The sweet life in Bayonne

Our writer spills the beans as he discovers the Jewish contribution to France’s chocolate capital


For a trip focused on food, it seemed appropriate that I’d arranged to meet my wife at Bordeaux’s Kosher butcher. As I took the ferry to France before driving our car south, Rachel had hopped on the Eurostar with our children and caught a connection to the city.

We were both convinced we had the best deal. I had a two-day drive with an overnight stay in an excellent campsite gîte but she and the boys avoided ten hours in the car.

Meeting at Bordeaux’s butcher meant we avoided having to find each other in a crowded train station. It also meant that we started a camping break armed with a brace of delicious Kosher salami.

Our final destination was Bayonne, a small town very close to the Spanish border. It is famous for three things: the naming of the bayonet, the making of Bayonne ham and the chocolate industry started by Jewish immigrants. Not surprisingly, we were entirely focused on the latter.

A quick history of Jewish chocolate runs as follows: the Mayans unlocked the secrets of cocoa trees and passed their wisdom on to the Aztecs.

In 1502 Christopher Columbus visited the Honduras where he was given a bitter brown drink, becoming the first European to have tasted chocolate. Shortly after his visit, the Conquistadores began shipping cocoa beans to northern Spain.

It was probably near the San Sebastian port that the Jewish community watched and learned how to turn these beans into a thick, velvety drink nicknamed a “brown gold”. When the Inquisition forced Jews to leave Spain (or convert to Christianity) many crossed the border into southern France, taking that knowledge with them.

Some settled in Bayonne — the town that became known as France’s chocolate capital. The full story of their journey is detailed in Rabbi Deborah Prinz’s excellent book On the Chocolate Trail.

Today little remains of Bayonne’s Jewish community. There is a large, impressive synagogue in the grubby Saint Esprit district near the main train station but nothing else around the centre. The synagogue sometimes manages to get a minyan on Shabbat but is otherwise closed.

However, there is an atmospheric, moving Jewish cemetery in the beautiful nearby village of La Bastide-Clairence, which is well worth visiting. The gates are left unlocked and the small site is very well-maintained.

There is almost no information about the place or the Jewish heritage but I still found it very moving to see the stones placed on the tombstones and spot recognisable names in Hebrew and French with dates going back 500 years.

Back in Bayonne, the crucial Jewish contribution to the town’s chocolate heritage is credited in all the region’s literature. Without Jewish immigration there would have been no chocolate in France for a while longer.

For food and drink enthusiasts there are a few unique experiences around the world: drinking a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel or eating Sachertorte at Vienna’s Hotel Sacher for example.

To that list, add having hot chocolate served in a dainty china cup at Bayonne’s Cazenave salon. The elegant café is on Rue Port Neuf, a lovely pedestrianised street that leads from the river to the impressive cathedral. The cafe bumpf declares the hot chocolate has been made in the same way, on the same spot, for more than 150 years.

It is a thing of tremendous beauty for any chocaholic. A small cup of warm, dense melted chocolate topped with a crown of hand-whipped froth. If there is such a thing as perfect froth, this is it.

This will be my Desert Island drink. I had less than ten seconds to enjoy it before the serenity was shattered: my kids and wife demolished the foam stack with their spoons. If you do one thing in Bayonne, order a hot chocolate here. It won’t last long but it will be memorable.

My wife also said that the children’s chocolate ice-cream was the best she had ever tasted — trust me, this is rare praise from someone hard to please. A culinary endorsement from her is the equivalent of a bearhug from steely-eyed Paul Hollywood.

We counted seven other chocolate shops on the same road as Cazenave alone but Bayonne has only one other place where chocolate is made on site from cocoa beans — Ronan Lagadec’s shop Monsieur Txokola, a short walk away.

Established two years ago, the shop imports approximately five tonnes of cocoa beans (often buying together with the Cazenave salon) and Ronan provides visitors with a quick tour of his set-up and an explanation of chocolate production.

Rue Port Neuf is also home to a branch of L’Atelier du Chocolate but, for a real experience (and more samples than you can hope to finish), head to their brilliant museum on the outskirts of town.

The museum boasts a great number of chocolate-related tools dating back to the 1600s and explains the history well. Best of all, at the end of the tour, our children had the time of their lives donning enormous chef’s hats, aprons and painting chocolate slabs to take home.

And, for both children and adults, there were samples. A lot of samples. Not just small squares but large bowls filled with big chunks and three platters covered with delicious truffles. Our boys ate more than chocolate in two minutes they would usually be allowed in two months.

The final, possibly best, chocolate must-see is the Chocolate Museum of Cambo les Bains, a quick drive from Bayonne.

The genial owner, Christophe Puyodebat, gave us a tour — complete with samples — of his incredible collection of chocolate-making equipment: antique grinding machines, chocolate stones, moulds and mixers.

The display includes hundreds of copper and porcelain cups with special lips to protect men’s moustaches from chocolate froth, along with ornate chocolate jugs with built-in frothing whisks. It is the world’s biggest — and possibly most peculiar — private collection of these two artefacts.

If you’re in Bayonne, don’t miss this museum. There is more than chocolate in the pretty, welcoming town of course, including a spectacular cathedral with one of Europe’s largest cloisters. We ambled through beautiful cobbled streets admiring half-timbered buildings and stumbled on several museums.

But for us, it was all about the chocolate. So much so that by the end of our trip our son Sammy complained, “I hate chocolate! No more chocolate please!”. Words I never, ever thought I’d hear.


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