Ah Michel, who knew that I would fall in love with you. It wasn’t planned, it just happened and when I least expected it. You see, I was out shopping with my mother on 5th avenue…perhaps more window shopping than any real shopping. After hours of walking we stopped at Chocolate Michel Cluizel, this tiny little store with chocolates and a replica of the Eiffel Tower in the window. There were seats inside; seats inside a chocolate shop always means that they serve hot chocolate and being a chocolate shop the hot chocolate must be made of actual chocolate. A quick scan of the menu on the door…they have many; white, milk or dark in either a traditional hot chocolate or a thick chocolaty shot. We walk in and grab a seat by the window.
Then everything seemed to switch to slow motion…just like those love stories in the movies. I went up to the counter and asked for one milk chocolate for my mother and one dark for me. The woman at the counter then turned to glass containers that were filled with little chocolate chips and put a generous amount into a little pot. The chocolate was melted down, milk was added and the whole thing was put into a little ceramic jug and brought to our table with a white cup and saucer and a square chocolate on the side. I watched the whole thing from the counter and when the woman finished and came to ring me up at the cash I realized that my mouth was open in amazement and I was smiling. I had come to the realization that this could not possibly be a bad hot chocolate. I have a checklist in my head of things that I look for when I order one and I saw most of the boxes being ticked in those 5 or so minutes it took her to make our hot chocolates.
My mother thinks that this is the Ultimate Hot Chocolate and on this trip, on this day I completely agree with her. My dark hot chocolate was bitter but not too bitter, it was smooth and creamy. There was enough in the little jug for 2 full cups of hot chocolate and it was so good, I probably would have had a third if there was more. From our little table we watched many people come in to buy chocolates and if it wasn’t for their strong New York accents I would have sworn that we had been transported far far away. From inside the noises of 5th avenue seemed distant and all you could hear were was romantic French songs that made you feel like you perhaps you were a little closer to Paris. It was hard to leave.
Verdict: There are three chocolate cafes like this in the world, one in Paris, one in Riyad and this one in New York. If you want a good hot chocolate, find them (and bring your mother). Chocolat Michel Cluizel, 584 5th Avenue, New York, USA ($5.00)
Today I was one of over 5 million tourists and pilgrims to visit the town of Lourdes each year. Yes, 5 million. Lourdes is a famous little place because of 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous who, back in 1858, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a cave (she saw the vision 18 times actually). It then became a centre for pilgrais. Now there are so many visitors each year, that Lourdes actually has more hotels per square kilometre than any place in France other than Paris (270 hotels).
It was obviously low season when we went because not only were we part of only a few dozen people visiting the Sanctuary built over the famous cave, but it seemed that every single café was closed. Parts of Lourdes looked like a ghost down but in the centre where the 15,000 inhabitants do their living, things were more alive.
We chose Brasserie La Belle Epoque right across from the train station. The place was empty and we interrupted the staff drinking coffee together on the terrace out back before the dinner service started. Café Belle Epoque is a wonderful mixture of charming and tacky. Large gold chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Throughout the eating area are clear class columns filled with bubbling water. Each have a white statue of the Greek Goddess Athena in the centre of the column illuminated by multicoloured lights.
They got the hot chocolate right though. This is the type of hot chocolate I could drink every day. It is light with just a touch of chocolate and even came with a little cookie.
Verdict: While visitors to Lourdes must see the Sanctuary and the fort, I would easily add a hot chocolate at Belle Epoque as another must do while in town. Brasserie La Belle Epoque 16 ave de la Gare, Lourdes, France
Opening a café on the main square of any town in France is a no brainer. Today it is 21 degrees Celsius in March and everyone is outside. We grab the only two free seats at Café Europe and order two hot chocolates.
In France unlike many other countries, being a waiter is a respectable profession, one that is taken very seriously. The ones working here today show that it takes a lot of skill. There must be over 50 tables outside with 2-3 chairs per table. The three men carry trays taking and filling all the orders in an impressively efficient manner. They are to the point but still friendly and more than happy to stop and joke. Two minutes after we order our waiter returns balancing a tiny tray covered in drinks; a coke, 2 fruit juices, a few beers, an espresso and our hot chocolates. He tucks the bill under the ashtray on the table and continues on his way.
