I recently got to spend some time in the French Basque Country with my family and I have to say: it was chocolate heaven! (and shhhh, I'm keeping it hush hush, but I'll be bringing some of these goodies to Sydney for my '7 Wonders of Basque Cuisine' special event on 5 Feb 2011).
The chocolate fanatic in me couldn't believe her luck: gorgeous, century-old chocolate stores at every corner; more pralines, truffles, rochers and chocolate bars than you could ever eat; beautiful antique décors and window displays; the most delicate boxes and packaging; and a rich, driving-you-mad, mouth-watering scent of chocolate wafting up and down the famous 'rue du Pont Neuf', the Champs-Elysées of chocolate in Bayonne, with fabulous chocolate stores galore - such as Daranatz, Cazenave, Pariès and l'Atelier du Chocolat.
Chocolate was introduced in Europe through Spain at the beginning of the 16th century, after Spanish explorer - and chocolate addict - Hernán Cortés brought back cocoa beans from Mexico. Then under the reign of famous catholic monarchs Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, skilled Jewish artisans got expelled from Spain, and later on from Portugal.
In the 17th century, these immigrants - whose many skills included fabricating chocolate into drinkable form - settled in Bayonne, on the French side of the Spanish border. From there, chocolate became the darling beverage of kings and queens throughout Europe, and Bayonne the capital of chocolate in France.
Established in 1890, Daranatz has some of the best - and most beautiful - chocolate bars I've ever tasted in my life, with up to 20 different flavours. Of course, all the classics are there, dark and milk chocolate, with hazelnuts or almonds, but you'll also find spicier bars featuring cinnamon, four spices and vanilla, as well as more contemporary flavours such as coffee and red chili from Espelette in the Basque Country. And even single origin grands crus from Java and the Caribbeans. Their chocolate bonbons are fabulous as well, with no less than 50 different flavours.
Just up the street on Rue du Pont-Neuf is Cazenave, which was founded in 1854. That's right, 150 years of chocolate history for you... Their chocolate bars (or tablettes as we say in French) are also exceptionally good - and good looking. And Cazenave has a most beautiful heritage tea room where you can sit down for a cup of hot chocolate and sweet treats. I'd definitely recommend stopping by!
So tell me dear reader, when comes to chocolate, do you prefer the more classic options of plain dark / milk chocolate, or do you fancy nuts & spices as well?
Daranatz: 15 rue du Pont-Neuf, 64100 Bayonne. www.chocolat-bayonne-daranatz.fr
Cazenave: 19 rue du Pont-Neuf, 64100 Bayonne.