Chocolate artisans: A view from France

Chocolate beingpoured over a ring of chocolate cake

For the better part of two years now, my research has been focused on deciphering the meaning of the word “artisan” in the realm of chocolate. Recently, I sent off an article with some of my findings for peer review. While that piece is pretty comprehensive for the US market, it did not include the comparative research I did on Europe. There is of course a long tradition of chocolate on the continent, and the differences between “artisan” there and “artisan” here are fascinating to me.

The book that revealed the most was Susan J. Terrio’s Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). When I started reading it, I had been thinking that a main difference between French and American chocolate artisans would be the type of training they received. With its history of powerful guilds and an expectation of apprenticeship inherent to many crafts and professions, I anticipated that formal chocolate training in France would be a lot more rigorous than it is here.

And so it was. But that wasn’t the only difference, or even the most interesting. For one thing, Terrio’s chocolate artisans are none of them bean to bar makers. Instead, they are confectioners – they make bon bons and truffles and candies. I found no evidence at all (in this book at least) of a twentieth century French history of artisan bean to bar making. In fact, Terrio makes a point that when French chocolate artisans claim to start with cocoa beans, the other ones laugh at them and say that it’s highly unlikely to be true. Their craft is confectionary, and the infrastructure for artisan bean to bar making just doesn’t seem to be in place. At least, it was not when Terrio did her fieldwork in the nineties, although that might be changing now.

I was most struck, however, by the social traditions around artisanry, and their inflexibility in Terrio’s account. The rules governing chocolate artisans are many, and these are deeply cultural as well as political and economic. Chocolate artisans in France work in “houses,” run by a master and populated with skilled workers, some of whom are family and some of whom are not. It’s very hierarchical and classed and rigid. The house owner has a social status to which even the most skilled worker does not aspire: once a laborer, always a laborer, it seems.

This is a stark contrast to the US chocolate market today, where pretty much anyone who wants to can enter the industry. Whatever vague hierarchies do exist here seem to be based either on the amount of startup capital available to founders, or their moment of entry into the market (roughly divided into the pioneers, a la Taza, Askinosie, Patric, Rogue, DeVries, Amano; what Jessica Ferraro of Bar Cacao calls “The Class of 2010”; and the many new makers that have emerged in the past two or three years). But certainly, there are no social barriers to becoming a chocolate artisan in the US, as there seem to be among Terrio’s group.

Even more interesting for me are the gender dynamics in France. These are, bluntly: men are artisans and women sell chocolate. Even when women are skilled workers in an artisan house – for example, in charge of tempering chocolate – house managers that Terrio interviewed could not bring themselves to call those women “artisans,” or even skilled workers. They were sort of not counted at all, when the house owner described his team. Skilled chocolate making was the preserve of men alone.

Women’s recognized role – most prominently for the wives and mothers of the house owner – is to serve customers in the shop. While the best among them demonstrate deep knowledge of the confections they sell, their role seems more one of managing social relations with shoppers. This means listening sympathetically to customers’ woes and celebrating their joys, knowing their confectionary likes and dislikes, and catering to a highly classed set of consumer desires while at the same time maintaining a humility appropriate to their own “lower” social standing. Frankly, it all sounds exhausting to me, much more taxing than even the work of making chocolate. But such is women’s role in the houses of chocolate artisans in France.

Our own artisan gender dynamic in the US seems a distant cousin of the social arrangement in France: among artisan chocolate companies founded by heterosexual couples here, more often than not the man is working the machines and the woman is in charge of brand development. But while that pattern is evident, there are also too many exceptions – women founding companies and making chocolate, bean to bar, themselves – to call it fixed.

Those were the differences that stood out most to me – there were many others, and Terrio treated the whole artisanal industry with much more depth and detail than I can do justice to here. Her book is worth a read, whether you’re into Euro-chocolate or not. For me, it was a useful foil. It helped me see, much more clearly, how our own chocolate artisans are shaping their industry, politically, economically, and socially, by comparing them to the incredibly rich, yet almost sadly entrenched, history of artisanry in France.

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