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The Chocolate Connection
A beautiful chance encounter with a Parisian chocolatier
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Note: this story won silver on the Travel & Food category of the Seventeenth Annual Solas Awards (2023)
“Bonjour”, says the towering man in front of me. I try to reply in my broken French and he follows that with a fast and furious sentence. I can't make out a single word in it and utter, "I am sorry, I don't speak French". The man shrugs, an I-don't-know smirk on his face. Silence. He has a trimmed goatee, shaved head, and small hoop earrings in both his ears. Maybe he doesn't speak English?, I wonder. More silence, we both make faces. I am about to ask if he speaks English when he finally says, "what can I help you with?". Phew.
I look around the narrow little store, all mirrors and lights, displaying shiny chocolates so perfect I wonder if they are even real. I explain I want to buy some chocolates to bring to a gathering. "Ah!", he exclaims loudly, "just come on over" and he leads me to the end of the store, where little squares with bright colored tops are displayed. There is a smooth green one - is it matcha? Or mint?. There is a bubbly light brown one - crunchy and sweet, perhaps?. There is a dark one with a small seed on the corner -bitter and peppery? Or is it coriander?. No matter, I want it.
"What chocolate do you like to eat?", he asks while leaning against the back wall, relaxed
"Well", I begin, feeling like this is a test and hoping I can pass it, "I like dark chocolate, like an 85% --"
"No, no, no, no, no!", he explodes, animated. I have failed the test, no doubt, but at least he is kind, his eyes playful.
"Those percentages are meaningless, it’s all marketing", he continues. "What matters is where the chocolate bean is from, and the proportions of sugar and milk in it", he exclaims authoritatively while breaking out pieces of chocolate bars and putting them in a little wooden plate in front of me. Then he gestures for me to eat them, all wide eyes and big arms.
As I put each piece in my mouth, he explains the texture, acidity, intensity, rhythm of the flavors. "The beginning is smoky, the middle is of cranberry, the end is smooth", he says while he draws a curve in the air. I dance with him, while listening to his metaphor about how chocolate is like dynamite, something about the sugar being the fuse? I am lost, head and soul in the curve of cocoa.
He pulls out a few more chocolates and I grab the first one, a little square with a slightly textured top. "This will take you to India!", he exclaims, his eyes shining. I bite into it - wow! an eruption of curry. I try to listen to what he is saying but I am disoriented, is that cumin, or chili, or turmeric? is it all of them? is it also crunchy?!
I am jolted by two new tourists who appear behind me. But now the chocolatier is the one lost in speech, his passion in the air bursting like fireworks with each of his sentences. How French! But really, how human, I feel in my heart.
“Don’t chew it!", he exclaims, before I put the last piece in my mouth. I nod, do as I am told, and get lost again in praline and raspberry.This is what travel is all about, I think. The yearning to learn, to absorb the culture and way of life somewhere foreign, the longing for connections with people that speak differently, look differently, think differently. How unexpectedly beautiful traveling can be, if only you let it.
At some point in the conversation he asks me where I come from, and we chat for a bit about Venezuela, comment on the political situation, and continue with my chocolate-education, this time in regards to the quality and price of the Venezuelan cacao bean. Then he excitedly shares, "The last time a Venezuelan came into the store was 3 years ago!". My heart warms and I am transported to my dear country, hiking in the Venezuelan jungle through cacao trees. "I am glad to represent", I reply, and truly hope I am worthy of that honor.
While I pay for the box of chocolates he impulsively throws a bar from Papua New Guinea in my bag, “because you liked this one”, he says. I did?, I wonder. With a heartfelt goodbye I head into the bright Parisian air, where sweetness and bitterness and gratefulness are everywhere.