Primo chocolate in a corporate park

A visitor reaches for a sample during a tasting/tour at Michel Cluizel Chocolatrium, in the French chocolatier's U.S. headquarters in West Berlin, Camden County.
A visitor reaches for a sample during a tasting/tour at Michel Cluizel Chocolatrium, in the French chocolatier's U.S. headquarters in West Berlin, Camden County. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 14, 2014

Michel Cluizel's award-winning, tres French, premium chocolates originate in places like Santo Domingo and Madagascar, at fair-trade, organic cacao plantations shaded by towering banana plants.

The beans are shipped to a workshop in Normandy, where Cluizel first started out 55 years ago. Workers there transform them into fine chocolate, and craft it into bars, truffles, pellets called minigrammes, and ornate decorations.

But, to reach the U.S. market, the chocolate makes a less-romantic and rather unlikely pit stop: an anonymous corporate park on Route 73 in West Berlin. Incongruous though it may be, this is Cluizel's American headquarters. For the last year, it has also housed a chocolate museum - a sort of homespun answer to Hersheypark, but with far fewer special effects and much higher-end chocolate.

"To think this is here, so local, I still can't believe it," said Dotty Trate, a resident at Brightview Greentree, an assisted-living community in Marlton, who was with a group touring the facility on a recent afternoon.

That Cluizel is local is thanks to Jacques Dahan, a French expatriate who launched the U.S. operation a decade ago.

A longtime chocolate executive, Dahan chose the location primarily because it's close to his home in Voorhees. But it also enables him to receive a shipping container from France every three to four weeks - last week, he was awaiting a shipment filled with Valentine's Day orders - and to supply Cluizel's Fifth Avenue cafe and boutique, near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.

Cluizel also serves Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos; fine-dining restaurants from Le Cirque in New York to Spago in Los Angeles; and Philadelphia institutions including the Four Seasons and the Sofitel, according to sales manager Alan Green.

"The finest pastry chefs in the United States purchase our decors: spheres, marbles, and other chocolate forms," Green said. "When you see a gorgeous dessert, that's mostly our products."

Oh, and Cluizel also supplies chocolate to Parc, the Rittenhouse Square brasserie where Dahan's daughter, Abigail (formerly of Le Bec-Fin and the Ritz-Carlton), is executive pastry chef.

She grew up surrounded by French culture and French chocolate, and embraced both, attending pastry school in France and picking up chocolate-working techniques during an apprenticeship at Paris' prestigious Gerard Mulot.

At Parc, Abby Dahan said she prefers Cluizel's Z60, a 60 percent cocoa product, in dishes like her molten chocolate cake and a Valentine's Day special, a chocolate sphere filled with raspberry foam and Dubonnet-scented raspberries over a chocolate sable.

"We use a lot of chocolate here, so we use something that's going to be profitable for us and high quality," she said. "Their chocolate is phenomenal - I'm not just biased."

Thanks to her heritage and training, Dahan makes some of the most traditional French desserts in the city, offerings like Pear Charlotte, a ladyfinger cake soaked in spiced pear syrup, with caramelized pears and salted-caramel ice cream.

Back in South Jersey, and under her father's watch, Cluizel's local team also prepares very traditional French pastries such as eclairs and opera cakes, layered with ganache, sponge cake, and coffee buttercream.

But in one important way, those offerings aren't as traditional as they appear: Cluizel's New Jersey unit is certified kosher and pareve, meaning those creamy pastries and ganache-filled chocolates are actually (and somewhat incredibly) dairy-free.

Pareve truffles, molded-chocolate novelties, and bars made with fresh mint, caramelized almonds, or chiles are also made on site.

Still, unless you're dining out or heading to New York City, tracking down these treats can be a challenge. For local chocolate-lovers, the best bet is to corral a group of 10 or more and head to the museum - make that, Chocolatrium.

Back on the Brightview Greentree tour, Green was doling out shots of Cluizel's drinking chocolate, which is rich, thick, and not too sweet. "We'll tell you about the history of chocolate," Green promised. "We'll also teach you how to enjoy chocolate."

"They don't have to teach me," Marilyn Rotter, a self-diagnosed chocoholic, murmured to a friend.

Still, she followed with interest as Green and Dahan tag-teamed a lecture on the delicacy's history, from its early days as the go-to energy drink for Aztec warriors and Spanish conquistadors alike, through modern-day advances in processing and tempering chocolate for distribution in solid form.

Chocolatrium visitors, so far, have been aged 5 to 100.

Events have included a centenarian's birthday party, field trips for high school French classes, and Girl Scout excursions. For younger visitors, chocolate that's anywhere from 47 percent to 99 percent cocoa solids can be an acquired taste.

"Young children sometimes don't like the hot chocolate or the dark chocolate," Dahan said. Then he offers them white or milk chocolate. "I say, 'Is this something you think you could eventually appreciate?' And many times, they say yes."

Tour groups proceed past the metal chocolate molds Cluizel used when he was starting out, and along a large window where visitors can view chefs at work. During this tour, Frederic Crepin, newly arrived from France, was assembling wafers of meringue into dainty, two-bite macarons.

Then, visitors get to taste the wares: macarons, pastries, ganache- and praline-filled chocolates, and a handful of single-estate minigrammes.

Finally, there's a lecture that amounts to an explanation of just what makes for an $8 chocolate bar, the price tag for Cluizel's offerings.

According to Green, it's where the cacao comes from, how it's processed, and what else goes into the chocolate that makes the difference. Cluizel's chocolates are made from chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, vanilla beans, and sugar. They don't include emulsifying ingredients such as soy lecithin, which shows up in many mass-produced chocolates.

As with many tours, this one ends in the gift shop.

That was fine with Trate, who was on her second visit. "You absorb something different every time you come back," she said.

Plus, she was on a mission: To spread the gospel of chocolate appreciation, in the form of Cluizel chocolate Valentine's Day gifts for her grandchildren.


TOURS AT CLUIZEL

Manufacture Cluizel USA is located at 575 Route 73 North (Building D), West Berlin, N.J. 08091.

Tours: $15-$29 per person, with a 10-person minimum, by appointment only.

Information: 856-719-0800 or www.cluizel.us


Parc's Molten Chocolate Cake

Makes 7 to 8 servings

2 sticks butter

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate

5 ounces Michel Cluizel Z60 or similar quality (60 percent cacao) dark chocolate

4 eggs

5 egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Melt butter and chocolate together in a bowl over a double boiler on medium heat.

3. In a large bowl, whip the eggs, yolks, and sugar until fluffy and triple in volume.

4. With mixer on the lowest speed, stream in the warm, melted butter and chocolate until fully incorporated.

5. Add sifted flour last and mix on second speed for about 30 seconds to ensure there are no lumps.

6. Pour mixture into 4-ounce ramekins and bake for 8 minutes (or less if the dishes are smaller).

- From Parc pastry chef

Abigail Dahan

Per serving: 558 calories, 9 grams protein, 32.9 grams carbohydrates, 20.5 grams sugar, 45.9 grams fat, 313 milligrams cholesterol, 230 milligrams sodium, 4.5 grams dietary fiber.


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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