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Alain Ducasse new Left Bank shop worth a visit for single source dark chocolate

March 30th, 2015 · No Comments

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Le Chocolat storefront on Rue Saint-Benoite

Le Chocolat storefront on Rue Saint-benoite

Paris, France is a city where many bakeries sell chocolates and specialized chocolate shops abound. Some shops sell handmade chocolates made onsite while others tout imported bonbons. Some vendors, especially in tourist areas, attract buyers with elaborate chocolate art and sculptures, sparsely stocked display cases, uniformed and gloved staff, and the high prices that might mean high quality, but don't necessarily deliver on the implied promises.

Information and a display of the raw ingredients for chocolate

Inside the store there was information and a display of the raw ingredients for chocolate (click to enlarge)

With such a plethora of choices what makes one chocolate seller rise above the rest despite simple, some might say understated, wrapping and boxes? Chocolates, especially single source dark chocolate bars, made from scratch in the shop's own factory with organic ingredients. At this newly opened shop there were no artificial or from frozen ingredients, flavor enhancers, additives or preservatives in the products. In December 2013 we featured the factory (see The art of making chocolate Alain Ducasse style in Paris).

Specialty chocolate gift items in the window display

Specialty chocolate gift items in the window display

On our most recent visit to the City of Lights we discovered Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse's new Left Bank location on a side street off the famed Boulevard Saint Germain (26, rue Saint-benoit, 75006, Paris, +33 01 45 48 87 89, http://www.lechocolat-alainducasse.com, contact@lechocolat-alainducasse.com). We returned often during our stay.

A video about the making of the chocolate ran on a screen

A video about the making of the chocolate ran on a screen (click to enlarge)

Chocolate spread and hot chocolate mix display

A chocolate spread and hot chocolate mix display (click to enlarge)

Opened in March 2014 the 30 square meter shop was owned by Alain Ducasse, he of the culinary empire. Despite the unobtrusive facade (we almost missed it on our first visit due to nearby construction) the shop was busy every time we were there. We were so distracted browsing the chocolate filled shelves and display cases on either side we almost missed the wall mounted television screen with presentations on the factory and manufacturing process, and the pretty original tiled floor.

The chocolate bars and a view of the historic tile floor

Note the chocolate bars on display and the historic tile floor (click to enlarge).

A variety of chocolate covered bonbons

A glass covered display case housed a variety of chocolate covered bonbons (click to enlarge).

On sale in a tall wall case, in brown paper foil lined resealable bags, were 48 varieties of chocolate bars. The design on the bars, available in 100 percent (only one), 75 percent, 65 percent, and 45 percent, was by Pierre Tachon. On the opposite side of the shop, there were also 25 types of bonbons, dragées, roc’s, soveria candied fruits, chocolate chips and chocolate spread (in glass jars) all made at the city factory in the eleventh arrondisement.

Chocolate made from Cuban Trinitario and Criollo beans

Chocolate made from Cuban Trinitario and Criollo beans

Chocolate and hazelnut spread

Chocolate and hazelnut spread

Under the careful supervision of the factory staff, the products were manufactured from cacao imported from small farms in 13 countries: Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Madagascar, Mexico, Granada, Sao Tome, Java, Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Vietnam, Cuba, and Brazil. To sweeten the brown paste the makers used organic non refined sugar. Italian artisan candied fruits were added to some bars including the muesli chocolate. The milk chocolate muesli chocolate bars, Mendiant Lacte Muesli 45 percent, quickly became my favorite item. Like the truffles and pralines they had a relatively short shelf life compared to the dark chocolate bars, but that was never a problem as they didn't last long. I can't wait to return to Paris to buy a stack.

