Photos & Text by Harris Gaffin
Summary: In the kitchen of Christian Constant, the French star of chocolate making
Paris, France – A visitor walks into the chocolate boutique of Christian Constant. It is located on a street corner in the fashionable part of the rive gauche, or left bank of the Seine River.
The shop is small. But so are the items for sale. Per kilo they are expensive. But per item they are not.
Welcome to one of perhaps the most famous chocolate shops in Paris, if not the world. It is headquarters of Christian Constant who the French chocolate experts consider ‘a star.’
And while he may be famous to an elite group of gourmets and luxury seeking jet-setters who make their way to Paris, he is unknown to everyone else.
He arrives in a navy-blue blazer and a pair of jeans. Very French casual. He doesn’t wear the stereotyped white uniform and tall white hat. He considers that just for show.
He is a humble, charming guy, around 40, shy enough not to want a portrait for the story. Mr. Constant tells a simple story how he came to devote his entire life to chocolate.
“I tasted it once. I had to taste it again,” he says. “Then I became addicted and spent the rest of my life eating it.”
Christian Constant is an artisan chocolate maker. His specialty is perfume, or flavor. And very dark, sweet chocolate.
“People think that you taste flavor in the mouth,” he says, turning from charming and cheerful to stern and scientific. “But in fact, flavor comes from the nose. The tongue can only taste the basic salt, sweet, sour. When something is swallowed, the aroma goes into the nostrils and viola, we have neurotransmetic pleasure, also known as flavor.”
So Mr. Constant concentrates on adding scent to enhance the pleasure of eating chocolate. His field of expertise is getting intense flavor, or scents, and concentrating them in the right amounts into the chocolate. In this way, he is almost more of a scientist than a chef. And more of a theorist than a baker. In fact, Mr. Constant generally works upstairs in his cluttered office instead of in the basement in the pristine kitchen where the chocolate is made.
He has hired a patisserie chef to execute his ideas. Together they experiment with different flavors and combinations. Such lab tests have resulted in the most sensual, delicious chocolate combinations including: jasmine flowers from Yemen combined with green tea, roses and grapes from Corinth, Greece and roses from the French Polynesia country of Lille de la Reunion. He also combines chocolate with flowers, ginger, ylong ylong and Ceylon tea, pistachio nuts, cloves, almonds, coffee, vanilla and cinnamon among others. When extract is used, the concentrate perfume of a flower, for example, may require just one drop for 10 kilos of chocolate.
These ingredients are put into a ‘ganache,’ which is the mixture found inside the chocolate morsels. It usually is mixed with cream. After the ganache is mixed, it is placed in a pan where it sits for a day so the flavors can blend. Then they are cut into rectangle shapes. And one by one they are placed on a conveyor belt and run through a waterfall of hot where they are covered with a very thin layer of heated, liquid chocolate.
Before the chocolate becomes solid, the chef decorates the top of the chocolate with a special fork that has one, two or three prongs. This marks indicates the different inside flavors.
Finally, the chocolate is cooled at least 30 minutes before it is moved. Chocolate should be stored below 15 degrees Celsius. The French like their chocolate to ‘snap’ when they bit into it.
Actually, chocolate makers are judged by their ganache, the inside filling, more than their chocolate bars. A chocolate with a ganache filling will generally only stay fresh for about two weeks. That’s one reason Mr. Constant only exports his delicacies by Federal Express.
The real art is the experience of chocolate eating. Pure chocolate is made with cocoa butter which also comes from the cocoa plant. The mix is about 20 units of cocoa for every one unit of butter. It is an absolutely awful tasting, waxy oil. However, when it is combined with the cocoa, it makes it smooth and creamy. The butter creates the velvety texture that feels so good when eating. And the grease keeps the flavor lingering on the tongue for a minute or two after the chocolate is gone in seconds.
So although the mouth gets a wonderful chocolate thrill, once it is swallowed, the brilliance of Mr. Constant takes over. That is when the added aromas rise into the nose and send signals of ecstasy to the brain as it is suddenly filled with the scent of jasmine flowers or roses.
Mr. Constant makes other chocolate items as well. For example, he makes an item he calls the ‘Conquistador.’ It is made from a mix of honey, dry fruit, nuts and chocolate then rolled into columns as thick as a cigar. It is covered in cocoa powder then cut up into bite size pieces five centimeters in length. His ‘truffles’ are made from chocolate and cream ganache interior which is formed into a ball and rolled into cocoa powder. For the purist, the house specialty is 80% black bitter-sweet chocolate. Mr. Constant boasts that he makes the best, most intense chocolate tart in the world. Don’t miss that one.
Tasting Christian Constant chocolates are to be taken as seriously as wine tasting. To truly enjoy and appreciate them requires concentration, peace and quiet. //end// (950 words)