Making a statement with chocolate

PARIS — In the “magic laboratory” where Patrick Roger fashions his life-size cocoa creations, everything is handmade, right down to the fork-sculpted decorations. And for the artisan chocolatier, it’s a source of pride — not shame — that it takes him about a year to produce what large companies like Mars or Hershey's might produce in one day.

What he lacks in quantity, he said, he makes up for in uncompromising quality.

“My business is taste,” Roger said. “Without taste, it doesn’t work.”

In 2000, Roger was named "Best French Chocolatier" for creating "Harold," a life-sized cocoa farmer wearing a wide-brimmed hat and seen squatting on tiptoe while handling a cocoa bean between his fingers. The chocolate statue, later sculpted into bronze, is based on a real farmer he met in Colombia in 1999. “Without cocoa producers, we don’t exist,” said Roger, explaining why he paid them homage.

Each occasion is an opportunity for Roger to lean on his artist's imagination, scientist's penchant for alchemy and, sometimes, activist's inclination. His creations can also offer a glimpse of wackiness.

He offered beer chocolate for St. Patrick’s Day and chocolate sardine cans for April Fool’s Day (The holiday is known in France as poisson d’avril — April’s fish — and calls for attaching a paper fish to the back of an unwitting victim). Inspired by a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands where he dove with seals, Roger created proportional representations of the mammals in chocolate to display with the sardines. Seals eat fish.

But the form is only one appeal of Roger's chocolates. He offers truffles or chocolate bars made with cocoa from prime locations such as Sao Tome or Papua New Guinea, and he mixes them with such eclectic flavors as citrus fruit, ginger root, jasmine and beer.

For Christmas, Roger's shop windows displayed giant chocolate polar bears to call attention to the threatened species. For Valentine’s Day, the windows contained large upside down hearts. An upside down heart, he said, resemble buttocks, and on Valentine's Day people are thinking about sex.

“We all think about it, so why not talk about it,” the 40-year-old said. “Why be shy about it?”

Still, the interpretation was best left to his customers, the cornerstone of a humble business that has grown to five elegant shops and 25 employees in less than five years. A steady stream of clients entered and exited the flagship store in Paris on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Most passersby first stopped at the window, then oohed and aahed and sniffed their way inside before shelling out 5 euros for a chocolate bar or 40 euros for a Tiffany-like aquamarine sample box. Roger, who happened to be in the shop that day, mostly went unnoticed.

“Chocolate is something that is very reassuring,” he said. “And people like to treat themselves.”

Roger created about 20,000 pieces of chocolate over the eight weeks leading up to Easter, including haute couture-like, old-fashioned bells and pesky hedgehogs getting their revenge by eating farm eggs instead of being chased away by the farmer. His centerpiece display pays tribute to the barnyard with a church-like structure and belfry made with 50 kilos of chocolate. A lone rooster is perched atop the steeple. Chocolate gravel surrounds the structure and a chocolate church mouse stands guard at a window.

The outdoor garden of chocolate carrots, potatoes, mushrooms and asparagus is a replica of some of what can be found in his mother’s garden, said Corinne Roger, a younger sister who works in the flagship store. “He is so demanding, sometimes even annoying,” she said. “But those are his values.”

Both Roger and his sister said that when growing up in the countryside between Normandy and the Loire Valley, everything they ate was grown locally or came from the home garden. Roger said he had never eaten anything out of a can until he was well into his teenage years. Bananas were an exotic fruit that he discovered quite late since they don’t grow in France.

“I don’t know what it is to eat badly,” he said. “Eating well should not be a luxury, it should be normal.”

He can’t claim credit for discovering chocolate as a profession and a passion. His parents, who owned a bakery before retiring, encouraged him to pursue a pastry apprenticeship, since he was a bad student. During his apprenticeship a chef discovered Roger’s meticulous attention to detail, his artistic eye and his technical skill.

“It’s the chocolate that discovered me; it allowed what was hiding inside to come out,” he said. “It saved my life.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on chocolate:

Is chocolate recession-proof?

Cocoa crops threatened by disease