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Godiva Chocolates, rue Saint-Honoré, Paris by Barbara Redmond

Godiva Chocolates, rue Saint-Honoré, Paris by Barbara Redmond

The cold New England rains flew off my umbrella as I gave it a hearty shake. It was a brisk ten-minute walk from the subway stop outside the Museum of Fine Art in Boston to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I was glad to be inside. I came to look at the letters of Sarah Bernhardt, (1844-1923), a dramatic French stage and film actress, whom to many, is considered the most famous actress the world has ever known.

I found only a few letters and photographs from Sarah Bernhardt in the museum’s permanent collection ― layered, collage-style, one on top of another.

Written in French, Bernhardt’s penmanship was line after line of featureless horizontal strokes that ebbed to crests and flowed to breaks and was, from time-to-time, flecked with random accents and punctuation marks.

I was expecting to read English translations of Bernhardt’s letters, but remembered that the more than 2,500 works collected by Isabella Stewart Gardner, (1840 – 1924), at the turn of the century are organized and displayed as Bernhardt left them, penned in her native French, and as Gardner had enjoyed them during her lifetime. The letters’ home, is a palace-like setting and was designed by Gardner herself.

Sarah Bernhardt’s signature, written in full and by contrast, was instantly recognizable. Bernhardt had signed her letters in smooth wavelike swells of soft black ink penned with a fine tip nib. I found her inscription exquisitely delicate and beautiful to the eye.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Veronese Room

On my walk through the dimly lit museum from the Long Gallery on the museum’s third floor where Gardner’s collections of letters are encased in glass cabinets and hidden beneath heavy velvet curtains, I passed through The Titian Room and stopped at the entrance to the next gallery, The Veronese Room.

A gilt porcelain chocolate and coffee set caught my eye. Its gold exterior and interior finish shimmered in the natural light streaming through the windows. This dazzling early 19th century French service was placed on a table at the far end of this dark, yet luxurious, reception room as though prepared and waiting for guests.

The gossamer lace curtains in the windows add to the intimacy of an occasion, but which historical figure shall we invite?

Which French woman to invite for hot chocolate?

Which historical woman will share chocolat chaud, hot chocolate, with me in The Veronese Room poured into small cups, from this exquisite French set? Isabella Stewart Gardner or Sarah Bernhardt? Or, perhaps Dame Nellie Melba, whose letters are also in Gardner’s collection.

Today, over a demitasse, small cup, of the perfect hot chocolate served from this gilt porcelain set, complete with a chocolate pot and coffee pot, vessel for sugar, cups and matching saucers, let it be French parfumière, Annick Goutal.

Parfumière Annick Goutal, our French guest

Annick Goutal is world renowned for her perfume, Eau d’Hadrien, launched in 1981 and inspired by the novel Memoires d’Hadrien by Marguerite Yourcenar. It is a citrusy fragrance that my two daughters wear which reminds me of an old villa with lemon groves and bougainvillea gardens in Menton, a seaside town in the French Riviera near Italy.

Goutal was born just after the Second World War in Aix-in-Provence and trained as a classical pianist. I can only imagine our extraordinary conversations about scents and sounds. But, it is because of her finely honed senses and formative years surrounded by the tastes and smells and memories of chocolate ― the daughter of a chocolatier ― that we invite her as our guest for a conversation about chocolate. Among the leather wall coverings, Venetian painted and gilded ceilings, and works of art, The Veronese Room resembles an 18th century Venetian private salon. A perfect setting on this late fall New England day.

Creating the perfect French hot chocolate

Just as Annick Goutal created perfumes inspired by her own life and memories, would she create for us a perfect cup of hot chocolate by developing blends to indulge the smells and tastes of her daughter Camille and her stepdaughter Charlotte as she did with fragrances?

Would Goutal’s inspiration come from the image of chocolate sipped from this luxurious French porcelain, rich in appearance and elegant in its simplicity, or from a name, a song, or a work of art within this room?

Our French porcelain cups are small and will encourage the subtle savor of one chocolaty taste at a time. Will we find a distinctive sharp flavor that is too sweet or too bitter for our palate? Will its texture be luxuriously smooth as silk or thick and relished for its full body? The smell will be exotic with an aroma that lingers long after the last pour.

