Bayonne is where the secret of chocolate-making first came to France, brought by Sephardic Jews driven from Spain and Portugal by the Inquisition in the 15th century. Many Jewish families settled in the Saint Esprit quarter of Bayonne and began producing the chocolate drink, quickly acquiring a reputation for the quality of the chocolate and the precision of their blends. Bayonne was thus the first town in France to successfully work the cocoa bean and today still enjoys a reputation for its famous chocolate. Bayonne was also the first European country to establish a chocolate factory in 1761.
Chocolate was discovered by Christopher Columbus during his expedition to the New World between 1502 and 1504 and the story goes that he was convinced he would encounter Jewish traders on his journey so he brought along a Jew as a Hebrew interpreter. Although he met no Jews in the New World, he did find oddly shaped "almonds" that were highly valued by the natives - cacao beans. It was his fellow explorer, the Spanish Conquistador Don Herman Cortes, who first realised their commercial value. He brought cocoa beans back to Spain in 1528 and very gradually, the custom of drinking the chocolate spread across Europe, reaching England in the 1650s. Drinking chocolate became very popular at the court of King Charles II and the first London Chocolate House was opened in 1657 by a Frenchman who produced the first advertisement for the chocolate drinks to be seen in London:
"In Bishopgate St, in Queen's Head Alley, at a Frenchman's house, is an excellent West Indian drink called Chocolate to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time and also unmade at reasonable rates."
A display in the Musée Basque in Bayonne shows how, as early as 1609, Jewish merchants would roast the cacao in a small oven, and, after cooling the beans in a canvas bag, crush them into a paste on a heated, concave stone platform mounted on a tripod. The platform had to be schlepped from house to house, with the chocolatiers kneeling in front of the platforms for up to an hour to coax the beans into a form that could be whipped into a proper cup of hot chocolate. When Anne, daughter of Phillip II of Spain married King Louis XIII of France. The French court adopted this new exotic drink with great fervour. It was considered to have medicinal benefits as well as being a nourishing food.
Gradually the secret of chocolate's manufacture got out, and in 1761, a group of Catholic chocolate makers banded together into a corporation that excluded the original Sephardic merchants from the trade. Reputed to have medicinal value, the chocolate of Bayonne was discovered by Parisian physicians, who prescribed it to the royal family. By 1875, the city boasted 31 chocolatiers, who employed a workforce larger than all the chocolate-makers in Switzerland!
Nowadays there are 11 chocolatiers in Bayonne and the French treat their chocolate very much like wine. The flavour nuances depend on the quality and origin of the cocoa beans used to make it. The best chocolates are an artful blend of four or more different beans, each with its own flavour, force and persistence - each from a different geographical origin: Venezuela, Brazil, the Ivory Coast, Madagascar. The chocolatiers treat the characteristics of different cocoa beans as a vintner praises the qualities of different grape varieties and crus. A heightened understanding of different crus of beans has spurred a trend in recent years toward labelling chocolates by the origin of their predominate bean. For the real chocolate connoisseur, the appellations "dark chocolate" and "milk chocolate" seem as vague as "red wine" and "white wine." Fans of French chocolate now look for references such as Guanaja, Manjari, Pur Caraibe or Guayaquil on their chocolate bars.