It seems common knowledge that Spain led the way in introducing chocolate, in its beverage form, into Europe, but what is less well-known is that it was the French that established the first plantations outside of the South and Central American continent - in the Caribbean. The English took cacao to the Gold Coast of Africa the Spanish took the crop to the Philippines and the final product across Europe and into France in the later part of the 16th Century.
Chocolate in France has come a long way since Jews brought it with them as they fled the Spanish Inquisition although others state chocolate was introduced via the daughter of the Spanish King Phillip when she, Anne of Austria, married the French king Louis XIII. However the 'food of the gods' found its way into the country is moot as it wasn't until the middle of the 17th century before it finally took a central place in the lives of the French upper-classes - where it was seen as a 'drug' by Cardinal Richelieu who was instructed it had medicinal properties by Spanish priests.
Throughout the 18th Century chocolate remained the preserve of the wealthy. Interestingly, however, the French preferred chocolate made in Spain and Italy from their plantations in the tropics, rather than the then inferior French plantations in the Caribbean. The spread of chocolate continued throughout Catholic countries due to the assertion from the church that it should be viewed as a beverage rather than a food - which allowed it to be consumed on days of fasting.
Later in this century chocolate took an even stronger foothold in the upper echelons of French society as it started appearing in recipe books such as Le Cuisinier Roial et Bourgeois as well as appearing as a connoisseur foodstuff in the shop of Pierre Pomet in Paris who offered six varieties made from Venezuelan and Caribbean cocoa as well as chocolate made in Spain and the Americas.
The early 19th Century witnessed the French Revolution and the English blockades which served to limit the availability of chocolate - with the resultant effect on prices which made chocolate even less widely available - even considering the greater power of the less fortunate following the French Revolution. It wasn't until the end of the Napoleonic wars that saw an increase in the amount of cocoa imported into the country. At this stage a greater number of shops and restaurants started to stock it and be creative with it as an ingredient.
As the Dutch process developed by Coenraad Johannes van Houten around 1828 allowed for the greater production and a wider use for cocoa powder. This also helped reduce costs and allow it be consumed by a much broader segment of French consumers.
French Chocolate Today
Two of the most well-known French chocolate makers: Michel Cluizel and Valrhona established themselves out of an economically and socially troubled war-torn France which was struggling to rebuild itself after the German occupation and destruction of much of its agricultural and industrial capabilities.
Michel Cluizel began making chocolate in Normandy during 1947/48 as he was co-opted into working in his parents' patisserie. Michel made great chocolate from an early stage. The offerings grew and so did their success. In 1971 they moved to new, larger premises and a decade later they had their first export order to the USA. It wasn't until, 1997, however, that Michel began to produce his first single origin chocolate. Internationally this was still early for this finer style of chocolate. It wouldn't be until the middle of the following decade that consumers started, albeit slowly, to seek out more obscure forms of chocolate.
Recommend Michel Cluizel chocolate: Los Ancones, Magaro, Lait, Nor Infini, Villa Gracinda, Noir au Cafe.
Valrhona is a French chocolate maker that traces its origins back to the aftermath of the First World War in the form of Chocolaterie du Vivarais. It wasn't until after the Second World War that the company's name was changed to its current moniker. When I started learning about chocolate and the difference between a chocolate maker and a chocolatier it was astounding that I found out that most of the later, in this country at least, used Valrhona for the base of many of their chocolates. As the variety of chocolate makers producing affordable couverture, the proportion of chocolatiers using Valrhona seems to have fallen.
Recommend Valrhona chocolate: Manjari 64% - Academy of Chocolate Awards winner 2008 and 2013 for the Enchantillon Caramelia.
Pralus is another French chocolate maker established in the post war years. I often see these chocolates as high-roast - the Chuao certainly. If you like chocolate with a dominant 'tanginess' then Pralus is a good place to start.
Recommended Pralus Chocolate: Fortissima 80%.
There are a variety of other French chocolate makers to look out for including Bouga Cacao who produce a fantastic variety of 100% chocolate bars and hearts from Ecuadorian cocoa. They're also exceptionally nice people to work with.
Bonnat is a personal favourite as not only is his chocolate fantastic, but it also allows you to explore the world of chocolate through a wide variety of single origins as well a number of 'grand crus'. The Xoconuzco 75%, for example, is made from rare cocoas and certainly well worth trying. My favourite, however, is the Haiti as it offers a lower roast, less of a tangy flavour but a good dose of fig notes.
Jean-Paul Hévin was one of the first chocolate makers I imported. At first I wasn't too impressed - not until I came across the 64% Papua New Guinea which is a blend of Forestero and Trinitario.
Also take a look at Bernachon which was established by Maurice Bernachon in 1953 and is now run by himself and his son. Although they could be considered to be chocolatiers, they do make some simple chocolate bars.
Confiserie Rohan Chocolate have been making moulded chocolate shapes since the early 1950's.
Chocolaterie du Pecq are single origin chocolate makers and have been established for over twenty years but now seem to specialise in the B2B production of couverture - just as Chocolaterie de l’Opéra are.
There is also Weiss which have been around for over 130 years - but I haven't tried yet. Nor have I tried Bernard Castelain, although you can read more about them here. And there's also Patrick Roger, Bovetti, Chapon (I love his chocolate).