French hot chocolate ― a sensuous taste

In our conversation, we could build a full-bodied chocolate flavor that evokes the sensuous images of the more then fifty Olympian deities from the 16th century painting, The Coronation of Hebe, in the ostentatiously rich ceiling above us. The sensation of chocolate could explode from the heavens in rich sensuality like scenes in the painting from the Coronation.

In 1631, the first recipe for a chocolate drink was published in Spain in the book Curioso tratodo de la naturaleza y calidad del chocolate, (A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate), by the Andalusian physician, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma. The ingredients in the recipe were:

Take one hundred cocoa beans, two chilies, a handful of anise seed and two of vanilla, two drams of cinnamon, one dozen almonds and the same amount of hazelnuts, half a pound of white sugar and enough annatto to give some color. And here you have the king of chocolates.

The chocolate beverage attributed to the Mayan peoples more than two thousand years ago was a drink served cold that was bitter, frothy and spicy called xocolatl and mixed with vanilla and chili pepper, cornmeal, and water as a special beverage for feast occasions.

In the early 1500s, chocolate was discovered and brought to Europe but known primarily in Spain. It spread across Europe more than one hundred years later. To offset its natural bitterness, the Europeans added cane sugar and removed the chili pepper while retaining the vanilla and adding cinnamon and other spices. The new sweet-tasting hot chocolate became a luxury item among French and European nobility by the end of the seventeenth century.

Now, here we sit side-by-side at a small, square linen-draped table in the magnificent Veronese Room using demitasse spoons to scoop our ridiculously thick, gloriously rich, and reimagined cioccolata densa, (as this thick form of hot chocolate is known in Italy), from Isabella Gardner’s French porcelain cups as she may have done at the turn of the last century.

French hot chocolate ― an elusive taste

We ask, is it possible to develop the ultimate in luxury with an elusive blend according to the cru, place where it is grown, of fruity Manjari chocolate from Madagascar and intense Guanaja from South America to build a chocolate subtle in fragrance and taste, at its first sip, reveals the essence of far away lands? Can we finely balance chocolates to evoke the dreamlike afternoon light of the painting: Piazzetta from the Bacino di San Marco by the painter, Francesco Guardi, which hangs near our table?

In 1643, the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa, (1638-1683), gave her fiancé, Louis XIV, (1638-1715), to whom she was betrothed, an engagement gift of chocolate elegantly packaged in an elaborately adorned chest. “Chocolate” was a drink in vogue and popular with Spanish aristocrats following its adoption into the court of King Charles V and was given as a dowry when members of the Spanish Royal Family married other European nobility. Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre, appointed a royal chocolate maker and chocolate drinking became all the rage.

The hot chocolate pours into our cups and the aroma of dark chocolate and spice becomes a moment of bliss. The flavor is not bitter, nor heavy, but has evolved into a light smooth and delicate taste. In the French style, the chocolates have been shaved from bars, melted and stirred into hot milk and cream, a little at a time, using a British recipe and method that has endured since the early 1700s. In this private salon bathed in natural light, the soft aroma and flavor of chocolate, doesn’t vanish quickly.

French hot chocolate ― a whimsical taste

We sketch a whimsical fantasy of sweet and bittersweet chocolate pools hidden below luscious dollops, like little islands, of flavor-infused French crème Chantilly, reimagining the 1886 small pastel portrait of Isabella Gardner, The Little Note in Yellow and Gold, by James McNeill Whistler. Could we fashion a fanciful portrait of flavors inspired by Whistler’s delicate study of Gardner drawn in soft yellows, golds and whites that suggests, in her smile and raised eyebrow, a keen intellect and sense of humor?

At the end of the 18th century, Europeans started preparing chocolate with milk and sugar. The popularity of the drink was so widespread that many leading European porcelain manufactures such as Limoges in France began making pots and cups to serve chocolate. The French took the design of chocolate pots and made them slimmer and taller than other European versions. The body of most French chocolate pots was white with sprays of small delicate flowers scattered over the surface or with large designs in the center of the pot surrounded by white. Gold was often used in edgings and small details in the design. Sets included the chocolate pot, cups, matching saucers and trays.

The pools of liquid chocolate are poured into our little cups from pots, one chocolate at a time, in streams tinted in pinks and purples and golden orange. The rich dollops of crème Chantilly are mounded to soft peaks upon the hot chocolate. The crème is deep with flavor and pleasantly strong; a complement to the smooth and mellow hot chocolate touché delicate, a delicate touch. The wispy study of Isabella Gardner in The Little Note in Yellow and Gold hangs nearby. Is there a note of whimsy added to our vision of Chocolat Viennois, hot chocolate with whipped cream, which would have been appealing and amusing to Gardner?

