La Chocolaterie Maya
La Chocolaterie Maya is the fictional chocolate shop prominently featured in the 2000 film, Chocolat. The review below is solely based on the shop depicted in the fictional film, not the fictional book. For the audio version of this review please click on this linkhere.
The 65th anniversary to La Chocolaterie Maya, the small artisanal chocolate shop by the Gers River in the southwest of France, started this past week. I tend not to write about novelty shops, but there are exceptions to every rule, even my own. It’s poor discipline to have your nose up-in-the air when reporting as a restaurant critic. Even when I am at fault to doing so I have to slap myself silly or call upon someone to do it for me.
What am I talking about?! I love chocolate. It has been a quintessential item on every travel list of mine when I was young going around the world with my good ol’ pops. Whatever town, city, state, or country we were in, we would always find the time to spend the day searching for the best chocolate shop. Throughout my years, I’ve discovered that every place has one, even a small French town along the Gers River.
The past 65 years have not been easy for La Chocolaterie Maya. Since its opening, it has been tied to myths, legends, and folkloric tales that don’t have happy endings. The product served at Maya has been deemed to be blasphemous; that when one bites into it, they are unleashing inherent vices that should be suppressed. I’m certainly not about suppression! I practice the deadly sin of gluttony every single day of my life. The snake bit me years ago and the venom is still moving around in my veins.
There is no such thing as French chocolate like there is Belgium and Swiss chocolate. In all honestly, chocolate is chocolate, pure and simple. The chocolate used at Maya comes from Latin American. They use the hard-to-get criollo cacao beans picked by Venezuelan farmers rather than the mass-produced forestero beans that billions of people eat today.
Maya remains a family business though the original owners have retired years ago. It is a part of the town and the people support it financially and with their time to keep it up year after year. It’s hard work making the ganaches, bars, pain-
d’ epices, glazed orange peels, mediants, and all of the other numerous confections Maya serves. Watching the townspeople come together and make the chocolate is art in itself. It’s kind of like watching people squash grapes with their feet when making bathtub style wine. After all of the beans are sent to Maya’s front door step, they are then fermented and roasted. Once fragile and tender, they are put through a special contraption called a winnowing machine that extracts the nibs from the whole bean. The actual chocolate making process done at Maya only uses two ingredients: chocolate and sugar. They don’t bother with vanilla and lecithin, the chemical agent that keeps all the ingredients from separating.
You’re getting the real deal at Maya. There are no fakes here. Their chocolate, all dark, remains in the 50% range. The percentage of cocoa is not the concentration here, which I feel many chocolatiers think about way too much. Any higher percentage, the chocolate will lose its sweetness and become acidic.
I started off with the Xocolatl (pronounced chocolatl), the ancient Mayan and Incan hot chocolate from thousands of years ago. Fresh toasted cacao beans are mixed with pure sugar, grated cinnamon, and ground almonds using a molinillo, the ancient Mayans version of a whisk. Drinking such an elixir was like tasting wine. It carried notes of licorice, smoke, and a potpourri of exotic spices. It warmed my soul, soothed my mind, and tenderized all of my muscles. In God’s honest truth, drinking such a potent drink was like going to the shvitz. I was told that the flavors from the Xocolatl change year-to-year depending on the aroma of the cacao bean.
Biting into a plain chocolate bar is in my opinion the true test to see if a chocolate shop deserves high praise. The chocolate bars at Maya are set on the counter top at room temperature without any wrapper. I was told that the wrapper would hide the smell and deteriorate the taste. The ones without any fillers are thin, but rich. Looking at one was like looking at a polished sports car in a showroom, a glossy surface with no blemishes. The true test to make sure that the chocolate Maya uses is only the best is by the breaking it. You snap a bar in half and hear the amazing loud crack. As the bar hit my mouth it melted instantly. It had the perfect combination of being creamy and smooth. I have to say, this was a five-star chocolate bar. The smorgasbord of chocolates came next. The petite rochers contained praline centers and crunchy hazelnut flakes sprinkled on top. The mendiants were comprised of candied passion fruit slices topped with chocolate. The ganaches made my blood richer than I thought was humanely possible.
Maya’s inventory is replaced once a week to guarantee maximum freshness. The owners don’t care about losing money. I’m sure they are because Maya doesn’t get a whole lot of foot traffic and it is not heavily advertised. The owners, operators, and chocolatiers are starving artists who continue to produce no matter what every week. As an admirer who loves edible art, I’m okay with this.
The store itself is small and might even come across as barren to some. There isn’t a fancy window display and the shelves have a few goodie bags of treats here and there. Maya prides itself on customer service. They encourage you to not snoop around but rather walk up to the counter and talk to the employees to find out what kind of chocolate will be the best fit for you and your lifestyle. They’re magnificently knowledgeable too. If you want a chocolate tour, they will provide one and take you behind the counter. If you order the hot chocolate drink like I did when I first arrived, they’ll let you grind the chocolate yourself.
A nougat entered my mouth. It was airy with hints of Pooh-bear honey mixed with crunchy bits of toasted Sicilian green pistachios enthralled in chocolate. As I sat in heaven a young family of five entered. The owner and a few of her employees set up a chocolate bar making station for the children. A bit jealous, I asked the young kids if I could join them as if I was joining an exclusive make-believe tea party but for real. They obliged and I sat down at a table decorated with cherries, candied peanuts, glazed fruit peals, shards of caramel, figs, toasted pumpkin seeds, and even pretzels.
Unfortunately, the kids’ parents told them they had to go to pious services. They didn’t have time to watch me make and then taste my very own candy bar, the Suicide Bar. It stands for combing all of the ingredients in one to make an all-encompassing powerhouse of flavor.
I don’t know where the house of worship was in the small town I was in, but I was content on La Chocolaterie Maya being mine
La Chocolaterie Maya
ATMOSPHERE: Rustic, bohemian, and vibrant. Non-judgmental with a spiritual presence. Young and old, rich and poor, and every one in between. There are no restrictions or censors inside here. Spacious.
SERVICE: Attentive and not only smart about their chocolate knowledge, but wise as well. They let you sample as many treats as you like. There is never pressure to buy something either.
SOUND LEVEL: A comfortable quiet with the occasional giggle or story.
RECOMMENDED: The chocolate bars and the homemade Xocolatl.
DRINKS AND WINE: None, although I can see a chocolate liquor on the horizon.
PRICES: In US dollars, a la carte pieces are $3. Bars are $5. Bags of already wrapped goodies are $15. Hand selected assortments are $20 a pound.
OPEN: Open all year round from 11am-4pm.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
Smoking: It is okay but heavily discouraged because it will not only drown the aroma of chocolate but also kill a person’s taste bud from experiencing the concoctions of goodness.