bamas hugs his daughter and gently pulls her away from the samples of chocolate reserved for us guests.
To my surprise, many of these chocolate shops are owned by young men under the age of 30. They are already world ranked chocolatiers. They run their own business, manage a staff, are married and raising a family and are perpetuating Bayonne’s reputation for the most deliciously ‘evil’ chocolate this side of heaven. //end// (975 words)