This is a people watching café. From here you can watch the main square and all its activity. An ice cream truck parked next to the water fountain is serving a line of about seven people, mostly kids. A group of young ladies walks by, all carrying multiple shopping bags. A baby at the table next to us starts laughing. You can also pick up all sorts of bits and pieces of conversations. The young man next to us is speaking to his girlfriend on the phone, wondering why she is late. Another group exchange gossip gathered throughout the day. People have their drinks, pay, leave and are quickly replaced with new people. You could never get bored here.
Verdict: At the end of the day when Pau comes out to play, the terrace of Europe is where you want to be to take it all in…and the hot chocolate is exactly as it should be. Cafe de L’Europe, 17 rue Mar Foch, Pau, France.
I can’t imagine that there are many cafes where you can have a good hot chocolate while watching Olympic level kayakers practice. All this with the Pyrenees in the background.
River Blues is exactly that. Located on the second floor of the building half of this café/bar/restaurant is indoors with windows on three sides and the other half is a covered outdoor terrace with comfy chairs. From here you can watch, depending on the time of day, anything from elite kayakers to absolute beginners (20 euros for a lesson if you are interested!)
The venue is the Stade des Eaux Vives, a beautiful centre where national level elite athletes from around the world come to train on the man made rapids that are visible from the café. Today the kayakers have white jackets with French flags on the shoulders, apparently elite level French athletes. Part of the nearby river is diverted and the water forced down a man made rapid before rejoining the original river a few hundred meters or so down stream.
The hot chocolate was small but excellent. From our seats we could watch the warm up zone just before the training course. A woman who has just finished practicing puts her 3 year old boy into the kayak with her and paddles around the calm water. The boy, all decked out with a helmet and a tiny paddle is smiling ear to ear. A few dozen people are walking around the paths and bridges that circle and cross the rapids. We join them after our stop at the café. One older woman, elegantly dressed stops Rich – “We met at the telethon in December remember?” He looks back at her with a blank stare, “Je ne parle pas Frances” he says before I explain to her that she is mistaken. I could have been jealous if she had been younger, or not there with her husband and grandchildren. Seems Rich has a second life I don’t know about.
Verdict: One of the most interesting hot chocolate stops I have ever had. The location is fantastic and the hot chocolate is excellent. Makes me want to learn how to Kayak, both for the sport and for the hot chocolate. I could treat myself to one every day after practice. River Blues, Stade d’Eaux Vives, Pau, France
Across from a very large church and the courthouse is a pretty green park with a water fountain in the middle. Right next to the water fountain is this little chocolate shop. As I have mentioned before there are lots of chocolate shops around Pau most of which don’t serve hot chocolate. But this one had a few little tables and chairs outside. Promising…
I ask inside and not only do they serve hot chocolate but they serve a whole selection of them and in various sizes. There is the natural hot chocolate but you can also get it flavoured with ginger, cinnamon, local spices, anise and a few other ones I had never heard of before. When I asked them what they were he went to the back room and came back with a bunch of jars full of powders so I could smell the different spices. It was so difficult to choose but we ordered one with local spices and one with cinnamon.
You have a choice, you can enjoy your hot chocolate outside on the terrace with a view of the park or there are also a few comfy booths inside the store where you can sit and be tempted by all the chocolates lining the walls in the store. We sat inside. The hot chocolate comes in a nice bit white mug, with just the perfect amount. It tastes fantastic, rivalling some of the best hot chocolates I have ever had. The cinnamon hot chocolate especially was definitely something worth coming back for. I had two little disappointments though. First they are a just a little pricey, 4.40euros and second the hot chocolate was just not that hot…at all. The man working there was so busy tending to customers that I think he just forgot about it and left it out too long. Such a shame, as it would be near perfect if it were hotter.
Verdict: If you are looking for a truly luscious hot chocolate, and are in Pau, then definitely come here. Simple. deNeuville, 5 Place de la Liberation, Pau, France.
Perched on top of a hill in the middle of town is the Castle of Pau. This is where King Henry IV was born and, if you are interested in that kind of thing, also houses the biggest and most beautiful collection of tapestries outside of Paris. The castle and its gardens are open to the public until sunset and are free of charge. After walking through the castle, if you come out via Boulevard des Pyrenees and you can’t miss I’Isle au Jasmin.
