Whether it come in the form of a warm street crêpe, a three course soufflé dinner, or a perfectly smooth yet crispy artisan macaroon, France offers some of the finest cooking to be found anywhere in the world. The term food culture is a redundancy; for the French, food is culture and nowhere is that more true than Paris. It is impossible to stroll through Paris’ luxurious shopping districts in the city without realizing that this is where the richest people in the world come to buy their chocolate, cheese, and champagne. Take a walk a bit farther into the more mixed sections of the city and you’ll find the most authentic Moroccan food outside of Africa. Soak up the nightlife in the eastern part of the city and you can smell street vendors cooking up delicious galettes into the wee hours of the morning. One could spend years gaining a mastery of French cheese or wine, and then another lifetime learning how to pair the two. But I only had a year, I’d heard a rumor, and I had a mission: to find and drink the best hot chocolate that Paris had to offer. I knew it would be hard, or, rather, squishy for my waistline. I knew I would have to sacrifice, but I knew it would be worth it.
Hot chocolate, chocolat chaud as it is known to the francophone world, is a sort of institution for the French. The way an Englishman might take tea every night, or an Italian coffee, there are more than a few Parisians for whom hot chocolate at the end of the day is only natural. It plays an essential, if perhaps a bit decadent, role in a fine repertoire of drinks. As with most subjects, especially of the culinary persuasion, many of the French had many opinions on who mixed up the best batch which meant I had many leads.
I quickly discovered that with any mention of hot chocolate in Paris those within earshot were programmed to pipe in with their opinion about one particular place, Angélina. One can tell quite a bit about a place in Paris based on where it is situated, and Angélina could not face out onto a more quintessentially Parisian street. Along the rue de Rivoli just across from le jardin de Tuileries, Angélina maintains its old world charm even amidst tourist stand and shops and bustling city traffic. Angélina’s hot chocolate is its signature, and they have it down pat, serving its chocolaty goodness to hundreds of Parisians and tourists from the world over. When you walk in, if you’re lucky enough to have avoided the mid-afternoon rush and not be stuck in a line spilling out the door, you are immediately faced with glass covered cases of extravagant desserts and pastries. Le maître d’hôtel greets you and shows you to a table either on the upper level with a great view of the activity below or on the ground floor with a whole wall made up of mirrors, (all the better to try to snoop out what models or celebrities may be seated in the room with you). L’african, their signature hot chocolate arrives in a hearty-sized pitcher with a glass of Chantilly, (glorified whip cream); the mixture is up to you. I’ve met people far and wide who will swear by this hot chocolate experience. I’ve met those who won’t go anywhere else. The atmosphere is unbeatable, and the hot chocolate tasty, but in my opinion, if you’re only going to try one Parisian hot chocolate, this should not be the one. Angelina’s hot chocolate is classic, but I can think of two places I prefer that offer both better flavor and a little more adventure.
Another wondrous stop on the Paris hot chocolate circuit is Le Flore en L’île. Tucked right on the corner of Ile-Saint-Louis with a wonderful view of the Seine and the back of Notre Dame, this little café provides patio seating that looks onto a small pedestrian street ideal for people watching. There are heaters for colder times and a little Berthillon’s ice cream stand for warmer days. Perfect for the devil-may-care day of wandering along around the island’s charming little streets and peaking into its charming little shops, Le Flore en L’isle has a hot chocolate like nowhere else in the city. If you order the works, you will be served with an empty cup, a tall glass full of Chantilly, an antique looking silver pitcher full of steaming milk, and a tiny little matching pitcher brimming with pure melted chocolate. Abandoned by your server, parched and dying from anticipation, the task before you will seem insurmountable: you must mix your own hot chocolate. Fear not, the fun and joy that comes out of this process will compensate for any mistaken chocolate/milk ratios. They give you enough of both that you have at least a few attempts to get the mixture right. By the end, you’ll be full of chocolate and have a new appreciation for the delicacy required to find the right mix of chocolate and cream.
My absolute favorite Parisian café, which also happens to be home to my favorite cup of hot chocolate, is not in a well-known, well-established Parisian institution. Rather, it is a tiny hole-in-the-wall with no more than three tables on the inside and a smattering of patio tables on the outside. Comme à la maison is an up and coming, absolutely delicious, picturesque café nestled away in a Village Saint Paul courtyard. As its popularity and customer base grew during my time in Paris, so did my love for it. Upon my first visit, all I had was a cup of classic hot chocolate along with a friend. That first experience is nearly indescribable. From the first sip, our eyes lit up. This was it, and it was magic. The richness and creaminess of this particular chocolate chaud was beyond comparison. Served in white porcelain pitchers alongside white little tea cups atop deep pink patio tables complete with potted flowers and matching patio chairs, the only thing more charming than Comme à la maison’s décor is its flavor. I returned with others, and each time the chocolate goodness reappeared. I branched out, ordered lunch formules with the best ingredients used to make perfect flavor combinations. I had the best quiche of my life there, and I was delighted each time I could show this little treasure off to someone new. Comme à la maison was mine in a way that love of a French wine might make one feel that the grapes were picked just for oneself. Each time I came back, I noticed that the number of customers and tables had grown, and I felt proud that I’d been there from the start and known what a little haven I had found.
In Los Angeles, I admit to being a bit of a health food nut. Hot chocolate was not something that occupied my time, energy, money, or thoughts before France. But through my time exploring, searching out, comparing, retesting, and just plain enjoying a classic cup (let’s be honest, often entire pitchers worth) of chocolate chaud I learned something about the personal and proud place food holds in the French heart. Cooking is an art, and ingredients are the artist’s muse, the fresher and better, the more cherished. Is it gluttonous? No, gourmand. Is it extravagant ? Well, yes, but also accessible, with farmers’ markets occurring on a main road somewhere every day of the week. Food in France is a passion, a hobby, a career. It is a joy, and one that I am truly thankful to have partaken in during my time abroad.
Angelynn Hermes, '11