L’Instant Cacao: Bean-to-bar Chocolate Shop

If you’re old enough to remember, the Grateful Dead had a song that went, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” (There are other reasons you might not remember things back then, especially if you were the type that listened to the Grateful Dead.) But that could be the tagline for a number of things, some as recent as 2020, the Covid crisis, and others that stretch back longer, such as the bean-to-bar chocolate movement.

I was there at the beginning of it in the United States, and I clearly remember when Robert Steinberg handed me a melting wad of freshly-made chocolate he pulled out of his pocket at a baking event, that was folded up in a little foil packet, as if it was a part of a drug deal. That eventually bloomed into Scharffen Berger chocolate.

They were the pioneers of bean-to-bar chocolate making in America, back in 1996, and now there are close to two hundred artisan chocolate makers in the States. That’s amazing, considering when Robert and his business partner John Scharffenberger, told me they were going to make chocolate from scratch, I thought it was a crazy idea and would never get off the ground. Thirteen years later, they sold the company for a reported $50 million. So if you want to ask someone for business advice, you might want to ask someone other than me.

However, I do know a fair amount of chocolate, much of it from tasting with Robert and learning about what goes into making chocolate. He was particularly helpful at separating fact from reality, and he gave me an earful about some misinformation out there about the chocolate business and the mystique of making chocolate.

One thing that I did learn from him, and others who followed, was that the business isn’t easy. At the time there weren’t machines for making chocolate on a small-scale and it was a challenge to source good beans.

Paris hasn’t been a bean-to-bar city. (There isn’t a word for ‘bean-to-bar chocolate maker’ in French, and people like Marc use the English word, bean-to-bar, to describe what they do.) Tight quarters and ventilation concerns are two barriers. But the bar, so to speak, is also quite high with larger-scale French chocolate makers doing a rather good job of making chocolate.

Personally, I like the handmade quality of small-batch chocolate; the coffee notes, the wild, red fruit flavors that sometimes come through, the roasty flavors, and other small idiosyncrasies that you don’t find in big-batch European chocolate. Many of the chocolate fondeurs in Paris (chocolatiers who melt chocolate for dipping and enrobing, but who don’t make the chocolate itself) and their customers, aren’t necessarily looking for nuances; they’re looking for balanced, moderated flavors, and chocolate that behaves properly when melted and tempered. So I was grateful to discover L’Instant Cacao.

Marc Chinchole opened his shop at the age of 26, after honing his craft working at Chapon and La Maison du Chocolate, two well-established French chocolate companies. He’s been at it for two years at L’Instant Cacao and is the sole employee at his company; he makes the chocolate, he molds the chocolate, and he sells the chocolate in a compact space that’s barely big enough for more than two or three customers at once.

I wanted to see how he makes his chocolate so I asked if I could come into his workshop, which is separated from the shop by a clear glass partition (so anyone can see whatever he’s doing, and that he’s got nothing to hide). He kindly accepted, and I arrived one morning as he was sorting cacao beans, which he does by hand in what one might call micro-batches.

Born in Montpelier, Marc has traveled around the world, sourcing beans from eight different countries, which include Peru, Cameroon, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Madagascar. They come in different sizes, colors, shapes, and of course, flavors. I know from talking to other chocolate makers, they often find things in bags of cocoa beans, which come from the jungle. (One told me he’d once found a gun!) Marc hasn’t found anything that dramatic but has come across a pair of scissors, and once, he found a tooth.

The sorted beans get roasted on a baking sheet, as one would do at home. I’ve been in a lot of chocolate shops and factories, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been in one that’s as clean and as well-organized as the one at L’Instant Cacao. Everything was gleaming and spotless. When I asked Marc how long he’d been open, I expected him to say, “Two weeks.” But he’s actually been open two years.

When I remarked that it was so clean that it reminded me of a dentist’s office, he laughed and said, “Both of my parents are dentists!” Which made sense.

The only machine that was slightly messy was the mélangeur (above), a stone-grinder that grinds the beans, which is something that you really don’t want to wash unless you have to since even the tiniest amount of water or moisture can ruin a batch of chocolate by breaking the emulsion. For one thing, pure dark chocolate (called chocolate liqueur, 100% pâte de cacao, or unsweetened chocolate) doesn’t spoil easily, which isn’t a problem here as Marc is constantly using the equipment and moving the chocolate along.