A favorite milk chocolate with muesli

A favorite: milk chocolate with muesli

Peruvian chocolate that has not been conched

Peruvian chocolate that had not been conched

We sampled the chocolate spread, and a box each of truffles and praline chocolates. From the chocolate bars we had mostly plain dark chocolate varieties although the Fourree made with coconut and passion fruit filling was another favorite. The single source bars we tried were 75 percent dark chocolate Venezuela Porcelana Criollo (a favorite with a sweet and tart finish), Sao Tome Forastero Amelonado, Cuba Trinitario Criollo (satisfyingly dark without being too sharp), Tradition Perou Non Conche (a favorite from our previous tasting, it was slightly gritty yet rewarding), and Bresil Trinitario. The Brazilian had a dark flavor with hints of tobacco while the Sao Tome was tart with a touch of spice. The Brazilian and Cuban flavors were new and was the 100 percent Peruvian chocolate bar. We tried 100 percent Perou Trinitario, made exclusively from Peruvian cacao. It was sharp and bitter, an acquired taste.

Various chocolate truffles coated with cocoa powder

Various chocolate truffles coated with cocoa powder

The truffles came packaged in a box

The truffles came in a cardboard box

Kudos to Alain Ducasse and Nicolas Berger, the passionate man behind the chocolate factory, for their artisanal chocolate products, in particular the single source dark chocolate bars (and muesli milk chocolate bars for milk chocolate fans) worthy of a detour.

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Burgundian led Paris wine tasting workshop in English was engaging

March 16th, 2015 · 1 Comment

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

Wine Tasting in Paris

The entrance to Wine Tasting in Paris on an old cobblestone street

Understanding and appreciating wine is a personal and subjective experience, one I always feel the need to improve. Each time an opportunity presents itself for me to grow my knowledge and exposure to wines I jump on it. And what better place than Paris, France while I had time to spare? When I heard about a new program in English I was immediately interested. Hosted by Thierry Givone, a native of Burgundy, the French Wine Tour, a two hour hands on workshop was engaging and fun. Thanks to its central location I was able to walk there from my temporary Parisian home.

Thierry Givone hosts wine tasting in english.

Thierry Givone, a native of Burgundy, hosted wine tasting workshops in English. 

Following self introductions and a brief video presentation by our host, six of us, all Americans coincidentally (while Americans represent half of his clientele, many British, Canadians, Australians, and Europeans attend as well) tasted and discussed six wines ranging in retail price between 12 and 20 euros. They were, Champagne Brut Reserve from Thierry Massin; Sauvignon blanc Eclat de Silex, from Domaine Michaud, in Loire Valley 2013; Chardonnay Macon La Roche Vineuse from Domaine Merlin in Burgundy 2013; Pinot Noir Mercurey from Chateau de Santeney 2009; Bordeaux Chateau D'arcins Haut Medoc Cru Bourgeois 2011; and ORTAS, From Caves de Rasteaux, in Rhone Valley 2012.

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The main area of Wine Tasting in Paris (click to enlarge)

The presentation utilized a flat screen television for multmedia.

Givone relied on a flat screen television for his presentation.

"I hope the quality of my welcome, from the confirmation e-mail to the recommendation of what to do or where to go after the tasting," said Givone when asked what makes his programs special in a city filled with wine and gourmet tasting possibilities. "Individual interaction, the fact that I created the company and I animate all tastings myself, with passion and involvement, when other companies just drive the business and hire free lance sommelier for the animation. The atmosphere of my space, in this nice street, with a small tasting room where people feel very well. I've tried to create a 'tour' with a good combination of global information, details, historical facts, fun facts, and personal experience, so that people have learned things and had a great moment."

champagne for tasting

The champagne selection from Thierry Massin

Givone's first job was as marketing manager in a French subsidiary of an American group. In 2013, he established Wine Tasting In Paris (14 Rue des boulangers, 75005 Paris, France, + 33 676 933 288, www.wine-tasting-in-paris.com, thierry@wine-tasting-in-paris.com) at another location. The course I attended took place in a 45 square meter two room space within a building that may date to the XVII century, near metro stations Cardinal-Lemoine and Jussieu. The cobble stoned street itself was already in existence in 1350.

