Choco-Story, The Paris Chocolate Museum (Musee Gourmand du Chocolat)
This is an amazing museum and I’m sorry we’d never gone before but at least we did finally find it. Another example of the wonderful variety that is Paris. We saw the ad in the Greater Paris magazine and it happened to be close to our hotel at the time, so was perfect for a visit one morning.
Charles Dickens is reputed to have famously said, “There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.” Chocolate, the food of the gods. Chocolate as an indulgence or a reward. Chocolate as therapy for a stressful day, an argument, an attack of the blues. For many, chocolate has become a necessity in life, as evidenced by the word “chocoholic”. For them it is wonderful, whether it comes in the form of a bar, a drink, a cake, a mousse, or a fondue. It can be hot, warm, cold, or frozen. It can be served with both sweet and savory food.
So, what is this substance? Much has been written about chocolate over the years. Wander up and down the cooking aisles at your bookstore or browse on Amazon and notice how many books are on chocolate, its history, properties, or cooking with it, both savory dishes and desserts. For example, “The True History of Chocolate” by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe“ (2nd ed. 2007); “The Great Book of Chocolate” by David Lebovitz (2004); “The Healing Powers of Chocolate” by Cal Orey (new ed. 2010); “The Chocolate Cookbook (Greatest Ever)” by Christine McFadden and Christine France (2007); and “Naked Chocolate: The Astonishing Truth About the World’s Greatest Food” by David Wolfe and Shazzie (2005).
If you take a look at Chocolate Festivals around the world too, it’s soon obvious that the popularity and importance of this “drink of the gods” has not changed.
This wonderful museum in Paris does an excellent job of setting out the whole story of chocolate. There are many colorful and clear informational boards, all in French, English and Spanish. It is set out on 3 floors and covers the whole history of chocolate. It’s an interesting story and well told, whether you like chocolate or not, detailing more than 4,000 years of history and displaying more than 1,000 original artefacts.
On the ground floor, we see the geography and biology of the cacao tree and the cacao bean (now mostly grown in Africa in Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria; but Indonesia is also a big producer). The cocoa bean is one of the world’s culinary treasures because chocolate developed from it. The bean comes from the Theobroma cacao tree. In Greek, ‘theobroma’ means ‘drink of the gods’, showing that even early people attached importance to this tree discovered in Central America and Mexico, in the land of the Olmec and Maya people.
It’s believed that cacao was first cultivated by the Olmecs 3,000 years ago, not by the Aztecs as was commonly believed. However, the Maya and Aztecs embraced cacao, but as a drink only at that time. There’s a really good coverage of the Mayan connection to cacao and a surprisingly extensive collection of Mayan artifacts, including a couple of their wonderful codices (books).
How the name cacao probably came about: Many Mayan ceramic pots are decorated with glyphs that have been interpreted as ka-ka-wa, which led to cacao. Why the word chocolate? In the Nahuatl language, still spoken in Central America by about 1.5 million Indians, cacahuatl is the word for chocolate (the drink); kakawa (cocoa) plus atl (water). They also had a drink called chocolatl, which was a mix of cacahuatl and pochotl (ceiba tree seeds). Scholars believe that early Spaniards, who had not mastered the Indian language, thought choco meant hot and atl meant water, so thought that was the hot cacao drink, and changed cacahuatl to chocolati.
Fascinating if you’re interested in languages!
Cacao has a long and complex history as it evolved through the hands of explorers, businessmen, cooks and manufacturers, and became part of our commercial, spiritual and social lives. This is all shown beautifully in this museum.
The Aztecs believed that cacao was the source of spiritual wisdom, tremendous energy and enhanced sexual powers. The Mayans also used cacao beans as currency; for example, a rabbit for 10 cacao beans and a slave for 100. The Aztecs continued to use this measure; for example, 1 turkey egg was 3 beans, 1 large tomato or 5 green peppers were 1 bean, and a rabbit 10 beans.
Here’s another interesting factoid: the Mayan standard weight measure was the “carga”, equivalent to the load a man could carry, which was 24,000 cacao beans. I wonder if the English word “cargo” is related?
The Mayans and the Aztecs loved their hot drink to be foamy (done by frothing it with a special stick, the molinillo), so our foamy drinks are definitely not new!
Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortes in the early 1500s were the first Europeans to encounter chocolate from the Aztecs and recognize its potential, carrying beans back to Spain. From there, it moved to Netherlands, Italy, and France.
Chocolate only became popular later in Switzerland, Germany and Austria in the late 1600s (all countries now famous as chocolate makers), initially mostly in the Royal Courts and often on the instigation of women. Later it went to England, and then moved back to the Americas, to the USA.
The European love affair with cacao and chocolate is shown on the first floor, with an extensive collection and coverage of where and how it spread, how it was first used (as a drink) and all the equipment and paraphernalia needed to produce and drink it. For example, special cups (note the moustache cup with the special lip cover to prevent the moustache getting soiled!) and pots, called chocolatières, which were different to coffee pots. In those days, chocolate was often considered medicinal (especially when mixed with other ingredients), as well as for pleasure, and was sold through apothecaries.
Van Houten, a Dutchman, found a way to separate cacao butter and mass, an idea he patented in 1828. Then the idea of hard, eating chocolate was born in 1847 when the Fry company found a way to mix cocoa paste and sugar with liquid cacao butter into a paste that could be put into a mould. There’s a great display of the way that sugar was processed to add to the chocolate (both drinking and hard), many chocolate moulds, special tins and holders etc. We also see many labels, ads, posters, all giving a great record of the importance of cacao and chocolate in many people’s lives.
In the basement (level -0), is a demo kitchen area (we missed the demo time unfortunately) and an interesting section on the health benefits and/or risks of chocolate (not many risks, actually), plus boards on the composition of 3 types of chocolate: dark, milk and white.
A small shop behind the ticket desk has books on the history of cacao and chocolate, posters, moulds, and various bars of chocolate. We bought a bar that’s based on an original Mayan recipe (not as spicy as we were expecting) and another on the first Spanish one (it had a slightly grainy texture and was delicious, with a strong cinnamon flavor). Originally cacao/chocolate was always taken spiced (often with Tabasco peppers, also known as Jamaican peppers), and unsweetened, and it’s only in the last couple of hundred years that it’s been sweetened. Many of the artisanal chocolates nowadays are returning to the spiced version, with peppers, cardamom, chiles etc.
A great museum and well worth a few hours and the entrance fee.
Address: 28 Blvd Bonne Nouvelle (10th arrondissement)
Admission: Adults 11€, kids 6-12 8€, students and seniors 10€
Open daily 10am-6pm, except January 1 and December 25.
Easy to get to: Metro station Bonne Nouvelle, or Grands Boulevards, Line 8; or Strasbourg Saint-Denis, Lines 8 and 4.