Anyone who has had hot chocolate, or chocolat chaud, in France knows that the name is the only thing it shares with it’s American cousin. Chocolat chaud reminds me of sojourning in the French-Swiss Borderland: I tend to drink it when I’m in this region because of the close proximity to Switzerland which is famous for chocolate.
For Americans, there are a couple of mysteries associated with French hot chocolate: one is why there are two very different drinks that go by the same name; and, the other is why the hot chocolate you order in cafes is strong, bitter and coffee-like. (I’ll give you my recipe for both below).
In France, hot chocolate is two kinds of beverages. The one that most resembles the American concept of the drink is what French children drink for breakfast: a steaming bowl of milk into which is mixed a powdered mixture containing cacao and sugar. This version can contain things like finely ground dehydrated banana and grains to augment the nutritional value. You will typically find this version on breakfast menus. The other version of the drink is what French adults consume and what you will find on cafe menus: a short cup of bitter cacao and/or dark chocolate dissolved in hot water. The cafe version of chocolat chaud is served, like coffee, with the sugar on the side for you to sweeten to your taste.
So why the difference?
Back in the early days, when I first opened Sojourner Tours, I was visiting every museum in Paris trying to find the best and most original places to take Sojourner Tours’ guests… and, I made the mistake of going to the museum of chocolate. (This was a mistake because it is basically just an overpriced tourist trap… That kind of thing doesn’t make my cut for itineraries because I want the signature of my company to be the high-quality, authentic experiences I offer my guests.) It was a fun mistake because at least I walked away with a general knowledge of the history of chocolate from which I’ve deduced the answer to these mysteries…
A medicinal version of today’s bitter coffee-like chocolat chaud was apparently all the rage from the mid-17th century through the 18th century. Chocolate was the new thing in Europe, introduced from the Spanish colonies in the “New World”… it was a refined treasure enjoyed by the upper crust of society, particularly the nobles and aristocrats. By the end of this period there were chocolate houses, like today’s cafes and tearooms.
From what I can tell, the sweet milky style of chocolat chaud seems to have become popular in the mid-19th century because that is when one of the oldest brands, called Poulain, opened. In the early 19th century, chocolate had become a sweet treat suddenly available in a solid “candy” form. As a result, chocolate was widely popular in Europe and particularly France at that time and it suddenly became more widely and cheaply available due to the use of slave labor in European colonies in West Africa.
INTERESTING TRIVIA: Today we tend to associate chocolate with West Africa because 2/3 of the world production now comes from the continent; however, chocolate is indigenous to South America. The chocolate that continues to be grown in Africa today is a legacy of the colonial period.
Today, chocolate remains cheap enough for French children to drink everyday for breakfast whereas it started as a royal luxury. As a result, I think it would be fair to say that French adults drink a chocolat chaud that reminds us of the period when chocolate was considered a precious and refined product.
I find a cup of chocolat chaud to be a nice alternative to coffee after a nice big French lunch (but there is still a child in me and I must admit that I love a bowl of of the milky version in the morning with my toasted baguette!).
Here are my recipes:
Chocolat Chaud for when I’m feeling adult:
- 1 TBS of high quality cacao powder
- 1 TBS of shaved high quality dark chocolate (80% cacao)
- 1 Cup of steaming hot water.
I put the cacao and the chocolate shavings in a cup and then pour the boiling water over them and stir until they both dissolve. Then I add sugar to taste.
Chocolat Chaud for the child in me:
- 1 TBS of high quality cacao powder
- a pinch of salt
- 1 TBS of sugar
- 1 drop of vanilla
- a dash of ground cinnamon
- 2 cups milk
- 2 TBS water
This is my personal fusion of the French and Mexican versions of the drink and it is not very chocolaty so you may want to adjust the chocolate quantity to your taste. It is a bit tricky to make because the cacao does not dissolve well in the milk: if you add the powder directly to the milk it will just make a bunch of lumps. First, dissolve the salt, sugar and cacao in the boiled water in your bowl. Then add the hot milk, stirring constantly. Finish with a drop of vanilla and a dash of cinnamon.