Letters to Isabella Stewart Gardner and Annick Goutal

In the corner of the salon is Isabella Gardner’s writing desk and a chair ornamented in gilt. At this beautiful table, I would like to write a letter on engraved French stationery in soft black ink with a fine tip pen to Isabella Stewart Gardner to thank her for this extraordinary collection of arts displayed as she had enjoyed them in her lifetime. And a second letter to Annick Goutal, whose life at age 53 was cut short by breast cancer ― we will remember her in the 25 extraordinary perfumes she created for us during her lifetime.

Parisian Hot Chocolate

Recipe by David Lebovitz


Four ‘Parisian-sized’ Servings

– 2 cups (1/2 l) whole milk
– 5 ounces (130 g) bittersweet chocolate, (with at least 70% cacao solids), finely chopped
– optional: 2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1. Heat the milk in a medium-sized saucepan.

2. Once the milk is warm, whisk in the chocolate, stirring until melted and steaming hot. For a thick hot chocolate, cook at a very low boil for about 3 minutes, whisking frequently. (Be careful and keep an eye on the mixture, as it may boil up a bit during the first moments.)

3. Taste, and add borwn sugar if desired.

Serve warm in small demitasse or coffee cups.

Note: This hot chocolate improved if made ahead and allowed to sit for a few hours. Rewarm before serving. I also like to add a few flecks of fleur de sel, the very good sea salt from Brittany.

Where to go for hot chocolate in Paris

226, rue de Rivoli 75001, Paris (0)1 42 60 82 00

31, rue St. Louis-en-Î’le 75004, Paris (0)1 43 54 31 61

Café de la Paix at the Grand Hotel
5 Place de l’Opera 75009, Paris (0)1 40 07 36 36

Charles Chocolatier
15, rue Montorgueil 75001, Paris (0)1 45 08 57 77

Hotel Meurice
228, rue de Rivoli 75001, Paris (0) 44 58 10 10

Jean-Paul Hévin
231, rue Saint-Honoré, 75001 Paris (0)1 55 35 35 96

La Charlotte de Îsle
24, rue St. Louis-en-Î’le, 75004, Paris (0)1 43 54 25 83

La Maison du Chocolat
8, boulevard de la Madeleine, 75009, Paris (0)1 47 42 86 52

75, avenue des Champs-Elysées, 75008, Paris (0)1 40 75 08 75

Pâtisserie Viennoise
8, rue de l’Ecole de Médecine, 75006, Paris (0)1 43 26 60 48

Puerto Cacao
2, rue Théophile Roussel, 75012, Paris (0)1 43 47 58 60

SIP Babylon
46, boulevard Raspail, 75007, Paris (0)1 45 48 87 17

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Crème Chantilly: Sweetened whipped cream, sometimes flavored.
Cru: French term that means “growth place”.
Demitasse: Small cup, from French, literally ‘half-cup’.
Parfumier/Parfumière: (M/F) Someone who creates perfumes from a mixture of natural and synthetic scents.
Touché delicate: Delicate touch.

Barbara Redmond, publisher of A Woman’s Paris® (AWP), is a long-time Francophile and travels to Paris every chance she gets — and has learned a lot along the way. Her stories about Paris and France have been published in AWP® and republished, with permission, by other blogs and publications. Barbara has presented programs on French fashion and food, and has been a guest speaker for students planning their study abroad. She serves as an advisory board member at the University of Minnesota College of Design and is an active student mentor. Barbara has been recognized for excellence in art by international and national organizations and publications. Prints of her fine are paintings are in collections in Europe and North America and are available for purchase.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French chocolate. Here today. Gone… today! by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who raises the comparison between dark chocolate vs. milk chocolate. The French, by and large, prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate, which they consider rather too Swiss. Milk chocolate is for children. Grownups eat the real thing, the thrilling dark stuff. Recipe included for Mousse au Chocolat (Chocolate Mousse) to have at the ready for unexpected guests! 

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

Foods of France: Infinite Flavours, by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who delights in the unending variety of flavours available in Paris, from yogurt to jams to ice creams to spices. She shares her discovery of ginger mustard, violet-scented sugar, and saffron honey.

Text copyright ©2010 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.