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We spent most of the time at the table, watching the presentation and tasting wines. (click to enlarge)

red wine for tasting

We each had wine glasses, bread and water within reach.

Givone, a fan of wines from his native Burgundy, rounded his wine education by spending time at Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) at the Ecole du Vin in Paris, Wine School of Bordeaux, and Wine University of Cotes du Rhone. The way to taste was by looking, smelling and tasting a wine, he explained. He recommended that we smell the wine before swirling it in the glass to smell it a second time before tasting it.

Example smell aid used to train the nose.

A smell aid we used to practice identifying scents

He relied on synthetic smell aids in an exercise designed to teach us to identify the range of flavors found in wines. They were flower, fruit, vegetable, earthy such as mushrooms and forest, spices like pepper and vanilla, wood, toasted aromas, mineral, balsamic, animal and chemical or foreign. He described the varied flavor zones of the tongue. We can taste sugar on the tip, acidity and salty flavors on the side and bitterness in the back, he explained.

The table allowed everyone to see the presenter

The custom made table allowed everyone to see the presenter.

The meeting room featured a modern design and wood furniture. The tasting table with a V shape was custom made according to his specifications to allow up to 12 guests a good view of the presenter and the large wall mounted television screen. At the same time, it allowed him to stay in the middle to pour of wine for each tasting course. We plucked pieces of sliced baguette from the bread filled baskets nearest each of us to cleanse our palates between wines. As the workshop ended several of us lingered and bought wines to take home and sample at leisure or with a meal.
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Maine Sebago Lake lakefront lodge outstanding for quiet fall getaway

March 2nd, 2015 · No Comments

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox



The master bedroom featured a screened balcony.

The balcony in the master bedroom in Firefly

We arrived at Migis Lodge on Sebago Lake, a property on the shores of Lake Sebago in Maine, a bit stressed following a week of tourist activities and a frustrating longer than necessary drive from Portland. The relaxed atmosphere at reception, the serenity of the wooded setting in the early stages of fall foliage color changes, and our comfortable three bedroom two bathroom suite in a stand alone wood building went a long went toward helping us unwind.

Fall colors were just reaching the shore of the lake.

Fall colors were just reaching the shore of the lake when we visited Migis Lodge (click to enlarge)

It was especially soothing to look out onto the lake from the front porch or living room of our suite without any particular plans, activities or commitments. Knowing all our meals were included in the American Plan allowed us to relax and took the decision making out of our stay. Should the weather worsen, as the forecast indicated, dinner was steps away from our building. If it improved we had the option of exploring the region in search of the brightest and best autumn trails.

Firefly cabin at Migis.

Firefly cabin at Migis

Five days later when we drove away, we were re-energized and ready to discover another part of Maine. Migis struck me as a wonderful place to reconnect with personal priorities, spend time with family and friends, for an artist retreat or a romantic getaway.

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Maine coastal property a stand out for luxury and responsible tourism practices

February 16th, 2015 · No Comments

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The entrance to the Inn by the Sea

The entrance to the Inn by the Sea

During a fall visit to Maine we spent three nights at the Inn by the Sea, a boutique 61-room beach facing hotel in Cape Elizabeth south of Portland. We liked the inn's location in a quiet residential area close enough to Portland for visits yet distant from city traffic and noise. We loved our well appointed two-bedroom suite with wonderful fall coastal views. We enjoyed the lovingly tended manicured grounds and Spa at Inn by the Sea in particular.

I liked the spa's use of natural marine products like sea salt, algae and seaweed, essential oils and coastal themed treatments. In addition, we appreciated the property's approach to responsible tourism, blending luxury, service and an exceptional guest stay with sustainability, and minimizing the impact of hotel operations with eco friendly initiatives and local sourcing.