Once the beans are roasted and ground, a little cocoa butter is added, around 4%, along with some organic cane sugar, then formed into shiny tablets with a crisp snap.

The different bars, and their flavor profiles, are listed on their website. One bar is a mix of chocolate and coffee beans from esteemed coffee-roaster Verlet, which has a decidedly “French roast” (i.e.; very robust) flavor. He also makes an unsweetened 100% bar that he said is especially popular with women.

Other bars are dotted with candied kumquats or raisins, or strewn with sweet-salty caramelized hazelnuts. I was particularly interested in the white chocolate bars made with sheep’s milk, which adds a pleasant tanginess that he finds pairs very well with chocolate from Madagascar, and a chocolate “au lait” bar made with coconut pulp and sweetened with rice syrup.

Being both a fondeur, someone who melts chocolate for dipping, and a torrifacteur, who roasts his own cacao beans, Marc wears both caps and uses his own chocolates for treats such as his tasty Florentines, above, made with caramelized almonds, candied orange peel, and Niaouli honey, which I’d never heard of but Marc explained comes from Madagascar and uses it because it has a deeply woody flavor and pairs well with the dark chocolate he dips the Florentines in.

Orangettes are popular in France, a classic gourmandise, a little sweet often served after dinner, that get dipped in Tanzanian chocolate, which he describes as a chocolate with yellow fruit and squash flavors. Squash may sound funny to you, but cocoa pods are filled with beans wrapped in a sticky mucilage, much like that of a melon or squash, which are technically all fruits. So it makes sense. (Or may just be something lost in translation on my part.)

He also makes his own classic bonbons and pralines, which also get dipped in Tanzanian dark chocolate. The bonbons have ganache centers made with organic cream, and sport flavors like bitter chestnut honey, candied chestnut cream, licorice, gomasio (a mix of sesame seeds and salt, which works beautifully with chocolate), hazelnut and cashew pralines, and a lemon-lime mélange.

The square chocolates are pralines, made without cream, and have a base of ground caramelized hazelnuts and almonds, and come in similar flavors to his ganache-filled chocolates.

I brought my box of chocolate pralines home on a very hot day – yes, I’ve been keeping these special chocolates at bay, until now but they made it home just fine and melted in my mouth.

In the summer, there’s ice cream in the freezer at the shop as well. But with fall here at the moment, I’m going to focus on these chocolates…

L’Instant Cacao
3, rue des Petits Champs (1st)
Tél: 09 81 36 22 78
M: Bourse

L\'Instant Cacao: Bean-to-bar Chocolate Shop

41 comments

  • Synthia
    October 22, 2020 11:12am

    We live in Bordeaux and are taking a flight out of CDG. I’m making a stop at this place!! Lait de Brebis intrigues me, my husband is lactose intolerant and there is no lactose in sheep milk.
    Thanks for this post :) Reply

    • October 22, 2020 3:11pm
      David Lebovitz

      Yes on the sheep’s milk and I am pretty sure that coconut “milk” chocolate is lactose-free, as are the pralines. But I would check and ask Marc to be sure. Reply

  • October 22, 2020 12:02pm

    Heaven! I teach a French literature course on gastronomy and always do a chocolate tasting with my students. I may try to get my hands on some chocolate from L’Instant Cacao. Many thanks for this post! Reply

    • Alicia Jumar-Loffler
      November 13, 2020 9:07am

      Allison, you are teaching one of my DREAM courses! Would you please send me your contact info?
      I imagine your classes are now online. I live in the US. Thank you. Reply

  • Sandra Myers
    October 22, 2020 12:21pm

    I could almost taste the heavenly chocolates as you described them. I recall years ago sitting in a class you taught in New Jersey about chocolate. We have a local chocolatier shop, but I don’t know about their hours etc with the pandemic, and should check them out online, and maybe treat myself with a quick trip there. Reply

  • Judy Gingrich
    October 22, 2020 12:41pm

    If you are ever in Toronto, you won’t want to miss bean-to-bar Soma. Recommend the original location in the Distillery District, there are three Soma locations in the city now. Reply

