Who would have thought of the Basque Country as one of the first places in Europe to be home to chocolate-making as we know it today? Surprisingly, this aspect of the region’s rich heritage is only beginning to receive recognition.
Anxious to learn more about the world of my Portuguese and Basque forebears, I decide to travel through history to find out how cocoa beans and chocolate-makers made their way to this region where the Pyrenees meet the Atlantic Ocean in south-western France and northern Spain.
Evidence of chocolate-making in the Basque Country dates back to around 1600, some decades after Hernán Cortés first tasted the exquisite spicy cacao drink at the Aztec court of Montezuma in Mexico in 1519.
This special spicy cocoa drink recipe was brought back and reserved for members of the Spanish royal family and the Spanish aristocracy. Cocoa was quickly regarded as something so valuable that the Spanish Crown sought to monopolise the cocoa trade.
The first chocolate-makers in the Basque Country were Portuguese Jews, fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, which at that time was also active in Portugal.
Many Portuguese Jews made their way to Bayonne, an important commercial hub close to the Spanish border. Confined to the neighbourhood of Saint-Esprit, on the north bank of the Adour estuary, they brought with them new trades, notably that of chocolate-making.
As I admire the view across the Adour, I try to imagine the once bustling port of Bayonne, a gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. It would have been here that cargos of cacao arrived from South America.
However, it still remains a mystery to me on how the first cocoa beans made their way to the port of Bayonne in the early 1600s particularly since the Spanish Crown monopolised the cocoa trade. Some historians say that the Dutch, Spain’s main religious enemy, was notorious for looting Spanish cargoes crossing the Atlantic. The Basques, reputed for being hardcore smugglers, may have contributed to the contraband of cocoa to the Basque inland.
Archives dating back to the 17th century in Bayonne’s oldest museum include documents describing Portuguese Jewish inhabitants as “makers of chocolate”. However, this valuable trade was not to remain long in their hands.
Local Basque workers quickly picked up the craft of chocolate-making and began to create their own chocolate workshops. By the early 1700s, the French Court had discovered and adopted the delicious chocolate beverage.
The craft of chocolate-making was becoming such an important and profitable business that the Portuguese Jews were soon to be excluded from it. In 1725, a municipal decree prohibited Bayonne’s Jewish community from making and selling chocolate.
It wasn’t long before the craft of chocolate-making began to extend into the Basque countryside. By the late 18th century, there were more than 60 Basque chocolate-makers scattered through the many villages of the Basque Country.
It is amazing to think that nearly every small Basque village would have once had a chocolate-making shop, as important as a local bakery is today in France. Some towns, such as Saint Jean Pied de Port, an important location on the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, even had two chocolate-making shops.
I visit the museum created by Christophe Puyodebat, a passionate chocolatier and collector of chocolate-related antiques, above his chocolate boutique in Cambo-les-Bains. A stop at this chocolate museum is a real “must” if you are in the vicinity.
Here, I see some early instruments used for pressing the cocoa beans, known as pierres à broyer, from which cocoa mass would have been produced to create Europe’s first chocolate recipes. In order to do this, the beans would first have been roasted, removed from their shells and pressed into nibs. A charcoal fire beneath the concave granite stone would have been used to heat it up in order to facilitate the pressing of the beans. One can imagine what hard work it must have been, pressing the beans with the wooden roller over the burning stone until they were transformed into a homogenous sweet chocolate mass.
I am fascinated by Christophe’s vast collection of old chocolate machines, chocolate packagings, chocolate-drinking china cups and beautifully decorated pitchers, or chocolatières, accompanied by their wooden frothers, or moussoirs à bois, used to create a dense chocolate foam on top of the renowned “chocolat mousseux”.
The “tasse à moustache”, or cup for the moustache, is the most exquisite china cup I have ever seen. Christophe has collected more than 150 of these special chocolate cups, from different parts of Europe. As Christophe explains, these were the perfect cups for men in the 18th and 19th centuries to drink their frothy chocolate without staining their elegant moustaches.
To discover how frothy chocolate tastes, you can go to Chocolat Cazenave, one of Bayonne’s oldest chocolate stores on Rue Pont Neuf in Bayonne’s historical centre. Ask for the “chocolat mousseux”, and if you have the necessary facial accoutrements surprise them with your knowledge by asking them if they can serve it in a “tasse à moustache”! perfect for those who are supporting Movember… though you would probably need to explain what this means to the French.
By the mid-1800s, as the demand of chocolate begun to grow, the craft of chocolate-making in the Basque Country had in some cases become a major family enterprise. Also in Cambo-les-Bains, I meet Madame Genay-Fagalde, the seventh generation descendant of a family whose Chocolaterie Fagalde was the first industrial chocolate factory in France.
As Madame Genay-Fagalde digs out old documents and photos from her treasure chest, she tells me about her family ancestry. In 1802, Jean Fagalde, a chocolate artisan from the village of Hélette further inland made his way on foot to Cambo accompanied by his wife, their two children and his donkey, carrying his most valuable possession: his chocolate stone.
Over the years, Jean Fagalde’s sons took the business forward. In 1855, the Chocolaterie Fagalde became the first chocolate-making business in France to use the Hermann steam engine chocolate-making machine.
The Fagalde family were also famous as the pioneers behind Cambo’s thermal baths. During the 19th century, Cambo-les-Bains was famous both for its chocolate and as a thermal span becoming a popular destination for the French royalty and noble families.
Unfortunately in the wake of the First World War and the Great Depression, the Fagalde chocolate business begun to suffer. In 1938, with no family member to take the business forward, it was bought by the descendants of Pascal Noblia, a former employee of Jean Fagalde who had set up his own chocolate business.
The Maison Noblia continued the Basque chocolate-making tradition in Cambo for several decades more. But it, too, fell on hard times, and in 2001, close to bankruptcy, it finally closed its doors.