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Le tour du chocolat

The French have elevated many things to high art: fashion, flirting, foie gras. Chocolate is no exception, MiNDFOOD reports.

Le tour du chocolat

The French have elevated many things to high art: fashion, flirting, foie gras. Chocolate is no exception.

With boutiques that display truffles as rapturously as diamonds, the experience of visiting a Parisian chocolatier can be sublime.

The problem, of course, is squeezing in as many of these indulgent visits as possible while also giving the rest of the city its due.

My solution: devote one full day to chocolate boutiques and do it in style. So, on my last visit to Paris, I took to the city’s Velib’ bike system and mastered a two-wheeled circuit of eight of the chocolatiers that had the best reputations.

Progressing from pralines to paves, I spun by the Eiffel Tower, zipped across the Seine and careened through the spindly streets of St-Germain-des-Pres alongside other bikers.

Practically speaking, the bikes were all but essential. How else could I cover five arrondissements in as many hours, while simultaneously countering a day of debaucherous extremes?

The hedonism began in the centre of town with the oldest master on my list, Michel Cluizel (201, rue St.-Honore; 33-1-42-44-11-66; www.chocolatmichelcluizel-na.com), who has been making chocolate since 1948.

A short distance from a Velib’ station at the intersection of Rues de l’Echelle and St-Honore, I stepped inside a store where molten chocolate spews from a fountain and the shelves are stocked with bars containing as much as 99 per cent cacao.

At Cluizel’s shop, managed by his daughter Catherine, I discovered the macarolat (1.55 euros). A chocolate version of the macaroon, it has a dark chocolate shell filled with almond and hazelnut praline, the nuts ground coarsely to give a rich, grainy texture.

A quick spin west landed me at the doors of Jean-Paul Hevin (231, rue St-Honore, (33-1-55-35-35-96; www.jphevin.com). A modern blend of dark wood cabinetry, slate floors and backlit wall cubbies where cobalt-accented boxes of bonbons are displayed, the space would feel intimidating if not for the shopkeepers, who are both numerous and gracious as they juggle the crowds ogling mango coriander macaroons and Pyramide cakes.

I settled on a caramel buche (3.20 euros). Larger than an individual bonbon but smaller than a Hershey bar, the silky caramel enrobed in delicate dark chocolate hit the sweet spot.

In the 16th Arrondissement, on the Avenue Victor Hugo, I found the most eccentric chocolatier on my list: Patrick Roger (45, avenue Victor Hugo; 33-1-45-01-66-71; www.patrickroger.com).

It’s not just the chocolate sculptures (a life-size farmer, for example), seasonal window displays (a family of penguins, also life-size) or snazzy aquamarine packaging he’s known for: his intensely flavoured bonbons are as bold as they come.

The Jamaica has a rich coffee flavour from ground Arabica coffee beans; the Jacarepagua blends sharp lemon curd and fresh mint, and then there’s the Phantasme, made with…oatmeal. Each costs less than 1 euro.

About 90 minutes in, I had tasted creamy, salty and tart and had traversed a good stretch of the city. I was high – on Paris and sugar – coasting beneath Avenue Kleber’s towering chestnut and plane trees toward the Place du Trocadero in the 16th Arrondissement.

I felt as though I was in a quaint Gallic village, not the capital city. That is until I was spit out across the river from the grandest Parisian landmark of all: the Eiffel Tower.

It was as if every foreigner had descended on the monument at that very moment. I didn’t exhale until I entered the quietly sophisticated Seventh Arrondissement.

Michel Chaudun (149, rue de l’Universite, 33-1-47-53-74-40) is wildly talented as an artist and chocolate sculptor (his watercolours decorate the store along with chocolate Faberge eggs and African statues), to say nothing of his reputation for being one of the world’s best chocolatiers.

After 22 years of turning cacao into sublime bonbons, he’s responsible for influencing many of the city’s newer generation of chocolatiers.

His paves are particularly worshipped. They’re sugar cube-size squares of cocoa-dusted ganache that you deftly spear from the box with a toothpick and then allow to melt a little on your tongue a little before biting into the rich creaminess.

Hopping on and off the Velib’s so often courted a certain amount of trouble. A disgusted man at a station told me that 90 per cent of the bikes don’t work. I wouldn’t say the defective bicycles were that frequent, but I learned an essential checklist: Are the tires inflated? The rims, straight? Is the front basket intact? Do the gears work? Is the chain attached?

Cutting across the square fields in front of Les Invalides I glided by college students throwing Frisbees and old men playing petanque. To my right, the gilded dome of Les Invalides; to my left, more gold crowning the ornate Alexandre III bridge.

Finally, in the Sixth Arrondissement, it seemed I could toss an M&M in any direction and hit a world-class chocolatier. There was the whimsical Jean-Charles Rochoux (16, rue d’Assas, 33-1-42-84-29-45; www.jcrochoux.fr), where gaudy chocolate sculptures of garden gnomes belie the serious artistry of his Maker’s Mark truffles.

Christian Constant (37, rue d’Assas, 33-1-53-63-15-15) excels at such spicy and floral notes as saffron and ylang-ylang. Pierre Marcolini (89, rue de Seine, 33-1-4407-3907; www.marcolini.be), the lone Belgian of the group, offers 75 per cent dark chocolate from seven South American and African regions.

The line snaking out of Pierre Herme’s slim boutique (72, rue Bonaparte, 33-1-43-54-47-77; www.pierreherme.com) told me I was doing the right thing. When I made it inside the snapping automatic doors, it was like being a kid in a candy store: pristine rows of cakes adorned with fresh berries, coffee beans and dark chocolate shavings.

“Un Plenitude, s’il vous plait.”

I took my treasure to a nearby park and tucked into the dome-shaped cake filled with chocolate mousse and ganache, crunchy caramel and fleur de sel. I relished the fluffy whipped richness, the bite of dark chocolate and the tang of salt. Had I died and gone to heaven? No, it was just a rapturous day in the City of Light and dark chocolate.

PEDALLING FOR PAVES

After doubling the number bicycles since the program started last summer to 20,600, Paris’ Velib” (www.velib.paris.fr) is now the largest free bike program in France.

There are 1451 stations in the city, or one approximately every 900 feet. Each station has about 15 to 20 bikes. The bikes are simple: three speeds, an adjustable seat, a bell and basket and a headlight.

By purchasing a one-day or weeklong pass at the kiosk located at a station, you can hop on any bicycle and drop it at your next destination. To unlock a bike, you punch in your personal access code at the kiosk.

Though it’s called a free bike program (Velib’ is short for velo libre, or free bike), a day pass costs 1 euro. The first half-hour on the bike is no additional charge, the second half-hour is 1 euro, and the third half-hour is 2 euros.

After that, it’s 4 euros every half-hour. The shorter your trips, the lower the cost. My total cost for five hours was 12.60 euros.

Copyright 2008. All rights reserved by New York Times Syndication Sales Corp. This material may not be published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner.

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