Wednesday, December 2, 2009

La Châtelaine Chocolaterie: Paris by way of Bozeman, Montana

Discovery is one of the greatest joys of being a traveler. La Châtelaine Chocolaterie in Bozeman, Montana was so unexpected, so perfectly hidden, and finally—most importantly—so unbelievably delicious, it made being quarantined for 4 days at the C’mon Inn with “THE” flu absolutely worth it. Rolling one of their mint chocolates around in my mouth made me glad I waited until we were back in the truck. I sounded like I was in an Herbal Essences commercial. When Noah tried to ask me something I had to hold up my finger and shush him.

“Not now,” I said, “I’m having a moment.”

Tucked into a cluster of old buildings off of Bozeman’s main drag is a little white cottage—said to be part of an old homestead—advertising “Chocolat” in red neon letters. Noah and I wandered in after a lunch of red beans and rice at neighboring Cajun favorite, “Café Zydeco”. I was starting to feel like I was kicking the flu and my appetite was coming back with a vengeance. So we wandered into La Châtelaine, lured by a clever orange and chocolate-colored sign that took me back to my first trip to Paris, at 17 years of age. While on exchange in Berlin, I took the night train to the city of lights, and while there, blew half my monthly allowance on a silk scarf at the Hermès boutique. It is quite possibly the most beautiful thing I own, and the distinctive orange and brown box is part of the experience. The scarf sits, never worn, in a safe deposit box, still wrapped in the sizzle of it’s original tissue paper.

La Châtelaine’s Beautiful orange boxes, with chocolate colored Parisian font, tapped into my weakness for pretty packaging. But would the contents of these lovely boxes live up to the beauty of their façade?

Yes. Yes. And yes again.

With the help of proprietor and chocolatier, Shannon Hughes Grochowski [Click to see her blog: Chocolate and French Lessons ], we sampled a half dozen miniature chocolate delights, covered in smooth and refined chocolate and infused with flavors like blood orange, meyer lemon, and burnt caramel. There were caramels topped with merlot salt, a bergamot truffle infused with earl grey tea, and a chili spiced dark chocolate—all of them made in the back of the shop. High-quality chocolate, natural flavors, and handmade beauty all combined to make me giddy with delight.

As luck would have it, Noah and I went out for a lovely dinner that evening at Ted’s Montana Grill, located on Bozeman’s beautiful Main Street in the historic Baxter Hotel. And who had set up a gleaming orange and chocolate colored oasis in the lobby? It was La Châtelaine’s satellite location.

First, we walked past it, too full of roasted chicken and Delmonico steak to think about dessert, but an after-dinner sweet tooth slowed me down as we passed “La Petite Chatelaine” just long enough to notice a gleaming, churning tank of thick chocolat. Hot chocolat. We got halfway down the block before I decided we must turn around, dragging Noah, who was not so reluctant to indulge in his own steaming hot cocoa, topped with a handmade marshmallow and a dollop of whipped cream.

“Mmm,” he said in his masculine grunting sort of way, expressing his approval with a nod. No words, just attentive sipping. I could tell he really liked it.

If you’ve read the book "Chocolat" by Joanne Harris, there’s a good chance you remember the way the author describes the hot chocolat served in the main character’s candy shop; more elixir than beverage, possessing the power to hold it’s drinkers in a blissful trance. Her vivid descriptions tortured me with cravings for a French-style hot chocolate I had never tasted and didn’t know how to make. After the first sip from my little paper cup, my years-old craving was sated. This was the hot chocolat of Chocolat.

Driving back to our hotel, I found myself under the influence of chocolate-induced endorphins.

“I love you Noah!” I blurted. He laughed one of those ‘you are such a huge dork’ laughs. “I think this hot chocolate is like, intensifying my feelings,” I said.

We were both taken by surprise. Bozeman has changed a lot since our love story began in this neck of Western Montana, almost fourteen years ago. We spent our recent time there in awe of the changes, the growth, both good and bad. Alluring boutiques and the blight of big box stores canvassed over the foundation of what was not long ago one of the last real cowboy towns. Like any beautiful place, it has drawn people to it, and all that comes with that. Who would have ever thought that a place like La Châtelaine, worthy of the shop fronts of Paris, would grace this little Big Sky town?

Whatever drew the Grochowski’s to Bozeman, the people of this town are lucky they did. I left the store with one of those beautiful orange and brown boxes, but the contents of this one will never last to see the inside of a safe deposit box.

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