In Paris, chocolate is art.
La Maison Du Chocolat frames its truffles in gold leaf. Jean-Charles Rochoux uses chocolate to carve whimsical animals. And waiters at Angelina don't serve their rich, dark hot chocolate -- they present it, along with a bowl of whipped cream.
Parisians don't consume chocolate -- they celebrate it -- and no two places that sell it are the same.
"Each shop has its own style," says Jennifer Wilbois, guide for viator.com. "You have to find what you like."
My husband, Mark, a devout chocoholic, and I were on our first trip to Paris and decided to take a walking tour of the city's chocolate and pastry shops.
We were instructed to meet in front of La Maison Du Chocolat. Finding it was easy. Waiting outside its enticing window was not. A plate of chocolate éclairs beckoned, and the information on viator.com promised we would get samples. Fortunately, Wilbois met us a few minutes later and ended our pain by taking us inside.
La Maison started as one man's passion for chocolate. In 1955, Robert Linxe opened a high-end confectionery boutique, a daring move at the time. Chocolate was considered a holiday treat, bought only at Christmas and Easter. Linxe's success proved that two days a year was clearly not enough.
His first shop metamorphosed into La Maison du Chocolate in 1977, and in 1990, he came up with the "incomparable éclair." Linxe's éclair is smaller and narrower than the ones found in the United States. Mark and I split one. It was outstanding -- light, airy pastry enhanced by rich dark chocolate icing and a creamy chocolate center that went down easily.
La Maison and the other shops we visited that day are all in the Latin Quarter. This area surrounds the Sorbonne University and gets its name from the Latin language, commonly spoken during the Middle Ages.
If you're visiting Luxembourg Gardens, where the locals play chess, or you're a "DaVinci Code" fanatic tracing the Rose Line in the nearby Church of Saint-Sulpice, sweet treats are never far away.
A la Reine Astrid offers a good selection of chocolates at affordable prices. In business since 1935, this chain has a style familiar to most Americans. The atmosphere is casual, the salespeople are friendly and the gaily wrapped chocolates are meant to be eaten, not necessarily worshiped. A la Reine Astrid also is known for its pralines.
For serious chocolate connoisseurs who are willing to pay the price, try Pierre Marcolini. The shop's window resembles a jewelry store. A few boxes of chocolate are on display, and each is mounted on a black pedestal against a black background, as though priceless gems are being sold instead of candy. The store's clerks carry out the jewelry theme by wearing formal black dresses and upswept hairdos.
Pierre Marcolini's truffles are small, but pack an intense flavor. My sample of dark chocolate and sweet mango blasted my taste buds. Mark's dark chocolate against dark chocolate combination had a delightful peppery kick.
But even if you're not a chocoholic -- even if you're not hungry -- the shop of Jean-Charles Rochoux is worth a visit. Rochoux uses chocolate to create creatures. Dark chocolate frogs, milk chocolate cherubs and leering alligators are thrown together on his shelves. It's a sight that dazzles the eye while stimulating the taste buds.
We didn't sample any of the animals; they were out of our price range. Small animals cost more than $20 to $30 each, and the giant chocolate frog was priced around $76.
The truffles, however, were among the best we had on the tour. They were square, not round, and the smooth, rich ganache center was enhanced by traditional cocoa powder.
If chocolate isn't your passion, the Latin Quarter offers other alternatives. Just look for the lines.
You'll find people pouring into Pierre Herme, where the macaroons are a treat for both the eye and the palate. These aren't the coconut cookies we Americans know. Herme's creations are soft cookie sandwiches with creamy centers, infused with every color and flavor under the sun, from pistachio to chocolate. His macaroons are so popular that some Parisian brides serve them at weddings instead of traditional cakes.
But if chocolate really is your first love and you want to take a taste of Paris back with you, go to Angelina. The restaurant, near the Louvre museum, serves an extremely rich, decadent hot chocolate that swamps your mouth with flavor without being overly sweet. Patrons enjoy it two different ways -- either pouring the chocolate in the cup and piling on whipped cream or loading the cup with whipped cream and drizzling in the chocolate.
We found a third way. Angelina's also sells its hot chocolate. We brought a bag home and recently made some for ourselves. One sip, and the memories of a great vacation came pouring back.