The terrace is covered with green beach chairs, each giving customers a stunning view of the Pyrenees although today because it is cloudy we had to imagine they are there. The owner assured us that they were there and that they are beautiful, “Come back tomorrow” she said “you will see them then”. I didn’t see hot chocolate on the menu so I asked her – “Today no hot chocolate, just coffee with whipped cream” she said. I didn’t realize that coffee with whip cream was an alternative to hot chocolate. You learn something new everyday.
As we walk out she stopped us and said that because it was a quiet day she would be happy to make me a hot chocolate. We sit ourselves down on the beach chairs outside to enjoy the sunset. The owner’s German Sheppard greets us, as she does all guests as they arrive, and sits down next to us until she sees a bird and runs off barking. “Be quiet” the owner shouts after her as she brings us our drinks, “be quiet or we will get in trouble!”.
My hot chocolate comes in a teapot with a teacup and saucer, all covered in pictures of pretty pink flowers. It smells incredible but I’m disappointed that it just tastes like warm milk. But who really cares with a view like this, the mountains in front, the castle to the right, a beautiful church to the left and a German Sheppard to keep you company.
Verdict: After visiting the castle stop here for tea and cakes. That is what she does and she does it well. The view and atmosphere are unbeatable. Follow it up with a trip down the funicular, which is only a few metres away. I’Isle au Jasmin, 28 Boulevard Pyrenees, Pau, France.
Aragon sits on a corner with a large outdoor terrace. From this traditional brasserie, with its simple metal tables, red chairs and waiters dressed in black pants and crisp white shirts, you have a clear view of the Pyrenees and today the weather is perfect.
The hot chocolate here is the hottest hot chocolate I have ever had which gave us lots of time to take in the surroundings as it cools to a drinkable temperature. As the sun set, dozens of people came out to walk up and down Boulevard des Pyrenees. A German Sheppard runs by and then a few moments later runs back at full speed, no owner in site. An old car parked right in front of the café starts up its engine leaving a huge puff of grey smoke in its wake which envelopes the whole café for a few minutes. Shortly after, a man rides by on a skateboard with a motor attached to it that makes it sound like a noisy motorcycle. Then, the sky slowly turns from blue to pink to purple before the moon and stars start to show themselves. It’s hard not to enjoy a hot chocolate in this kind of place. Pau is definitely growing on me.
Verdict: It if is a clear day grab a seat outside on the terrace and watch the sunset. The view with a hot chocolate will only cost you 3 Euros. L’Aragon, 18 Boulevard Des Pyrenees, Pau, France
In the heart of Pau, right off the main square is a little chocolate shop called L’Atelier du Chocolat. It isn’t the only chocolate shop in town, as there seems to be one on almost every block. The locals obviously love their chocolate. Most of the chocolate shops don’t sell drinks, however this one had a sign in the front window saying it did. How could I ignore it …
We entered and asked for two. You have a choice, you can get standard hot chocolate, or one with cinnamon, coffee, orange, ginger or even pepper. As she prepares our drinks she lets us know that we can also choose 30 grams of any other chocolate in the store. She directs us to a wall with baskets full of sheets of chocolate from around the world, 90% cocoa from Trinidad, 70% cocoa from Venezuela. 30 grams is actually quite a generous piece of chocolate. I chose black chocolate with almonds.
The hot chocolate is prepared in a paper cup using boiling water and a special powder they make in store. She then puts your 30 gram piece of chocolate into the cup like a spoon and hands it to you. There isn’t anywhere in the store to sit down or any tables or chairs outside so we stand to drink it.
This is definitely a good hot chocolate. It smells very rich but isn’t as rich as you would expect. It also isn’t sweet at all. If you don’t rescue your 30 gram piece of chocolate in time (as I failed to do) it melts into your hot chocolate and makes it taste even better. It is a bit tricky to drink it standing up. If only they would put a little bench outside, then you could enjoy your hot chocolate while watching the locals walk by, or the kids going around the old fashion merry go round close by.
Verdict: For 2.50 Euros this is a fantastic hot chocolate. I definitely recommend this one. This area is also covered in stores so this hot chocolate is perfect to give you a bit of energy to start your shopping. There is another much larger L’Atelier du Chocolat in nearby Bayonne that gives tours and demonstrations. L’Atelier du Chocolate, 3, Rue Marechal Joffre, Pau, France.