Swirling, melting, luscious: advertisements may hawk superlatively smooth chocolate, but in my experience, the best bars are crammed full of bits and bobs. Pass me the milk chocolate nobbly with toasted hazelnuts or the dark chocolate dusted with cacao nibs. The best bars aren’t half-heartedly studded with cardboard almonds, waxy raisins and overpowering peanuts. No, these nostalgic candies deserve a place in every supermarket from America and England to Sweden and Norway. And, yes, you can even find them in France.
Hidden amongst thin Cote D’Or bars and pale purple Milka, Nestlé’s almond, hazelnut and raisin dark chocolate bar typifies satisfyingly sweet, crunchy candy. Called grand chocolat noir raisins amandes noisettes — sing the name in French, it’s classier than the English equivalent —the ingredients smack of a Cadbury fruit and nut dairy milk rather than a sophisticated confection from La Maison du Chocolat. There’s sugar, cocoa and emulsifier!! These components remain hazy notions until you bite into the chocolate; it’s velvety soft, marvellously chewy. This is not the sophisticated indulgence Fodor’s promised abound in gay Pah-ree (!). If this Nestlé bar was on your desk at home, you would eat it haphazardly, occasionally chipping off pieces until — lo and behold! — it disappeared along with the day.
But, for the tourist accustomed to snubbing almond-studded Hershey bars, a veil of boring familiarity obscures Nestlé’s Grand Chocolat. This is the bar for the traveller who wants a nutella crepe for lunch, they don’t relish the idea of throwing back snails at le bistro. And, on one hand, their attention to the familiar does them wrong; Monoprix offers more interesting indulgences than dried fruit-studded sweets. There’s chocolate with sesame seeds, chocolate filled with almond praline or chocolate with crunchy biscuit bits. The outline of these chocolate may feature childhood memories, but the shelves at Monoprix amplify their strangeness, painting them in a delightful French glow. Those exotic bars are the French equivalent of Mr. Goodbar, Butterfinger and Crackle. But, on the other hand, even the tourist playing itself gets a lesson in France. As soon as you open the paper packaging and rip the foil on your Nestlé grand chocolat bar you realise it: this isn’t a chocolate you’ve experienced before.
Oh, those tastes we savour abroad! I ate the slick, sugary, crunchy chocolate learning more about French-ness than a walking around the Louvre could teach me. I imagined French kids savouring a square for le goûter — though they probably prefer the milk chocolate with crunchy biscuit bits that I passed by. I pretended to be a sophisticated French woman, the kind who wears navy and black and who, so I am told, can whip up a luscious chocolate cake sans a recipe. With each bite, toasted hazelnuts left the domain of healthy muesli and connected me to my fantasy Frenchie. And each subsequent piece, each subsequent bar stuffed into my suitcase, ushers me into the fanciful world of perfect French person. Sometimes, I’m not sure which delights me more: the fantasy or the chocolate.
We’ve been taught that French chocolate is balanced and sophisticated; it’s not the sugary-toothsome candy lining grocery store checkouts in America. In a society that associates America with immoderate excess and France with controlled indulgence, this constructed dichotomy drives cultural relations. If we believe it is true, then we can believe a healthier way of eating exists, available to those who integrate into an established set of cultural habits. Unfortunately, the divide between American and French habits isn’t as stringent as we might like to imagine. In a modernizing and globalizing world, our tastes slide and shift to include both the healthy and processed of foreign cuisines. Whether this means Americans producing artisanal chocolates or the French adopting industrial candy is irrelevant: we can’t choose between the positive and negatives, though we may want to. So rip open the fancy chocolate, indulge in the not-great-but-totally-delicious bars: you decide what quality means.