Friday, April 14, 2006

Chez Voisin

Our first apartment was above the Cours Lafayette Voisin chocolate shop and I spent a good deal of time freaking out the old lady who ran it. I parked myself in front of the cases and stared for inordinate amounts of time at each kind of chocolate specialty and rarely bought anything. One thing you'll notice is that here in this country, if you go into a small shop, at some point in time you're going to get called onto the carpet to state what you plan to purchase. Here instead of an unobtrusive service oriented "May I help you?", the greeting is more of a thundering imperative: "Madame!"

What does it mean when one is confronted with such a greeting? There are probably a million theories but let me tell you what it means to me: "Madame, you have crossed the threshold into my shop, and now the time has come. You must tell me what you intend to buy, or move along." Back in the Cours Lafayette days, I would usually just respond with a timid and somewhat feigned oblivious "Bonjour" and get started on my rampant looking spree. She had an impatient quality about her but eventually I broke her in. For awhile she came to ignore me completely, not even responding to my greeting when I entered the shop.

Voisin coffee and chocolate shops are scattered across the city of Lyon, with shops also in Grenoble and Nice. All of the shop's chocolates are produced in one central Lyon production plant, although some of the individual branches do roast coffee beans on location at the shops. They don't roast their own cocoa beans. In fact there are really very few that do. The one thing that makes me hesitate to really call this a chain is that even though Voisin has been in activity for over a hundred years, they only have 16 shops. Each of the shops is individually owned, although they really are a family of shops from the same roots. In every shop you'll find the same chocolate and coffee products, but local branch owners do their own displays and exercise their creative license with their lines of draget boxes, accesories, gift basket ideas and so on. They each have their own personality.

Anyway, on Cours Lafayette, the lady eventually realized I would come to her when I had a gift to buy, so she warmed up to me. Once I had gotten to know her better, she told me that Voisin had invented the "Papillotes", chocolates wrapped in pretty sparkly paper with a message inside, the kind they sell all over France now at Christmas time. I proudly carried this lore with me down to my in-laws one Christmas holiday, with bags of papillotes for all, but I got the impression that they didn't believe me. Oh well. But it's true!

I have a special place in my heart for the Lyon Voisin shops, their individuality and the real personalities of their owners. For Easter, in addition to the usual large chocolate eggs, bells, fish, rabbits, cartoon characters and hens, they also sell little flavored fishies and treats by weight for a price you can imagine paying for a kid's basket. Their flavors are geared somewhat for kids and the masses, with orange and fruit in milk and white chocolate mixes. They still taste much better than the store bought chocolates. Voisin chocolates, coussins, etc. are a nice souvenier of Lyon. This basket is lined with beigy soft fake fur! I thought that was cute.

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