Happy Valentine’s Day (heureux jour de St-Valentin)! This will be quite a special day in Paris in 2010, because it falls just before Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before the beginning of Lent (this year it is on March 16). During Lent, Catholics traditionally give up indulging in some of their favourite foods – this tradition shaped the plot of the novel and movie Chocolat. So let’s talk about chocolate.
The picture shows the Godiva chocolate shop on the corner of the rue Castiglione and the rue St-Honoré in the 1st arrondissement. It’s a lovely chocolate shop on an attractive street in a central location, and Barbara drew it for those reasons, but truth be told, it’s not our absolute favourite chocolate shop.
That would be Richart Chocolat at 258, Boulevard St. Germain in the 6th Arrondissement. (They also have an online shop for North American customers and a store in New York City.) We buy the ultrafine, wafer-thin dark chocolate in varying intensities of cocoa (cacao) from 70% up, and serve it after dinner with a rich, robust French red wine. The two complement each other very well. Chocolate is also excellent with a glass of single-malt scotch (le scotch).
Dark chocolate vs. milk chocolate
The French, by and large, prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate, which they consider rather too Swiss. And they find the Swiss — how shall we put it? — rather unexciting. (We can say this; one of us is part Swiss.) Milk chocolate is for children. Grownups eat the real thing — the thrilling dark stuff.
Similarly, most French people would be horrified at what passes for average chocolate in North America, which is part chocolate, part filler — such as wax or vegetable oil. The sad fact is, many North Americans have never actually tasted real chocolate without additives. They don’t know that the allure of chocolate is not sugary sweetness, it is intensity and a distinct flavour, which varies (like wine) according to where it comes from and the conditions under which it is grown and processed. Most of us weren’t raised to appreciate a small amount of an extraordinary flavour, but to value large amounts of reasonably OK flavour.
Yet time and time again, North Americans visiting Europe have described their experience of being utterly floored by intense and pleasurable flavours in small amounts of food. For example, Bill Bryson talks about eating a chocolate bar in the railway station in Antwerp on his first visit to Europe: “I bought a bar of Belgian chocolate from a station kiosk, tore off a bite and, after a moment of startled delight, began to emit a series of involuntary rapturous noises of an intensity sufficient to draw stares from 20 yards away….I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t know that chocolate could be this good. I didn’t know that anything could be this good.”
Julia Child and French cooking
Similarly, Julia Child’s future was set by a simple meal of sole meunière in a French restaurant in Rouen. She describes the moment in My Life in France: “I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection… It was the most exciting meal of my life.”
Julia Child went on to interpret French cooking for a generation of North American women who were raised on jellied salads and recipes that called for things like canned soup, processed cheese, or marshmallows. We feel we should honour her at this time of year for her achievements, and because she and her husband had a tradition of sending Valentine’s cards to their friends instead of Christmas cards. The tradition, she says, was “born of the fact that we could never get ourselves organized in time to send out Christmas cards.”
So for le St-Valentin, we offer Julia Child’s chocolate mousse recipe (we have condensed the instructions and added metric measurements). Just as most North American women have memorized a never-fail recipe for cake or cookies to meet a last-minute demand for a bake sale, so many French women have a recipe for chocolate mousse (mousse au chocolat) at the ready for unexpected guests. We suggest you serve it in espresso cups with coffee spoons, and top with a dash of whipped cream and a chocolate-covered espresso bean.
Recipe for Chocolate mousse
– 1 cup (250 ml) semisweet chocolate bits (chop up the best quality chocolate you can find)
– 4 tablespoons (60 ml) strong coffee (espresso, preferably)
– 4 egg yolks
– ¾ cup (150 g) + 2 tablespoons (50 g) granulated sugar
– ¼ cup (60 ml) liqueur (such as Benedictine or Grand Marnier)
– 6 oz. (170 g) butter, softened
– 4 egg whites
– Pinch of salt
– Put the chocolate and coffee in a double boiler and heat until the chocolate is melted.
– Put the egg yolks in a mixing bowl. Beat, while adding ¾ cup (150 g) sugar until mixture is thick and pale and forms a slowly dissolving ribbon when lifted. Add the liqueur. Place the mixing bowl in a pan of almost-simmering water and continue to beat the mixture until it has the consistency of creamy mayonnaise.
– Stir the softened butter into the chocolate. The beat the chocolate and butter into the egg yolk and sugar mixture.
– Beat the egg whites until soft peaks are formed. Add the remaining 2 tbsps (50 g) of sugar until stiff peaks form. Take a quarter of this egg mixture and mix it into the chocolate. Carefully fold in the remaining egg mixture into the chocolate.
– Turn into cups and chill for several hours.
St. Valentine’s Day is le St-Valentin, and Shrove Tuesday is Mardi Gras. Mireille Guiliano, the author of French Women Don’t Get Fat uses the expression “je raffole de chocolat” to mean that she is a chocoholic. Our translation of the title of this blog: Chocolat. Ici aujourd’hui. Disparu aujourd’hui.
Book recommendation: My Life in France
My Life in France, by Julia Child; with Alex Prud’homme Child (Author). Alfred A. Knopf; First edition (2006).
Vocabulary: French to English translations
Disparu aujourd’hui: (disparu, to be reported missing) Gone today.
Heureux jour de St-Valentin: Happy Valentine’s Day.
Ici aujourd’hui: Here today.
Le scotch: Scotch whisky.
Mousse au chocolat: Chocolate mousse.
Sole meunière: Classic French dish consisting of sole fish, whole or fillet, that is dredged in flour, pan sautéed in butter and served with the resulting brown butter sauce and lemon.
Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto, and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy.
She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French chocolates, a poetic experience, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who, together with Barbara Redmond, visits the famous chocolatier Richard Sève in Lyon and writes about these delightful and inventive creations. Gaëlle and Richard Sève, who boast about being the designers of the savory macaron.
Chocolate Mousse — debonair, dark and irresistibly rich! by Barbara Redmond who tells of this crème de la crème of mousses: a supreme seducer. And uncovers the source of the original dish, first known as “Mayonnaise de Chocolat,” created in the 1900s by French post-impressionist artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Recipe included for Mousseline au Chocolat (Chocolate Mousse), by Julia Child from her book, The French Chef Cookbook.
Julia Child: French Cooking for North Americans, by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who writes about the challenge of making a simple birthday cake in Paris, from finding the familiar whipping cream, measuring cups and spoons, to the search for birthday candles to top the cake! Recipe for Yogurt Cake by Sophie Dudemaine, cookbook author and French TV star, from her cookbook titled, Les Cakes de Sophie.
French Hot Chocolate: Chocolat Chaud, by Barbara Redmond tells about a dazzling early 19th century French service placed on a table at the far end of this dark, yet luxurious, reception room in Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — exhibited as though prepared and waiting for guests. Which French woman should we invite? Including a recipe for Parisian Hot Chocolate by David Lebovitz.
Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.