Summer break is slowly coming to an end in the French Landes. My family has been spending their summers here for over a decade, and it is here that my children have set down their French roots.
Over the years, the French Southwest has won over my heart: the mostly sunny moderate climate without the usual heat wave of the Riviera, the distinct food in which duck, white asparagus, and wild mushroom are part of the daily diet. And most of all, I have fallen in love with the warm, enthusiastic, and hard working people of the Landes and Basque country.
Basque country: the cradle of the French chocolate industry
At the beginning of the XVIIth century, chocolate made its way to France through Bayonne thanks to Jewish traders and by 1725 Bayonne had become the chocolate capital of France.
I had already been aware of the historical ties between chocolate and the Basque country but had never further investigated the subject. Therefore, I was very excited at the opportunity to chat with the master chocolatier Christophe Puyodebat, while visiting his chocolate factory and museum in Cambo-les-Bains near Bayonne.
A family endeavour
Almost two decades ago, the newly married Valerie and Christophe started what has become a thriving business: a family enterprise built around a common passion for chocolate (they both hold a formal chocolatier training), entrepreneurship, and unrelenting dedication.
In 2000, the Puyodebats jumped at the opportunity to purchase the faltering Laborde chocolate factory and opened their first boutique in the historic center of Bayonne. Business was running smoothly and Christophe, having actively researched Bayonne’s chocolate past and accumulated a fair amount of historical equipment and artifacts, was now ready to expand.
In 2009, after lots of effort, the Puyodebats moved their operations to their current location and opened a museum dedicated to the history of chocolate in the Basque Country.
Artisan chocolatier and chocolate maker
The Puyodebats are an exception in the French chocolate industry because not only are they artisan chocolatiers (chocolate confectioners), but they also make their own chocolate from cocoa beans. As opposed to most chocolatiers who buy their chocolate couverture (the chocolate used to create confections) from specialized chocolate makers (typically large companies such as Valhrona), this allows the Puyodebats to control the quality of their chocolate confections starting with the production of the chocolate itself.
Today, the Puyodebats make their single origin chocolate bars from beans that they buy from growers in Madagascar, Mexico, and South America (mostly family owned farms with whom they have worked with from the start).
Their couverture chocolate, used in confections, is exclusively made for them by Michel Cluizel with whom they’ve been friends with for years.
Cluizel, like the Puyodebats, does not use soy lecithin (a controversial ingredient used in most chocolates as an emulsifier). In Christophe’s words: “It has no business in chocolate. It was not used in chocolate until recently; all that is needed is enough cocoa butter, but it is more expensive”.
Curating a Chocolate Museum
As Christophe walks me through his museum I realize that in addition to being a chocolate maker and artisan chocolatier, he is also a historian and museum curator.
Christophe received his Chocolatier degree at the Chambre des Métiers School of Bayonne, but the young chocolatier soon became obsessed with Bayonne’s long chocolate history, a history that he believed to be woefully underreported: “Nobody knew about Bayonne’s past history with chocolate and it was going to be lost forever.”
This resulted in a multi-year quest of unearthing stories and objects to rebuild the narrative of this beautiful heritage that eventually materialized into his outstanding museum.
The museum begins with a massive coat of arms gifted by Napoleon III to one of the original Basque chocolate makers, a nod to the significance of the Basque country in the chocolate industry.
The XIXth century chocolate making machines (Christophe still uses one that he bought from a now closed Basque chocolate maker) are a testament to the creativity that the initial Basque chocolate makers displayed when combining ancient methods (using a stone to crush the cocoa beans) with engineering of the industrial revolution (cast iron electric machinery) to create machines that are still in use today.
The factory floor itself looks like it could be part of the museum with the two antique machines that Puyodebat restored and uses in his production process.
Back at the shop, I ask Christophe about his favorite creation: “My children!”. I insist but he can’t give me an answer because he is equally proud of all his chocolates.
Later on, I quiz a couple of the employees. One of them is a big fan of the pralinés, while the other loves one of their single origin dark chocolates. There is no best in class in their chocolate selection: they are all delicious.
I got to taste the 99% chocolate chips which are less bitter than those I’m used to, a pleasant surprise for me as I’m not a fan of this type of chocolate. The cocoa bean shaped ganache is rich and smooth with just the right amount of sweetness; just how I like it.
Then I find heaven: the pralinés!
No disappointment there either. From the Craquinettes (little praliné balls rolled in crispy crepes) to the Praliné à l’ancienne and the praliné filled chocolate bars, I just don’t know how to stop.