Chocolate à faire

Irish Eyes magazine, November 2000
by Alison Benney

Is chocolate a romance or an addiction? Neither – it’s an adventure. At least that’s what it seems to be for chocolatier Alts Shaw, who claims to be the only Irish chocolate-maker in France. The interview was supposed to be short and sweet: get the bio of this expat-turned-artisan, pick up some tips for finding Paris’ cream of the crop and thank him for his time. Instead I got swept up in his cocoa-infused enthusiasm and found myself dazedly walking away from the encounter with too much information and a bagful of his samples: devilishly velvety truffles, bars of smoky Venezuelan chocolate and a solid chunk of his personal favorite, called “Fortissima”.

Shaw has been fascinated by chocolate for over 15 years, and started his career in Paris, when he came for the Bicentennial in 1989 and never left. His mentor was Patrick Roger, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and chocolate sculptor who, said Shaw, “revises your notion of what chocolate is.” For the last year and a half he’s been studying for his maîtrise de chocolat while working full-time as a chocolate chef at Pralu, a shop near Lyon, and marketing his own products in Paris. But it was a little difficult to get a detailed biography because at this point in his tale, he ushered me into the pungent Brûlerie des Gobelins, a torrefactorie whose proprietor, Jean-Paul Logereau, is as nutty about coffee as Shaw is about cocoa.

We stood in front of a huge machine that Shaw explained can be used for roasting either coffee or cocoa beans, and he agreed that “cocoa, coffee and wine do have a lot in common.” Although chocolate, as well as red wines and certain cheeses, can cause headaches in some people, it’s not as black as it’s painted. It has only 5mg of caffeine versus the 100-150gm found in coffee, and contrary to popular belief, chocolate does not cause acne or tooth decay, raise cholesterol levels, or is truly addictive.

While customers milled around us, I learned that a cocoa pod is about the size of an elongated rugby ball, and that each pod yields 40-60 seeds, or beans, bathed in a thick white liquid that is drunk as the local cocktail. The beans are fermented for a few days, then dried, roasted and ground. “There are only five chocolate-makers in France who make their chocolate directly from the bean,” Shaw said, “and I want to be the sixth.”

Here he pulled out a long bag full of “nibs”, or ground cocoa beans. The aroma wafting out was delicious, but the taste – well, the non-appeal of coffee grinds is a good comparison. It had nothing to do with Godiva pralines, creamy éclairs or my daily morning elixir. While I tried to discreetly dislodge the particles from my teeth, he explained that dry as these grains were, they still contained over 54% cocoa butter, the oil that is the only real cocoa component in white chocolate.

The art of making chocolate, Shaw said, “is not only getting good taste but also achieving a certain brilliance and that ‘snap’ when you crack it.” There’s a good albeit misconceived market for bitter chocolate, he added. “Bitterness has nothing to do with the percentage of cocoa in a product, it simply comes from inferior grains of cocoa. And color is more or less a question of soil conditions.”

Generally a good chocolate contains 72% cocoa mass, which includes the processed bean plus cocoa butter content. The rest is milk powder, lecithin (as emulsifier), and flavorings or spices. A couple of these ingredients have recently turned into sticky wickets for EU regulators. One issue is the percentage of vegetable fat that can be substituted for cocoa butter and still be called chocolate (5%); and the other is the possibly undetected presence of genetically modified soybeans used in the emulsifier, which is the subject of Shaw’s thesis.

Happily, the subject was changed when M. Logereau (the proprietor of the shop) brought out a glossy table-top book, Le savoir-vivre du chocolat, for which he had written the chapter on the marriage of coffee and chocolate. “The complexity of chocolate calls for a strong, Italian-style coffee,” he wrote, and suggests that the next time the reader indulges in a charlotte royale à la ganache, it should be accompanied by a coffee from Costa Rica or Nicaragua. The book also featured mouth-watering recipes – with photos ­– for favorites like chocolate mousse, palets, pains au chocolat, and tiramisu.

Chocolate has always been a luxury item. In fact, cocoa beans were used as money in Aztec times (when money really did grow on trees!) and during most of its history, cocoa was drunk, not eaten. Reportedly, the Aztec emperor Montezuma used it as an aphrodisiac, and the Marquis de Sade is supposed to have once spiked a dessert with chocolate pastilles so that those who ate them “began to burn with unchaste ardor and to carry on as if in the grip of the most amorous frenzy.” The French considered it a “barbarous product and noxious drug,” and the memoirs of the duc de Saint Simon relate that Louix XIV was told by his Jesuit advisors to drink chocolate on fast-days, but to desist from his custom of dunking bread into it.

Some prefer chocolate as art. While wondering aloud how he will get 50kg of truffles shipped off to the US in time for Christmas, Shaw pulled me out of the coffee shop and into a Monoprix down the street. He pointed out one object after another, saying, “I could make almost anything in here out of chocolate: a powder case, a jewelry box, that stapler.” He has already transformed chocolate into hearts, maple leafs, and of course into shamrocks and pints of stout for some of the Irish pubs. Most recently he was asked to help out on a massive chocolate sculpture being prepared for the Salon du chocolate.

As any visitor to the Salon can attest, chocolate is remarkably more than just a sweet. When asked what originally prompted his interest in the complex world of the cocoa bean, Shaw confesses that he doesn’t remember. “It’s just a feeling,” he says. And how sweet it is.

Details for the Salon du chocolat in Paris can be found at http://www.chocoland.tm.fr. Otherwise, Alts Shaw is prepared to take orders, tel: 06.84.68.07.04.