There are times in many people’s lives when the only thing that will satisfy their craving for delicious and delicate things to eat translates into the word ‘chocolate.’ It’s a feeling that I know well, and that’s why I have been a regular visitor to this fine chocolatier for years.
Chocolate and confectionery have a long and rich history behind them. Tastes and preferences change from one country or continent to the other, but they are generally eaten during celebrations, birthdays, special occasions or, for many people, at any time whatsoever, be they on a diet or not.
family has catered to chocolate lovers for four generations, with the Boucaud-Maitre family as partners. They opened in 1897 as coffee merchants, importing fine coffees from all over the world. Success came almost instantly and the family decided to produce quality chocolates a few years after, a logical step because many coffee producing countries also produce cocoa.
The company now has twelve shops in Lyon itself and twenty two in all. There are no franchises. They employ over two hundred people today, half of them in production and the other half in the shops.
Voisin’s reputation is built primarily on its reputation for high quality products using techniques and ingredients that were first introduced many years ago. They are also the reference in Lyon for Lyon specialities.
Franck Boucaud-Maitre has taken over the General Management side of the company, and we went to visit their best-known shop, on Lyon’s most prestigious downtown shopping avenue.
We also went to see the production facilities a few kilometers away.
This is what we saw during a delightful morning tasting. There were so many good things that I skipped lunch.
A collection of different chocolates, with the accent on the colourful coverings that Voisin introduces each summer.
Franck and I discuss the company’s speciality, the ‘Coussin de Lyon.’ Coussin means cushion.
“When the plague hit Lyon starting in 1643, the city’s magistrates would lead a procession up to the statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of Fourvière Hill, offering her a golden coin and a seven-pound candle, both of which were placed on a silk cushion. The procession is still held, although the plague has gone thank heavens, and the family decided to introduce the Coussin in remembrance of that era.”
The coussin has a chocolate interior and a green marzipan exterior. Here they are in presentation form.
There are over 60 kinds of chocolates to choose from, using nougat, fine cocoas, pralines, liqueurs, creams of all kinds and flavours.
Here is another Voisin speciality, sugared almonds. They come in every flavour and pretty presentations. They are a tradition at marriages in France, where all those invited receive a souvenir in the form of sugared almonds.
There are many fine coffees to be had. Franck is a coffee-lover and he explains how things are done in his shop. “Coffee beans are ground in front of the client and the grounding depends on the type of machine you have. A filter coffee needs one kind of grain, for example, whereas an Italian coffee-maker needs another. Also, it’s very important to identify the client’s taste in coffee. Strong or weak? Slightly or highly aromatic? These are important questions.”
And then we go on a tasting spree that will last all morning. "Try this, you’ll love it” says Franck. So I do. And I do. It’s a comfit, or crystallised, mandarin orange with the bottom half enrobed in 70% dark chocolate. Heaven. We try several more varieties, served by the young lady and the smile you see at the top of the page.
Here is another delicious and original speciality. Dried fruits in plates of white or dark chocolate. Not just on top, but in the chocolate too, because it’s put into the still unset chocolate by hand. You order the weight you desire, and the young lady will break it up for you.
We then drive up to the production facilities which are “Contained in 3000 square metres over three floors. We were lucky to find that kind of space so near to downtown” as Franck puts it.
One of the first things I see is a very old coffee grinder. It used to be used for production a long while back. We stop for a delicious espresso, joining the people who work in the coffee preparation area who are not on a tea, but a coffee, break.
Franck explains that most of the machinery, be it in coffee, chocolate or confectionery production, are very old. “They might not produce the quantities possible in major industrial-scale factories, but we prefer the results we get with our machines, which still have granite grinders for grinding certain products.”
We watch how the Coussins are made. Like for everything else here, “It takes time. It takes four days to make coussins. From grinding and separating the excess oil from the almonds, preparing the chocolate, leaving marzipan to set correctly before forming the coussin in a special machine which creates the marzipan cushion before the chocolate filling is introduced.”
All of the chocolates in this presentation case were made here.
“Everything takes time here” says Franck, as we taste their hand-made nougat, then more crystallised fruit, and liqueur chocolate without the chocolate.
Liqueur chocolate without the chocolate?
Franck explains. “Most liqueur chocolates use a pre-fabricated chocolate case. That means that the liqueur has to be highly sugared to stop the alcohol eating its way through the chocolate. Here, we use a special process which forms a naturally produced coating around the liqueur. That means that the taste of the liqueur is unchanged. The end result is then covered in chocolate.” That process takes six days of work.
Here is a delicious speciality, Morello cherries in Armagnac. Simply sublime.
It really is a wonderful place. The aroma differs, depending on where you are. Coffee in the coffee area, chocolate in another, marzipan, fruit, liqueur, and the list goes on. It’s delicious.
As we go round the different areas, those working on different stages of different products tell me how it’s done in a friendly, confident and obviously conscientious manner.
It’s time for Franck to get back to his office and start catching up on things. Before we leave the production area he confides that “The people who work with us are experts in what they do and they feel highly implicated. You can’t just swap jobs like that here, each job is different.”
And it is. I was glad to be able to get a glimpse into the world of quality products and how they are produced. I was also relieved to know that, in a world of mass production, quality still matters to people like Franck Boucaud-Maitre.
Oh, a chocolate anyone? I’m full and couldn’t manage even one more. For the moment.
This is a tray of lemon cactus chocolates. Help yourself...