The fall colors in all their glory

The fall colors in all their glory (click to enlarge)

One example was the Inn’s landscape designed to be attractive to guests and butterflies. Inn staff focused on local plants to create ever blooming gardens and a habitat for indigenous wildlife, earning the inn a Wildlife Habitat certification from the National Wildlife Federation. Indigenous nectar gardens and milkweed were specifically planted for endangered butterflies. During the growing season, the property offered classes on How to Plant for Wildlife, and as part of the Bug’s Life Garden Tours staff taught children about local ecosystems from an insect’s viewpoint. Monarch Watch, which registers properties that provide food and shelter for the endangered monarch butterflies as they migrate through North America, certified the Inn as a Butterfly Waystation.

Our room featured a fireplace and kitchen

The living room with fireplace and kitchen of our two bedroom suite

Inn staff worked with seven local schools to provide educational programs throughout the year. In December, the Inn bought a school book from a school librarian's list with every reservation.

The spacious grounds viewed from the back of the hotel

The spacious grounds viewed from the back of the hotel (click to enlarge)

At the hotel restaurant, Mitchell Kaldrovich, executive chef, emphasized local produce, meat and poultry from nearby farms and Gulf of Maine fresh underutilized seafood. Working with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), other Portland area chefs, and a handful of knowledgeable local fishermen, he identified abundant and delectable fish from the Gulf of Maine that were under appreciated and underutilized to offer guests. The program, Out of the Blue, was meant to bring attention to plentiful seafood available in the Gulf of Maine, get better dock prices for fishermen, and help preserve the diversity and health of the Gulf of Maine. The chef was a supporter of the Root to Stock movement. Food waste was composted for later use as landscaping compost for the Inn.

The workout room was downstairs in the spa

The workout room was downstairs in the spa.

The property had a Silver LEED and Maine DEP Environmental Leader Green Lodging certification thanks to the integration of solar panels, recycled sheet rock walls, recycled cork floors, recycled rubber floors in the cardio room, air to air heat exchangers, dual flush toilets, heating with bio fuels, preferred hybrid parking, sheet and towel reuse programs and purchased renewable electricity.

The grounds featured plantings of vegetables and decorative plants

There were plantings of vegetables and flowers (click to enlarge).

Interesting plants were visible everywhere

We liked the colorful plants visible along the walkways

The Inn by the Sea was active in habitat restoration. The property worked with the Maine Department of Conservation and Bureau of Parks and Land to restore habitat for the endangered New England cottontail rabbit at Crescent Beach State Park. In an effort to stop the New England cottontail from vanishing in Maine, as it had in the rest of New England, the Inn removed two acres of invasive, non indigenous plant species such as bamboo and bittersweet from state property. The Inn replanted the area with indigenous shrubs such as raspberry, blueberry, dogwood, alder, winterberry and dewberry to create a high quality, safe habitat for New England cottontails. The rabbits were named as candidates for the United States Endangered Species Act in 2006, and were listed as endangered in Maine and New Hampshire.

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At restored Winslow Homer Studio a peek back at artist former home, iconic coastal Maine views

February 2nd, 2015 · No Comments

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Exterior view of the studio

Exterior view of the studio (click to enlarge)

American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910) lived and worked on many of his masterpieces from 1883 until his death in Prouts Neck, Maine where he enjoyed dramatic views of the ocean crashing against the rocky coast, which inspired his famous artwork, and some believe transformed marine painting in American art. Last fall, while staying at the Inn by the Sea in nearby Cape Elizabeth, Maine, we had an opportunity to stop by the Winslow Homer Studio (http://www.portlandmuseum.org/homer/visit, +1 207 775-6148), his former home and studio in Prouts Neck, about 12 miles from Portland, now restored and part of the Portland Museum of Art in Portland.  

Worktable with a view

Worktable with a view located in the studio (click to enlarge) 

The building was moved 100 feet away from the “Ark,”  the house next door, and converted from a carriage house to living quarters in 1883 by John Calvin Stevens, an architect, and his brother-in-law Howard Stevens, of the Portland firm Fassett and Stevens. In 1890, Homer had the porch, pergola and a painting room added. Today, the Studio is 2,200 square feet, 44 feet by 53 feet, and two stories high.

