I may have given the impression in Monday’s post on French café culture shock that I’m a coffee aficionado. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t like coffee. Never have. Never will. (I did develop a serious latte habit in Singapore, but according to Chef Boyardee, that doesn’t count. He refers to lattes as “coffee milkshakes.” Snob!)
What I do like — what I adore, in fact — is hot chocolate. And I’m not talking about the watery, lumpy, Nestlé Quik stuff of my childhood.
When I first moved to Bordeaux, friends took me to Café Dijeaux, a cozy little café just outside rue Sainte-Catherine. It was a chilly day, so I ordered a pot de chocolat chaud to warm myself up. I had no idea my life was about to change.
What was placed before me several minutes later can only be described as liquid Paradise. Made from melted Valrhona chocolate blended with cream and served in a pretty white jug, it was so thick and velvety that it was routinely served with a glass of water on the side (for those wussy neophytes who couldn’t handle the in-your-face intensity of the real chocolate deal.)
I wish I could convey to you just how freakin’ awesome this drink was. It was sweet, but the high cacao content in the chocolate meant it wasn’t cloying. Its richness made it a perfect beverage for a French café: you couldn’t possibly toss it back in a single gulp; it was made to be savoured, enjoyed, lingered over.
Just writing about it is kicking my salivary glands into overdrive.
I became a chocolat chaud addict with my very first taste, and Café Dijeaux became my crack house. I quickly developed a ritual: I would pour the creamy goodness into the cup — slowly, so I could inhale its heady bouquet — and scoop up with my finger any precious drops that had escaped from the rim of the pitcher. I allowed myself a moment to admire the tableau before me (the contrast between the pure whiteness of the cup and the deep mahogany of the confection it held was particularly fetching) before raising the cup to my lips for that first blissful sip.
Perfection never comes cheap, of course. I can’t remember exactly, but each fix cost me something like 7€. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but that sweet chocolaty nectar.
When Café Dijeaux closed for renovations, I migrated (in a panic) across Place Gambetta to Le Régent. While not technically a café, it soon became my home away from home. The chocolat chaud wasn’t quite as glorious as that of Dijeaux, but it wasn’t as expensive, either. (It came close on both counts.)
During the winter months, I could sit at a window table for hours, laboriously reading a French newspaper and checking out the action on the street. Once the weather turned warmer, though, my friend Josephine and I made a point of sitting on the terrace under the red canopy and indulging in some superb people-watching. Our favourite waiter, Hugo, knew our orders by heart, let us practice our French on him, and always slipped an extra canelé — Bordeaux’s speciality pastry — onto our saucers.
Café Dijeaux took my tastebuds to a new level of ecstasy. But Le Régent introduced me to the delights of that quintessential French tradition: la pause. Here, I learned to slow down, to appreciate the moment with all my senses, and to lose myself in the company of friends. The exquisite hot chocolate, I’ve come to realize, was actually just a bonus.