Magazine

The most romantic chocolate ever made?

Acabo at her table

Papillotes are a popular Christmas treat in France - the specially wrapped chocolates have romantic origins dating back to the 18th Century. I tracked down some of the best in a small shop in Paris.

If Willy Wonka was real and a Frenchman, his name would be Philippe Bernachon.

Bernachon is a master chocolate maker. His Lyon kitchen creates the most mouth-watering delicacies - not least, his chocolate bars. Roll over, Wonka's Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight.

Smooth, very dark or creamy milk - Bernachon bars are oozing with rich, salted caramel or stuffed with pistachio, roasted almonds, candied pineapple and kirsch, marzipan, or bitter orange and crystallised fruits soaked in Grand Marnier.

They're usually found in only two places in the world - in Lyon or 400km (248 miles) north at a small sweet shop near Montmartre, A L'Etoile d'Or - At the Golden Star.

But last February, The Golden Star blew up, sending the exquisite 19th Century decor, the trays and jars of divine sweetmeats - and Bernachon's incredible chocolate bars - sky-high. A gas explosion smashed it all to smithereens.

The proprietor, shocked but unscathed, has been without her shop for months - and Paris is bereft of Bernachon.

Image copyright Matthieu Cellard
Image caption One of Bernachon's chocolates - known as mendiant or beggar

It's dusk, a late December afternoon and I'm searching for a refugee. I glimpse her, working away at a borrowed table, through the window of Number 71 - a shop selling rare honey. I open the door, and step in.

Denise Acabo, legendary Parisian sweet shop owner, of the ruined Golden Star, has a scent all her own - Chanel, mingled with bitter chocolate and wild honey.

Dressed in her signature, schoolgirl style - kilt, neatly-pressed blue cotton shirt, tie and jersey with her long silver-white hair jauntily parted into two plaits - the vital 79-year-old is deftly wrapping hand-made chocolates.

First, shiny, fringed paper in silver or gold. Then a waxed paper of riddles and jokes and, popped into the centre, the chocolate itself - and a small, paper fuse. A twist to each end and, "Voila, une papillote!"

The French festive bonbon of choice for well over 200 years.

"Out of all the delicious things to eat at New Year, papillotes are my favourite," she says. "They make us laugh and that's important because after the parties, well, who knows what's next?"

She sings as she works, preparing order upon order. A kilo of milk chocolates; a kilo of light, creamy pralines with just a hint of crunch, and dark truffles sweetened with lavender; a kilo of delicate pink, pistachio and cream-coloured charbons - a speciality filled with strong liqueurs, mirabelle, pear and cassis.

All are transformed into frivolous fun with jokes, snap and sparkle.

"Try this," says Acabo, matter-of-factly, between songs, as she hands me a small, knobbly confection not much bigger than a hazelnut. "It will give you an orgasm."

And it does - gastronomically.

A fine, sheer coating of sweet chocolate that needs a firm bite. Then, almost simultaneously, the chocolate yields to a shattering of crisp sugar shell and a burst of intense, fresh-raspberry liqueur floods my mouth.

It's shockingly delicious.

Acabo politely asks if I would like to hear the story of papillotes?

"Yes," I rather breathlessly reply, my mouth still tingling with alcoholic raspberry and chocolatey crystallised sugar.

She lays down her work, folds her hands and begins, in true fairytale-telling style.

"There was, in Lyon, at the end of the 18th Century, long before our Monsieur Bernachon, a certain patissier - Monsieur Papillot - who had in his employ a young apprentice who, in turn, had an eye for a certain beautiful maiden who lived just across the street."

So near, and yet so far to him she was.

The young lad contrived to woo her by stealing the choicest of his master's chocolates, one by one, and disguising them in paper - plain on the outside, but covered with illicit messages of love and promised passion on the inside - to smuggle them out of the kitchen.

Now, Papillot was an attentive businessman and soon noticed the missing chocolates. He set watch over his apprentice but when he discovered the ruse instead of sacking the boy he congratulated him.

The lad and the maiden were wed and Papillot invented the papillote and thereby made his fortune.

Rising from her table, Acabo completes my education by demonstrating the correct way of pulling that paper fuse.

With her arms stretched out straight before her, "To give them the strength they need," a sharp pull, then bang!

With a spark and a tiny puff of acrid blue smoke it's all over.

Acabo takes her seat and resumes her work, singing softly. She's now scented with Chanel, bitter chocolate, wild honey - and just a hint of gunpowder.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30

Listen online or download the podcast.

BBC World Service: At weekends - see World Service programme schedule.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics