Lyon’s love affair with chocolate goes back to the seventeenth century, when two influential chocolate lovers, archbishop Alphonse de Richelieu and Anne of Austria, ensured a steady supply into the region. The archbishop relied on chocolate to relieve his bad moods, and the abundance of chocolatiers that have since flourished in Lyon might explain the even-tempered nature of the population.
Home to around 50 chocolatiers, including six winners of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best French artisan) title for pastry and chocolate and one for chocolate alone, Lyon is not so much a creative hotbed of this craft as a keeper of traditions. One of the city’s best-known chocolate shops, Bernachon, has been making bean-to-bar chocolate in its laboratory behind the shop since 1953: impressive considering that only a handful of chocolatiers in France do the same today. The presence of Valrhona, a world-renowned chocolate producer, in Tain-l’Hermitage south of Lyon has ensured that those who don’t select and roast their own beans have access to high quality couverture.
Though some chocolate shops, such as Voisin, have expanded with stores throughout Lyon and France, others have chosen to remain small, limiting themselves to no more than a handful of boutiques or even a single one, such as Bernachon. Pastry often goes hand-in-hand with chocolate and some of the finest cakes are to be found at pâtisserie- chocolaterie shops such as Sébastien Bouillet, around the corner from his chocolate concept store Chokola. Boulangeries offer plenty to satisfy the sweet tooth too, from tarts and brioches made with the local pink pralines, to rustic fruit tarts and mille- feuilles.
Long before bean-to-bar chocolate became the preserve of Brooklyn hipsters, Eugène Weiss was importing cocoa beans to produce unique chocolate blends in Saint-Etienne, southwest of Lyon. This town already had a historic tradition of chocolate making, with the first chocolate company setting up here in 1770, to be followed by several others during the nineteenth century, including Weiss in 1882.
Before settling in Saint-Etienne, the Alsatian-born Weiss travelled throughout Europe learning chocolate-making techniques and perfecting the praline filling. So popular were his creations that in 1912 he published France’s first chocolate catalogue, making them available throughout the country. His beautiful publications along with the quality of his products established his reputation as a leading chocolate maker.
No longer owned by the Weiss family, the company has not departed from its founder’s principles. With an atelier in Saint-Etienne and a handful of boutiques that are mainly concentrated in the region, it continues to transform cocoa beans into ganache and praline-filled chocolates as well as its popular bars. Two not to miss are the Rouge Baiser, an unusual combination of white chocolate, berries and a touch of citrus, and the recently introduced Lichu, made from beans produced in Vietnam.
The first thing that strikes the visitor to Bernachon is a spectacular cake in the window, the pastry equivalent of an Elizabethan ruffle. Soaked with cherry alcohol, filled with hazelnut gianduja (chocolate-hazelnut paste) and topped with an explosion of chocolate, Le Président was created in 1975 for president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, with the original cake weighing 3 kg and serving 20 people. Now available in multiple sizes, it remains a signature pastry.
Though it houses a pastry shop and tea room, Bernachon is primarily a chocolaterie, producing its bars and filled chocolates by hand on the premises with beans that it imports mainly from Latin America. Founded in 1953 and still a family business, it has only one shop in Lyon and its chocolates are difficult to find elsewhere.
Two unique bars available here are the Jour et Nuit, with dark chocolate on one side and milk chocolate on the other, and the Kalouga, caramel-filled dark chocolate. Worth exploring too are their bite-sized chocolates, including the celebrated Palet d’or filled with dark ganache and topped with gold leaf, or the Pacha, an intense rum praline coated with dark chocolate. Freshness is key here, and the chocolates come with instructions to savour them quickly: not a problem for most.
On a side street on the Croix-Rousse plateau, this discreet shop run by passionate young baker Bastien Malugani is no ordinary boulangerie. All of the activity in the kitchen is visible, from the apprentice rolling croissants and pains au chocolat to the bakers shaping the breads. Though the crusty loaves are fascinating in themselves – particularly the monthly changing bread (one was made with milk curds, prunes and almonds), there is no ignoring the flakiness of the puff pastry or the freshness of the fruits nestling in almond cream.
The croissant, which has become banal in many bakeries, returns to its noble roots here thanks to churned butter, natural leaven and top-quality organic flour. As with the breads, pastries change with the seasons: depending on the month you might find tarts made with chocolate, pear, delicate strawberries or mirabelle plums, or perhaps a turnover filled with apricots instead of the usual apple. A regular speciality is the mille- feuille, made here with puff pastry, vanilla mousseline cream and hazelnut butter. With enthusiastic service to boot, it’s well worth a special trip up the steep Croix-Rousse hill.
At first glance this might seem a bit of a gimmicky place with its liquid chocolate cascade, ‘library’ of chocolate bars and novelty items such as chocolate lipstick and sunglasses. But Sébastien Bouillet’s bars and filled chocolates easily compete with, and even surpass, those of other top chocolate names in the city, standing out for their flavour balance and freshness.
Bouillet, who also runs one of the city’s best pastry shops, makes the chocolates in an open kitchen in the same street. Among the more unusual flavours are the Scheherazade, (ganache infused with orange-rose tea), milk chocolate ganache with lime and a wild-pepper infused dark ganache. There are about 40 different bars to choose from, including pure origin chocolates and flavoured versions made with matcha tea, candied ginger or caramelised pecans.
Like many pastry chefs Bouillet has his own take on the macaron, which here is chocolate-coated, filled with caramel and dubbed the Maca’Lyon. You can taste more of his macarons and cakes at his nearby pâtisserie on rue des Archers.