Before I unplug for my trip back home, here's a quick link to my latest Bonjour Paris article, talking about my recent visit to Chocolaterie Girard. If you don't have a premium membership, don't despair; I also wrote a bit about it here.
And of course, an excerpt:
I made an interesting discovery recently, while on the hunt for new ways to experience more of Paris beyond the monuments and museums. I’m always on the lookout for things a woman can do alone in a big city and where I might meet some new friends. It was while visiting another ex-pat’s Paris blog that I learned about Meeting the French, a tourism company that provides very interesting snapshots into French life. Their offerings include: dinner invitations to dine in a French home, gastronomy walking tours of Paris, and a variety of short guided tours where you can observe artists and artisans at work.
I thought this sounded like a unique concept, so I decided to see what was on the schedule. What a selection! I could have gone to a cheese-making shop, a bakery, a pork butcher, a coffee-roasting shop and even a snail house. I could have visited any number of artists and craftsmen such as jewelers, cabinetmakers, art framers, fashion designers, furriers, porcelain makers, book binders and so much more. You can even go behind the scenes at several cultural or sporting sites. There is literally something for everyone and every interest, and the prices are quite reasonable starting as low as 5 Euros (the dinners are more, of course). If you don’t speak French, you will need to check to see if the tour you want is available with English translation, but many of them are. (Also, if you have mobility or dietary issues, I would advise that you call before you book a reservation to ensure that you can participate in the tour you want.)
I decided a chocolaterie was right up my alley for a first “Meeting the French” excursion. For just 9 euros (wow!) I was invited to come to Girard, just two short blocks from the Hotel de Ville in the 4th arrondissement. The tour, available with an English translator, was to last between 30-60 minutes, which meant a nice easy afternoon in an area where there were also lots of other things to do before or afterward. In fact, I arrived early enough that I had ample time to walk across the Seine and do a quick visit and photo shoot at Notre Dame, and afterward went shopping at BHV.
Arriving at Girard, it is NOT the usual pretty little chocolate shop, so don’t get your hopes dashed when you see it. They do the REAL work here in their basement “chocolate laboratory”; so while the store-front has a few glass cases where you can purchase from them (whether or not you take a tour), the space is dedicated to storing brown cardboard boxes of stock that are used to supply patisseries and confectioners all over Paris and beyond with delicious artisanal chocolates.
I was greeted by a very nice woman who handed me a few brochures and leaflets, including an order form, and where another woman was passing through the crowd with a tray of hot chocolate and samples of some of the chocolates Girard makes. The English translator found me, and informed me there were a few others English-speakers as well, and that we’d stick together on the tour.
When it was our turn, we descended into the basement work area and met a tall, youngish man who I assume was Girard or at least the current proprietaire (I was never quite sure about that). He started off by explaining where chocolate, as we know it, comes from, showing us the giant cacao beans and then the smaller beans that come from the larger one. Using some large photos, he showed how they are harvested and then shelled and broken down into little dark “shavings”, which we were allowed to taste – very bitter! Those shavings then go on to become the base material for chocolate. They also extract the cocoa butter which is used in chocolate-making as well as in other products like skin creams.
He then went on to tell us that his chocolaterie does not process the raw materials, but instead buys huge slabs and blocks of the different chocolates they need (dark, milk, white, and other flavors such as orange which is white with orange flavoring and color added) from suppliers in Belgium and elsewhere in France. He went on to tell us how they make the chocolate ganache (the liquid chocolate) that goes into forming the fillings or coverings of their selection of sweets.
Next, we were shown several of the machines they use to either make the fillings, such as a machine that squeezes out and cuts the praline centers, or to cover the centers with chocolate. There was one machine where they would place, by hand, the cream centers under a little chocolate “shower” where the ganache would be poured over the top and on the bottoms; the chocolates are then rolled along a short conveyor belt to the next station where they’re placed on a tray to set. I had visions of that “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel were working in the chocolate factory with the high-speed conveyor belt, and where they had to eat and hide all the candy! But the set-up at Girard was much slower and easily paced, nothing like a high-tech business here.
One thing to keep in mind, if you take this tour, is that this is an artisan’s workshop and NOT a sterile “clean room” like we might expect to see in an American business. I’m sure the shop meets all the local health standards, and they also have artisanal standards to live up to as well; but some of the equipment looks rather worn and dated, and the entire place is cluttered with boxes and tubs of ingredients. The workers do wear aprons and white coats but they’re often covered in chocolate smudges; chocolate-making is messy work!
Next, it was on to where they hand-decorate some of the chocolates with little painted designs, and where they create big gift baskets. Along the tour, we were given the opportunity to sample some of the finished products – delicious! – and when the tour was complete, we could sample some more and then buy our favorites (I got away with a bag of dark chocolate truffles and something else that has hazelnut bits all over it, both very yummy!)
This was a great (and let’s face it, decadent) way to spend a Tuesday afternoon in Paris. Now that I live here, it’s nice to take a break once in a while from my daily routine with an outing like this. I do plan to check out some of the other Meeting the French tours in the future: I have my eye on one that involves a visit to an auction sales room, the porcelain making tour, and of course the coffee-roasting shop. What better way to get out, learn something new and meet the French!
Check it out for yourself: http://www.meetingthefrench.com
Or visit Girard on your own: 5 rue de la Tacherie, 75004 Paris. Métro: Hotel de Ville.