Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Chocolate in France, in abundance and sometimes free

Today is one of those days where I wish I were back in France.  I only spent a year there, completing my masters degree, but it had the most profound effect on my life.  It most particularly affected my already existing love of chocolate, modifying and refining my appreciation for dark chocolate. 

Its undeniable effect on my life began on that very first morning that I spent in Rennes, the city where I lived, when I sat and drank a coffee for the first time in a French cafe (I sat because I could not find a cafe in the whole city that would let me take a coffee to go). As my coffee was handed to me, I instantly felt an overwhelming love for French people and for France.  Why?  Well, it is commonly known that the French can sometimes be unwelcoming to foreigners.  Mind you, they are quite welcoming to Canadians, so that wasn't usually a problem for me (unless mistaken for an American, then I was treated poorly and would mention Canada at the first chance I got and would be welcomed once again). But all this had nothing to do with my falling in love with France and its people.  It was that moment when I purchased my coffee and just before handing it to me a small, individually wrapped dark chocolate was placed on the plate next to my cup.  Not only was it dark chocolate, but it had 70% cocoa solids!  I was ecstatic. In Canada or the U.S. at that time (2004), no cafe owner that I had ever met had thought of giving out a FREE piece of chocolate with the sale of a coffee. And if one had thought of it in North America, surely at the time they would have only thought to give out a piece of milk chocolate, because many North American's would have balked at the idea of eating dark chocolate.  Things have changed now in North America, but I'd still think that more than 50% of North American's prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate.

So I had fallen in love. Not only had I just recently developed a true liking for 70% dark chocolate, I was a student and poor and free chocolate with coffee (coffee being considered a necessity in a student's budget) was the most ideal situation for me.  I then discovered that a free small piece of chocolate was given out with the purchase of coffee at most cafe's in France. And so, I fell in love with France and its people. After all, any people who appreciate dark chocolate enough to give it out for free to the masses are top in my books!

During my time in France I spent many hours in grocery stores, tiny shops and chocolatiers' shops looking at, thinking about and purchasing chocolate.  It was so readily available and the grocery stores had entire aisles devoted to chocolate.  It was also advertised regularly on television as being a healthy part of a child's breakfast because it added magnesium to their diets!  I was completely in heaven.  Finally I was in a place that understood me! I didn't want to leave, but family and language barriers caused me to come back to Canada, and live where chocolate is not so much savoured or appreciated.  Well, at that time anyway.  I believe things have changed since then, and we now appreciate dark chocolate and quality ingredients much more here in Canada.  Our selection has grown at the grocery stores and specialty shops and availability of fine chocolate online has also increased since 2004.  So I am much happier now about my chocolate shopping prospects - my shopping time is just spent on the computer rather than in actual stores.

But sometimes I miss the streets of Rennes, and all the other cities that I visited in France and their abundance of chocolate shops. It seemed to me that there was one on nearly every street corner.  So on days like today (nostalgic days), I wish I was there, and I imagine what wonders I would find with my now improved palate for chocolate tasting. I hope I can revisit it soon and taste my way through the country.

Other ways that France changed my life:
  • I learned to appreciate and love strong, dark roasted coffee
  • Smoked salmon, scallops, cream sauce, pizza with cream sauce, pasta with cream sauce, meat with cream sauce, savoury crepes and flourless chocolate cakes
  • Learning to sit and enjoy a good coffee (not taking it "to go")
  • The wonderful discovery of eating foods made with natural ingredients (e.g. creme fraiche which has only cream as its listed ingredient, rather than sour cream which has all sorts of additives)
  • Learning that Belgium and Switzerland are not the only places that make great chocolate - where they excel in milk chocolate, France excels in dark chocolate.
  • Wine - both the expensive and the unbelievable affordable stuff, after all, why should I settle for having juice or pop with my dinner when I could have wine that costs less? Just wish that was the case here...
  • I spent months trying to perfect the "Pain au Chocolat" as it tasted to me in France and I am now a mean baker of French pastries as a result.
I am sorry there is no chocolate bar tasting today.  Tomorrow I will be tasting four different brands of 85% - 86% dark chocolate bars.

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