Pain au chocolat is a wonderful breakfast treat in France. It is made by injecting chocolate into layers of buttery, flaky pastry. The hand-thrown plate is from Chinon and the eating utensils are 19th-century French silver. The miniature cafe au lait porcelain bowl contains rose sugar, with some rose petals visible. The white porcelain pot de creme (right) holds either hot or cold creme.
A chocolate tart is covered by rich dark chocolate, with a powdered-sugar and pistachio nut border in the shape of a quarter-moon. It will be dessert for tonight's dinner!
The chocolate pots from Limoges, France (pictured) were made between 1892 and 1931. In today's market they range in value from about $300 to $600.
In France, chocolate initially was greeted with skepticism. The French court accepted it only after the Paris Faculty of Medicine offered its seal of approval. For a time, particularly in the 19th-century, chocolate was used for medicinal purposes, treating digestive, pulmonary and infectious diseases. It was also appreciated for its nutritive and aphrodisiacal effects.
In 1615 Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII, proclaimed chocolate as the official drink of the French court. The confectionary's popularity grew in 1643, after Spanish Princess Maria Theresa gave her fiance Louis XIV an engagement gift of chocolate, presented in an ornate chest.
The Spanish, who mixed cocoa beans with sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and cinnamon, kept their special blend a closely-guarded secret for nearly a hundred years!
Once exposed to the magic elixir, the Sun King Louis XIV and members of his court at Versailles enjoyed chocolate so much that the King appointed a company to manufacture and sell the delicacy. Until 1879, chocolate was available only as cocoa or a liquid. After the thirst for chocolate -----which later included candy----- flouished in Paris, its popularity spread throughout France.
No doubt chocolate's image was influenced by French royalty, who firmly believed the bittersweet substance was an aphrodisiac. Art and literature were infused with erotic imagery said to be inspired by chocolate. The Marquis de Sade had a reputation for using chocolate to disguise the taste of poison. In contrast, the legendary lover Casanova was reputed to use chocolate along with champagne in his seduction techniques.
Today French chocolate remains as popular as ever, with an amazing array of choices well beyond the usual mousse au chocolat and profiteroles. One Paris-based cookbook writer offers a chocolate tour of some of the city's best-loved chocolate emporiums.
Although reluctant to admit it, many French people prefer Belgium or even Swiss chocolate to their own country's specialities. Some chocolate afficionados claim Belgium chocolate is darker and richer than the French product. But chocolate is always a matter of individual taste, with preference changing according to mood, whim or opportunity. It's difficult to be disappointed in a country where choices of chocolate are almost as numerous as the varieties of cheese!