    • Jennifer
      October 22, 2020 11:42pm

      And if in Ottawa, there’s the fabulous Hummingbird chocolate from Almonte, ON. Their single-origin bars have flavours I never knew chocolate could have. Reply

  • Judith Lehman
    October 22, 2020 12:44pm

    I love this delightful visit to the chocolate shop. Reading about your “in depth” visits is very rewarding. I appreciate your light touch in telling the stories of crafts people. Thank you for all your hard work. Reply

  • Jessyca
    October 22, 2020 12:52pm

    His shop sounds delightful. It’s now on my list to visit when I can travel again. Thank you for hilighting these places! Reply

  • Francisca
    October 22, 2020 12:57pm

    Nicely done, it felt as if I was there. You are quite the French Ambassador!
    Thank you. Reply

  • Elizabeth Horton
    October 22, 2020 1:00pm

    … separating fact from reality, David? You’ve been following too much American news. Enjoyed this post! Reply

  • October 22, 2020 2:42pm

    Robert was such a gem–smart, nice and generous with his time and knowledge. And John too, as well as having what appeared to be a golden touch. What a pioneer in the world of food and wine. I loved their first factory in South San Francisco and all of the delicious chocolates they introduced us to. I wouldn’t have known what a cocoa nib was without them! Reply

    • October 22, 2020 3:14pm
      David Lebovitz

      Robert was amazing and more I got to know him, the more I liked him. But was a challenging guy in some ways which was part of his charm. One thing I remember was when you were talking to him about chocolate, sometime he was pause, look at you, and say “You know….” then he’d debunk something that someone had said or a theory about chocolate that was going around, that wasn’t true. And yes, he and John introduced Americans to cocoa nibs. When I first started writing cookbooks I was hesistant to use them as ingredients since they weren’t easy to get, but now they’re much more available. Reply

      • Mark Lecker
        October 22, 2020 6:19pm

        I figured as much. Bernachon, here I come! Reply

      • Shira
        October 23, 2020 3:13pm

        I’ve been having trouble finding cocoa nibs in Paris. Any recommendations? Reply

        • October 24, 2020 9:28am
          David Lebovitz

          G. Detou sells them. You may need to buy a kilo or another quantity, but they last a long time (you can also store them in the freezer – or split a bag with a friend.) Reply

          • suki
            November 30, 2020 11:18pm

            One of my favorite cookies is Alice Medrich’s buckwheat sables with nibs. So simple and so good.

  • Nancy B
    October 22, 2020 2:47pm

    Thanks for this interesting reading…my armchair travel for today is satisfied. Well, not really…I want a taste! Reply

  • Suzanne
    October 22, 2020 2:51pm

    I wish you could get some of this cacao to sell from your home in DE, USA since I live in PA. Reply

  • Meg
    October 22, 2020 3:10pm

    Two years?! Thanks for this post, I will try it the next time I am in Paris, for sure :) Reply

  • Kyle Smith
    October 22, 2020 3:11pm

    Lovely, lovely article and the memories of Scharffenberger! Should you ever find yourself in or near Alençon- go and find Olivier at Le Petite Chocolatier. He and his wife source their beans from several locations and have become friends with the producers. They share their love of chocolate through teaching at the shop about the sourcing through the actual making of the end product – which are works of art. Reply

  • Karen Tripson
    October 22, 2020 4:24pm

    Another reason to catch the first plane to Paris when the covid vaccine is available. Thx David for this excursion. Reply

  • Angie Q
    October 22, 2020 4:24pm

    Delectable! I wish this shop was closer to me! I would be a frequent shopper. Reply

  • Janet Miller
    October 22, 2020 4:55pm

    Oh, you’re making me cry. Thank you for sharing. I cannot wait to visit Paris again someday. Reply

  • rainey
    October 22, 2020 5:32pm

    Oh! It’s *cruel* to make something sooo far away sound so luscious.

    I’d really like to try white chocolate made with sharp goat’s milk. I’m intrigued at the potential of the milk to cut the cloying unctuous characteristic of white chocolate. Reply

  • Joe
    October 22, 2020 5:45pm

    Thank you for a wonderful diversion in these anxious times. We lived in Paris for several rainy months in the spring of 2016 and you were our patron saint of chocolate shops. This one sounds like a “must” on our next visit. Reply

  • Mark Lecker
    October 22, 2020 5:47pm

    Hi David. These look amazing! My bottom line: does he ship to the US, and can you offer your translation services so I can order from his website?

