Arbois is a small town in the heart of the mountainous French department of Jura, which borders with Switzerland, near Geneva. White early 20th-century residences overlook the lake before the border sweeps brusquely up towards the mountains where the forest begins, in a landscape marked by centuries of shared history with Man. Where the land flattens out again, vines take possession of the land. Arbois nestles here in a valley surrounded by a natural amphitheatre of green-swathed mountains and its old center, guarded with truly French pride, must have inspired the set designer of the film Chocolat.
In Arbois four generations of the Hirsinger family of maîtres chocolatiers have delighted the customers of their shop, housed in a 14th-century building in Place de la Liberté since 1900. Edouard Hirsinger, who runs the business today, is named after his grandfather who was famous for his version of galet d’Arbois, a fine meringue shell containing a chocolate and almond praline cream. In a period when refrigeration was not readily available this was a clever way to allow sweet-toothed customers to enjoy chocolate even in summer, without it melting in their hand or in the heat. The deliciously sweet and crunchy meringue shell bursts in the mouth releasing the bitter chocolate flavor in contrast with the tiny almond grains.
The Galet du grand-père is still a pièce de résistance and a tribute to grandpa, an upright and firmly principled man who closed up the shop for almost five years during the German occupation – an eternity for someone with a family to support during the hardships of a war whose outcome was by no means certain. But the delectable sweetmeats of the Hirsinger cake shop would not have softened the effects of the German invaders’ dirty work, or so Edouard must have thought. So the family lived on the products of their land and dipped heavily into the reserves of cocoa butter for cooking.
Today young Edouard bears on his shoulders the pride and responsibility of the long family tradition, but he is also an innovator who is passionately devoted to the invention of new chocolates, especially a variety of flavors of ganaches. He has invented a new one every year since 1993 and since the demand for chocolate tends to diminish during summer, when Jura enjoys its greatest influx of tourists, Edouard makes summer chocolates: with cool raspberry cream, or lime with light coriander nougat… or hiding fresh piquant mint with lightly spicy pepper in a bitter chocolate shell, or blending sweet strawberries with a few contrasting drops of balsamic vinegar.
But the quest for a sophisticated balance of the best ingredients is not the only thing that makes this chocolatier so special: Hirsinger’s close links to the surrounding area and love for its roots have led to specific and sometimes challenging choices, such as the exclusive use of fresh cream made from local raw milk in the ganache fillings. This choice makes strict monitoring of the production phases necessary, as well as shorter expiry times: the chocolates must be consumed within fifteen days of production. But Hirsinger’s customers see this difficulty as a significant indication of genuine and traditional craftsmanship.
When Edouard presents his creations abroad – at the Hall of Taste in Turin, for example, or in Japan – he is accompanied by his friend Philippe Chatillon of the Domaine de la Pinte and his Jura wines, the juice of vines growing on the blue and black marl typical of Arbois. Taste a delicious passion fruit ganache with a glass of golden Vin de paille (made from early-harvested grapes which are dried for six months) to experience a perfect harmony of flavors. Or else, try the curried walnut chocolates with a Vin jaune, aged in barrels for seven years, resting and slowly evaporating beneath a layer of yeasts. If this tricky wine does not turn to vinegar, its aromas of carnations and Seville oranges reward its creator for the long, anxious wait.
Hirsinger, Place de la Liberté – 39600 Arbois
tel. +33 384 660 697 – [email protected] – www.chocolat-hirsinger.com
Domaine de la Pinte, Route de Lyon – 39600 Arbois
tel. +33 (o)3 84 66 06 47 – [email protected] – www.lapinte.fr
Paola Nano, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Press Office
Translation by Ailsa Wood