The fireplace with a few original touches

The fireplace with a few original touches

Few original items remained at the time of our visit. They were: a bench called an Inglenook, a detail common in architect John Calvin Steven’s homes; his fire bucket (with initials W.H.); moose antlers over the mantle; the sign he made “Snakes, Snakes, and Mice” that he put outside, as he said, “to keep away the rusticators;” his pipe and tobacco, his copper kettle, and his chair. The wooden mantle and the fireplace were painstakingly restored to their original state.

The daybed and wall mounted trophies

The daybed and wall mounted trophies (click to enlarge)

By the main living room north interior wall, there were items belonging to Winslow Homer: daybed, fish trophies, fishing pool, eel spear, and sawfish bill. The museum added reproductions of photographs of the artist and his family and a facsimile of a family album to illustrate the story of Homer's everyday life at Prouts Neck. Museum staff believed that in the painting room west window and south interior wall a Chinese table, and props from paintings hint at the lush interior of Homer's New York apartment, and provided a contrast to the rustic nature of his life at Prouts Neck. Items from his Studio, a bell and an octant, as well as a medal Homer received from the Carnegie Institute, decorated the tabletop dating to 1896.

Weatherbeaten from Portland Museuam of Art

Weatherbeaten from the Portland Museuam of Art (click to enlarge)

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The coast, a short distance from the studio, was the inspiration for Weatherbeaten (click to enlarge)

Inspired by the rugged beauty and dramatic weather of Prouts Neck Homer produced works that revolutionized marine painting in American art and created an iconic and enduring image of the New England coast. The Portland Museum of Art’s painting Weatherbeaten from 1894 served as the namesake for the exhibition and a quintessential example of the artist’s late work. Museum staff believed the image of rough waves crashing against a rocky shore embodied Homer’s ability "to capture the specificity of a place, while simultaneously meditating upon the timeless forces of nature."

Information about the area

One of the display areas had information about the area.

According to a museum representative, in the artist's Prouts Neck pictures, he envisioned nature as an arena for the constant clash of forces, water against rock, and humankind against the elements. In Eight Bells, 1886 painting displayed at the  Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, for example, he represented fishermen facing stormy weather at sea with Homer’s characteristic narrative ambiguity that experts believe leaves the viewer wondering about their fate. Homer’s iconic painting Fox Hunt from 1893, which rarely leaves the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, was expected to make its first visit to Maine since its creation. Experts who consider it a masterwork say it "thematizes mortality and evolutionary conceptions about the survival of the fittest that arose in the late 19th century."

Photograph of Homer Winslow

A reproduction of a photograph of Winslow Homer at the Studio

In 1893, Homer first exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art. In 1976, Charles Shipman Payson pledged his collection of 17 paintings and watercolors by Homer and an endowment that led to the construction of the Charles Shipman Payson building, the public face of the Museum. The Museum’s Homer collection also included such notable objects as his first important oil painting, Sharpshooter from 1863; an original watercolor paint box; and a significant collection of 400 wood engravings that represented 90 percent of Homer’s graphic output, and chronicled the artist’s early career as a commercial illustrator.

View from the upper floor

A view from the upper floor (click to enlarge)

Following the purchase and restoration of the building, a National Historic Landmark, in 2006, the museum opened the Studio to the public in 2012. In 2014, the museum, the Prouts Neck Association and the Scarborough Land Trust bought the land, a little more than half an acre, surrounding the Studio with the goal of conserving it in perpetuity as open, undeveloped space. The museum showcased three centuries of fine and decorative arts from the 18th century to the present, including renown artists such as Winslow Homer. Winslow Homer Studio tours, two and a half hours long, were available for up to 10 visitors at a time by reservation only. The tours departed from the Portland Museum of Art in a Mercedes Sprinter van.

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