Debauve & Gallais: the makers of Marie Antoinette’s true chocolates

On the “Rue de Saints-Pères”, in the quintessential Parisian neighborhood of Saint Germain des Près, there’s a beautiful shop with an ancient wooden green façade which has been there since 1817. It’s “la Maison Debauve et Gallais”, and for more than 210 years has been the custodian of the greatest “chocolatier” art and traditions in France.

Just put a step into the exquisitely decorated interior and delight yourself with the alluring smell of chocolates and ganache-filled pastilles, truffles and almond crunches, and you will understand why Sulpice Debauve, founder of “la maison”, was the chocolate maker to the kings of France –the one who made Queen Marie Antoinette love chocolate.

Debauve et Gallais, however, not only delighted royalty. Centuries later, Coco Chanel would also become a regular customer. Her favorite choice: “la truffe éphèmere à Noël au whisky”. Writer Marcel Proust was to be regarded one of the “most loyal customers”.

Queen Marie Antoinette in a portrait by Élizabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778)

Sulpice Debauve actually didn’t start as a “chocolatier” but as an ordinary physician to the king. His office was in Saint Germain-en-Laye, less than an hour from the château de Saint Cloud, one of Marie Antoinette’s favorite royal residences. At the castle, he worked in the “Pavillon du Valois”, the building reserved to the “Service de Bouche du Roi”, literally “Service to the King’s mouth”.

Marie Antoinette suffered from painful headaches and one day in June 1779, after a visit to the monarch to alleviate her suffering, he decided to make her medicines more palatable by grinding them up and mixing them with liquid cocoa butter and sugar cane. The resulting mix, make flat and round and weighting 2 grammes and a half per piece, was known as “les pistoles” (slang for coins) and delighted the Queen.

Marie Antoinette’s “les pistoles”

That Sulpice Debauve was a pharmacist is not a wonder. As difficult to believe it now, chocolate didn’t become a popular delight until the 19th century. Before that, it was considered a medicine and it was aphotecaries who prepared it. In the “Almanach des Gourmands” by Grimond de la Reynière (1805) it is stated that “chocolate, used twenty years later earlier primarily by the elderly at breakfast, had become the breakfast of all those who wished to maintain the “freshness of their imagination”, thus underlying its medicinal purpose at that time.

Inside Debauve et Gallais flagship store

The Gods’ elixir

Europe had first seen the Aztec’s “xocolatl” (considered the God’s elixir) when Hernán Cortés sent some cocoa to Spain in 1524. But it was extremely bitter and it required some monks from the “Monasterio de Piedra” or “Stone Monastery” in Zaragoza (Spain) to have the ingenious idea of mixing that exotic food with sugar, honey or even flour. The sweet version of chocolate was worn.

But let’s go back to our French physician. In 1800 he was joined by his nephew, Jean-Baptiste Auguste Gallais, to create the Firm which bears both their names. The first French “chocolaterie” opened its doors in May in rue Saint-Dominique.

In 1807 Debeuve and Gallais launched the “Almond Crunches”, which were to become one the favorite sweets of Emperor Napoleon the First. It was the first time that dried fruits and nuts (in this case, almonds) were mixed with chocolate.

The company’s success was so espectacular that in 1817 they have to move its premises to a bigger location, the “rue des Saint-Pères”, where it stands still today. The decoration was done by famous architects Charles Percier et Pierre Fontain, the creators of the “Arc du Carrousel” and the architects chosen by Napoleon to build up a new residence for Empress Joséphine in Malmaison.

Innovations continued: in 1825, for example, they created the “Fleur de Lys” chocolate to celebrate the coronation of Charles X in Reims (it was a caramel ganache encased in cocoa solid chocolate). In 1835 they patented “lactoline”, a precursor of dried milk. And in 1865 they started producing “madeleines” in homage to Marcel Proust favorite delight.

Up until now, when they continue to surprise us with the world’s most exclusive cocoas and the most interesting products.

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