Many people have said being a travel writer must be the best job on earth, and I never disagreed. That is, until I met the Queen of Chocolate on my last trip to Paris.
For the last thirty years, Denise Acabo has worked to become the most renowned independent chocolate shop owner in all Paris. And she's done it while wearing a schoolgirl uniform. After graduating, she thought it was too bothersome to choose a new outfit every single day and just wanted to focus on chocolate. And still today, she braids her hair each morning and pulls one of the custom-made kilts from her closet, then tops it off with a knit sweater and collared shirt.
Her shop, A L'Etoile d'Or, is located just around the corner and down the road from the Moulin Rouge, and is tucked between several racy sex shops, which make her schoolgirl uniform even more ironically entertaining. But don't be deceived by the whimsy, Madame Acabo does not mess around when it comes to chocolate. Her shop is home to the most amazing collection of chocolates in all France. Just like a museum curator, each piece is painstakingly hand-selected from artisan chocolate-makers in villages and cities throughout the country.
Pamela Poole moved from California to Paris several years ago and is proprietor of the website Francophilia . She is the one who tipped me off to the shop, saying I shouldn't miss the Queen of Chocolate while on my quest for lesser-known places. And I was glad she came along with me because my French was no match for the rapid-fire stories coming from Madame Acabo from the moment we stepped foot inside.
Not speaking English doesn't dissuade her from guiding non French-speaking visitors through the vast array of chocolates lining the walls and filling tables throughout her little shop. She handles each piece like a work of art, describing the history of its maker, the fine ingredients and where they were harvested, and all the ways it differs from just 'any' chocolate.
She tells stories about how she convinced the famed Bernachon chocolate-makers to allow her to become the only distributor of their offerings outside Lyon. How she took the train to their shop every weekend for months, until finally, she wore them down. She tells of the lawyer-turned-chocolatier who sold everything and worked for more than a year to perfect his own original recipe. He then drove straight into Paris, asking her to be the first to try his chocolate. She tried to let him down easily when it just wasn't up to snuff, and he left in tears.
As I said, she takes her job very seriously.
After the stories, I picked up a hand-painted morsel from Madame Acabo's silver tray, and a bit of chocolate instantly melted on to each of my fingertips. She watched with anticipation for my reaction, knowing — just as I suspect a heroine dealer must — that my life was about to change. As it reached my mouth, the deeply flavorful cocoa proved to be in perfect harmony with its supremely smooth texture. I thought I'd known good chocolate before, but in this moment, I realized I'd previously only known imitations. Similar to a wine tasting, I breathed in to catch all the nuanced flavors infused into the edible artwork. Instant addiction.
The weight I gained in chocolate that day, I promptly lost in my wallet. The Queen's confections are not priced for quick sale. I carefully chose a few items to take with me and she wrapped them in paper specially printed for her shop, then tied the package up in a ribbon. I protected them as though I'd just purchased a Fabergé egg.
I warn you, only visit Madame Acabo's shop if you're willing to be forever ruined, as no chocolate will ever live up to the standards of the Queen of Chocolate's selections.
A L'Etoile d'Or, 30 rue Fontaine, 75009 Paris (use métro stop Pigalle or Blanche to get there).
Kim Mance is editor-in-chief of Galavanting, an online women's travel magazine.