“Let them eat cake”, Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said. “Let them eat chocolate” would have been more fashionable. By the time the French queen is purported to have uttered those words in 1789, chocolate was no longer just a hot sweetened drink favoured by the elite, it was a cold, hard substance you could nibble on too, and all the rage thanks to a man named Sulpice Debauve.

Marie Antoinette c1778, painted by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun
Marie Antoinette c1778, painted by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun © Imagno/Getty Images

Debauve was the royal pharmacist and official chocolatier to Marie Antoinette. Or so the story goes. The Austrian princess was such a fan of hot chocolate (she drank it “à la Viennoise” with Chantilly cream on top) that she arrived at the French court in 1770 accompanied by her own chocolatier. That man’s name is lost to history, presumably because he was eclipsed in favour by his French successor. After the queen complained about the bitterness of her headache cure, Debauve proposed wrapping her medicine in cocoa sweetened with almond milk and waiting for it to solidify. His “pistoles”, as the queen christened the coin-shaped medallions, were a hit, and marked the advent of the first chewable chocolates.

Debauve & Gallais boutique on Rue des Saints-Pères
Debauve & Gallais boutique on Rue des Saints-Pères

In 1800, Debauve opened his first chocolate factory on the Left Bank. When Debauve’s nephew M Gallais, also a pharmacist, joined the company in 1823, it adopted its current name Debauve & Gallais. At the Rue des Saints-Pères branch – and a second location on Rue Vivienne – the extensive range includes bonbons based on historic recipes. Among them are Napoleon’s favoured croquamandes (caramelised almonds coated with dark chocolate, from €30), Charles X’s Fleur de Lys (a caramel ganache covered with chocolate, part of the Classiques délicieux box, from €25), and a coin purse’s worth of pistoles, including Marie Antoinette’s almond milk version (from €25).

The Écrin de Classiques Délicieux at Debauve & Gallais, from €25
The Écrin de Classiques Délicieux box at Debauve & Gallais, from €25 © Thomas Tissandier
Debauve & Gallais 55 per cent dark milk tablette, origin Republic of Congo
Debauve & Gallais 55 per cent dark milk tablette, origin Republic of Congo © Thomas Tissandier

I’m working my way through a box right now: all dark chocolate except for the almond milk pistoles, engraved with designs inspired by the Queen’s jewellery collection. It’s not your customary experience. None of the prolonged dégustation that comes with ganaches, pralines or caramels. Each disc breaks on your teeth, turns over a few times in your mouth and is gone – like the Snapchat of chocolates. But what flavours: orange blossom, verbena, coffee, vanilla, honey and a crisp hit of cocoa-rich chocolate.

Today, Paris is home to hundreds of chocolatiers, each with a distinct appeal. The Debauve & Gallais stores resemble 19th-century apothecaries. À la Mère de Famille’s 18th-century shop, on Rue de Faubourg Montmartre, promises similar antique charm with glass-topped displays, candied fruits and confectionery alongside its handmade chocolates. La Maison du Chocolat, launched by Robert Linxe on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 1977 and pivotal in establishing a global demand for premium chocolates made in France, started a trend for boutiques modelled on watch and jewellery stores: chic spaces in muted shades. Michel Chaudun worked at Maison du Chocolat before opening his own store on Rue de L’Université in 1986, cherished for its Wonka-like displays.

Assorted chocolates at À la Mère de Famille
Assorted chocolates at À la Mère de Famille © Geraldine Martens

As for the chocolate, French makers tend to favour bitter dark over milk. Grand cru chocolates are considered in the same way as fine wine, with a focus on bouquet and finish. But you can find plenty of uncomplicated treats at even the most refined suppliers. Obvious crowd-pleasers from À La Mère de Famille include its tin of florentines, croustillants, beggars and chocolate almonds (€40.50). Among chef Cyril Lignac’s creations are marshmallow bears (from €6), green tea and sesame dark chocolate slabs that taste like posh sesame snaps (€8.50), and caramel nougat peanut chocolate bars (€4) recreating all the fudgy pleasure of mass-market favourites.

Inside Louis Fouquet chocolatiers on Avenue Montaigne
Inside Louis Fouquet chocolatiers on Avenue Montaigne

Some more deluxe chocolates halted me in my tracks. I defy anyone not to be seduced by the “boîte ronde” of 23 “old-fashioned pralines” from Louis Fouquet (€34). I also adored Alain Ducasse’s flavoured ganaches, including prune Armagnac and coconut and passion fruit, and his “Rustic Peru” 75 per cent dark chocolate bar (£10), in which I picked out notes of fermented blueberries, leather and even gasoline. I kept coming back, however, to a box of dark pralines and ganaches from Debauve (from €25) that comes with tasting notes from M Debauve himself. “Gently grab Marie Antoinette’s pistole […] and make each bite last an eternity” is my translation. It sounds even more enticing in French.


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