Sweet excess

On the trail of a sensual French confection.

Jan 3, 2001 at 12:00 am

Imagine yourself strolling through Paris with a beautiful girl you just met on a train from Brussels. You pass by Fauchon, the famous chocolatier. Inspired by infatuation, you buy a couple of chocolate-covered strawberries, fresh from dipping. Ah, paradise.

But as Susan Terrio points out in this charming ethnographic study, Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate, your purchase is much more. You, my friend, are tapping into the elemental nerve of French craftsmanship, the thing that keeps French noses high in the midst of an all-out assault on Gallic culture.

Could it be that, after almost three decades of fretting and stewing about who can study whom, where, when and how, anthropologists are returning to field work? Not a moment too soon. The global economy takes no prisoners. And those it does usually end up wearing Nike and sipping Coke.

With Lasse Hallström’s film Chocolat sweetening American screens, French cultural modes of production are particularly fascinating at this moment – precisely because so few of them have found a niche in a hostile economic environment. Even more fascinating is that French connoisseurs have re-educated their own populace to the cachet of handmade chocolates, thus ensuring the craft’s continuing viability. If you can promote nouvelle cuisine, why not gentrify chocolate for good measure?

Terrio journeys to the southwest Basque region of France where chocolate crafting finds its most capable artisans. The region seems a natural fit for chocolatiers: The cities of Bayonne and Biarritz have been peripheral harbors from the various storms of history. Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain brought chocolate with them there. The Spaniards, of course, had learned the trade during their brutal conquest of the Americas.

But the Jews got a rough ride in their new home. They were excluded from guilds designed to transform the craft into a native skill. Eventually, though, the guilds were disbanded and, even though Jews were once again able to make chocolate, they moved on to other businesses.

Also contributing a bit of intrigue is that oldie but goodie, French colonialism. After all, cocoa does come from the tropics — oh my goodness, it’s black! — and the French know better than anyone how to make a mess south of the equator and then thumb their noses when the south comes to France.

Terrio notes that the skills and tools of the Aztecs prevail today through the fetishization of tradition by contemporary chocolatiers. She offers in-depth, on-site interviews with master chocolatiers and their families, many of whom display a hard-bitten dedication to the craft.

One leaves the book with the impression that the old ways can only survive if they are practiced with a collective attitude of nativism, pride and cunning. But the global economy likes luxury almost as much as it likes to get a piece of the action. Craftsmen, beware.

Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].