    All the best! Reply

    • October 22, 2020 6:01pm
      David Lebovitz

      Mark, I took at look at the e-commerce page of his website and it only listed France and Europe for deliveries unfortunately. It’s quite expensive to ship overseas and sometimes food products need to have some sort of certification to be shipped into the US, or so I’ve heard from other chocolate shops in Paris. Reply

      • rainey
        October 23, 2020 10:42pm

        What’s more, some Canadian food companies I know have stopped shipping to the States as they have no control over what Homeland Security will seize. Then, even if they let things go eventually, they’re much delayed and no longer fresh. The vendors end up with angry customers despite not having any culpability or opportunity to avert the situation. Reply

  • A. Nonymous, SLC
    October 22, 2020 10:11pm

    WOW! Great post, M. Lebovitz!
    You know that YOU are the secret ingredient in everything you do. Reply

  • Brian
    October 22, 2020 10:45pm

    Oh no, are you cheating on Denise Acabo?!? Reply

  • Diana
    October 22, 2020 11:19pm

    Haha, I am with you on the business-advice thing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought it was a good thing no one asked my advice about that idea (Should we make a sitcom about the Korean War? for example). Reply

  • Barbara LeFort
    October 22, 2020 11:39pm

    Yay for bean-to-bar – our own Jacek has been doing this for years. Love the design of Marc’s amazing creations! https://jacekchocolate.com/ Reply

  • Mark Steele
    October 23, 2020 1:29am

    Thanks again David for your important reportage. These artisanal post of yours are so important for food history! Reply

  • Heidi Husnak
    October 23, 2020 2:03am

    Wow – incredible work in that tiny space. Your descriptions are enticing as are the images. John may have gotten some of that business acumen through his dad https://news.usc.edu/3933/Passings-George-Scharffenberger-Dorothy-H-Dotty-Pin/ Reply

  • Kelly
    October 23, 2020 5:33am

    Divine! Thank you introducing us to Marc and his delicious looking chocolates. I had the pleasure years ago of touring the Scharffenberger plant in Emeryville in a class taught by Alice Medrich. What a treat! Thank you, David, for your beautiful writing and keeping us connected to Paris. Reply

  • Billie
    October 23, 2020 2:51pm

    I remember when I lived in Coronado, California I would shop at Vons in Imperial Beach. They carried Scharffenberger chocolate, a brand I had never heard of and was very expensive. I bought a blue box of it anyway and made something scrumptious.
    When I was displaced from Santa Rosa, California, 3 years ago due to that devastating fire I temporarily stayed in a surrounding city and one night discovered Scharffenberger once again and it was on sale so I bought 4 boxes! I brought them with me here to Paris and have 2 left which I plan to make another something scrumptious.
    Thank you for filling us in on the history of this brand. For all those years from Coronado I had looked for this outstanding brand of chocolate. Of course it may not be the same now as it’s part of a large conglomeration. Reply

  • Eilonwy
    October 23, 2020 5:59pm

    I saw this post a few minutes before I had to leave for work. What a dilemma–I had to decide whether to indulge in a quick read immediately or to save it for lunch time when I could savor it. I showed an unusual restraint, and just enjoyed it with my meal and coffee. Thanks for the lovely piece–I especially enjoyed the photos. Reply

  • Julie Iantorno
    October 26, 2020 2:55am

    Thank you for this great article on chocolate. I have been purchasing Scharffenberger chocolate for about 10 years since I first discovered it in Berkeley. I live in San Diego and it’s so nice that I can find it in my local grocery store. The candy from L’Instant Cacao looks amazing. Lucky you. Reply

  • Alicia Jumar-Loffler
    November 13, 2020 9:11am

    David, it is always a great tasty pleasure to read your blog! Your remembrances of years past in the Bay Area brings us closer together…thank you for that and everything else. Reply

  • Alicia Jumar-Loffler
    November 13, 2020 9:15am

    Oh boy!! Like always after reading your blog and books…Another new, delicious place to visit on my next trip to the City of Light…after Covid, of course…grrrrr!! Reply

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