Unique Chocolate makers in France – from Bean to Bar…
Located in rural France about an hour’s drive from Calais port is a very special atelier where chocolate is made by hand from beans harvested from the company’s own cocoa plant fields in Ecuador. There are only three companies left in the whole of France that produce chocolate the whole way through using their own beans (the other two have fields in Madagascar and Venezuela).
As I head down a beautiful country lane, surrounded by fields, the sound of bird song fills the car but I see no signs of anything that could look like a factory. Just beautiful little farm houses, sleepy little lanes, relaxed cows in the fields and tractors meandering along. Suddenly I see a bright yellow sign at the side of the road for Beussent Chocolate Factory. The enticing and heady aroma of chocolate hits you the second you enter the quaint little walkway that leads to the shop attached to the atelier where they make the famous chocolates. I am there to take a tour and my guide Fabrice Boucher greets me surrounded by throngs of British school children who have just completed their tour and are in the shop busy buying chocolate gifts to take home.
Fabrice offers me a plate of chocolates to taste (part of the tour!), I take one and stop. I’m urged to take another and hesitate.
“Chocolate doesn’t make you fat” says Fabrice, I arch my eyebrows and look straight into his eyes “I mean”, he says, “good chocolate doesn’t make you fat”. Ah, so there’s a difference I ask. He is visibly shocked – “of course, a huge difference, enormous…” I can see that I have started something and I’m fairly certain that when I leave this little chocolate nirvana in the far north of France, I will know more about chocolate than most!
The company was started more than 30 years ago by Bruno de Rick. He grew up in Africa and learned about chocolate there. When he moved to France he decided he wanted to make great chocolate and acquired his own plantation fields in Ecuador.
Beussent is very much a family company and their chocolates are much loved. They have 20 shops in France and a year ago the de Ricks merged with the Bouchers from Bordeaux – another family of chocolate experts.
They have two factories: Beussent in Pas de Calais has a dozen chocolate makers and Lachelle just outside of Paris- near Compiègne employs 5 chocolate specialists. Both ateliers use the same equipment, the same methods and both offer tours. The shops are successful because the chocolate is so delicious and as Fabrice tells me “It’s still a hard world, the recession has affected everyone but we will survive because our chocolate is so good, fans stay loyal and it’s a little taste of luxury that doesn’t break the bank”.
I ask – do the artisans who make the chocolates eat them while they’re working? “Yes!” Fabrice grins “They eat a lot – 6 or 7 chocolates a day” I tell him – I think if I worked there it would be a great deal more than that. “You would stabilise” he assures me, “the chocolates are so rich that it’s not possible to scoff them”. I’m sceptical on that one but defer to his greater knowledge.
Fabrice tells me that all the family love to think up new recipes for the chocolates, it’s team work all the way – “everybody loves chocolate here”. I ask Fabrice what he has designed and he describes his idea that is being tested for a dark chocolate with a salt crystal and a chocolate/buttery centre. You can see that he has a deep love for his job. I ask him if he has a nose for chocolate, like a sommelier, he laughs and says “yes, you taste the bean in its raw state and you can tell if it’s good or not”.
The tour moves into the factory itself, the scent of chocolate is quite overwhelmingly delectable and I worry that I am piling on pounds just inhaling but I’m hooked on the sight before me.
He takes me through the chocolate making process – the beans are fermented first. Put into huge wooden barrels and covered with banana leaves to ferment, then they are laid out to dry in the sun covered with a plastic roof “it rains a lot in Ecuador” apparently. Fabrice assures me at this stage they are “almost edible” but I decline to try one! There are three families employed in Ecuador, they stay with Beussent despite the practice of most young people moving to cities to earn more money. Beussent pays them city wages and considers them a part of the family business.
He hands me a raw cocoa fruit – they’re big like a giant green conker almost, inside is a jelly which is “quite tasty “and then the bean “it tastes a bit like grass – a very bad taste”. The beans are shipped to Beussent in great hessian sacks – I did notice on the little walk way which is very prettily lined with plants and a life sized gorilla statue that there were quite a few cocoa beans lying around, fallen from the sacks that had just arrived!
Fabrice shows me the roasting centre at the factory – located in a small room. On arrival the beans are roasted and then crushed and sorted. There is a great barrel of mashed beans “try some” urges Fabrice “it’s quite nice – 100% pure chocolate!” I greedily put some in my mouth and chew. It is vile. Bitter. I clearly don’t have a nose for chocolate. After that it goes through “conching” a process invented by Rudolph Lindt of the famous Swiss chocolate company in 1879 which turns the chocolate to a liquid state and then it is passed on to the chocolate makers.
Every chocolate is handmade, Fabrice points out a chicken which is beautifully decorated – completely painted by hand. I meet Jacques who has worked there for 30 years and still loves chocolate. He has made a chocolate house – it’s more than a metre long and has the most amazing detail. It’s kept in the room where they make the chocolates and inspires everyone – they are all immensely proud of Jacques’ achievement and no wonder – it is quite incredible.
Before me are machines that churn the molten chocolate into which melted butter and sugar is added – white, milk, dark like velvet.
The chocolatiers hold small trays in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, dipping it into liquid chocolate of all colours and painting the little sweets with their signature markings – thousands of beautifully moulded, filled, painted chocolates every day.
The staff were busy making Easter chocolate gifts, cockerels, bunnies, bells (they are the symbol of Easter in France). The machines constantly churn the liquid chocolate at the optimal temperature to ensure smooth, shiny, crunchy chocolate and in a huge copper pan nuts are being toasted ready to make praline. Fabrice explains “we buy the nuts from the producers and then mix them and make our own praline to go in the chocolates” He tells me that the staff travel all over the world tasting and testing to make sure they only buy the best. Beans come from their own fields but also from other areas to make chocolate bars with a different taste. The hazelnuts are from Italy – from Piedmont, pistachios from Iran, the sugar is local. Nord-Pas de Calais is famous for its sugar beet.
I leave Beussent Chocolate factory feeling like Wilhelmina Wonka, with a big smile on my face and a big bag of their best seller – praliné, a shell shaped milk chocolate praline mix and utterly scrumptious.
See the Beussent chocolate website for details of tours and shops in France: Chocolaterie de Beussent