When one thinks of the best chocolates in the world, French, Belgian, and Swiss chocolates are usually what come to mind. And, in the U.S.A.? New York City would be a safe bet for finding the best American chocolates. St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra, Florida, are probably not even on the radar.
One taste of Claude’s Chocolates ( http://www.claudeschocolate.com ), in St. Augustine, had me asking, “How does an amazing chocolate like this end up here?”
I contacted Nicole Franques, Claude’s wife, to inquire about touring their Ponte Vedra location, where Claude makes his exquisite creations. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, although they do not give formal tours, she would be happy to show us around the kitchen of their chocolate shop.
On our way back home to Georgia, from our St. Augustine vacation, we stopped in to meet Claude & Nicole Franques, and their assistant, Suzy.
One step inside through the front door (and a very deep breath to take in the euphoric smell of chocolate), and I felt like I was back in Europe, visiting a French chocolate shop. The chocolates were beautiful, as were the displays; it was a feast for the eyes.
Nicole welcomed us warmly and ushered us back into the kitchen, behind the large glass window, where we met Claude and Suzy, preparing for the days’ production.
Claude was as warm and welcoming as his wife; very open to showing us the equipment he uses to assist in his production of fine French chocolates. Between Claude and Nicole, each step of the chocolate production was explained in such an interesting and engaging way that I suggested they add chocolate tours and tastings to their business. They answered every question so graciously, even the one question most chocolate makers are too secretive to reveal: “What brand of chocolate do you use for your ganache base and coatings?” (That would be Belcolade, from Belgium: http://www.belcolade.be )
But, the most burning question I just had to ask was how a French chef like Claude ended up in Ponte Vedra, Florida?
In 1973, Claude came to the U.S.A., from Toulouse, France, to work as a French chef. He was sponsored by Nicole’s father to work in his restaurant, in Manhattan, New York. And, that is how Claude and Nicole first met- and, where they fell in love.
Ultimately, the two continued the legacy of Rene Pujol Restaurant for 20 years, before Claude and Nicole decided it was time to retire to their chosen locale, St. Augustine.
Claude wasn’t the type to retire to a rocking chair, however; he wanted to pursue his dream of making fine French chocolates, following in the footsteps of his close friend, Jacques Torres, a well known French pastry chef, who has become a successful chocolatier, in New York City.
The two met in 1989, working as French chefs in New York City. In 2000, Jacques pursued his dream and opened his first chocolate shop. When Claude decided it was also the path he wanted to follow, Jacque invited him to work at his shop and learn the process of making fine French chocolates. So, for six months, Claude trained under Jacques, back in the kitchen, while Nicole worked in the front of the store, learning about packaging and selling chocolates.
In 2005, they opened their first chocolate shop in their original downtown St. Augustine location. Recently, they moved their main shop and production kitchen to Ponte Vedra, as well as a smaller shop at their Granada Street location, near Flagler College.
Although any of Claude’s chocolate creations can be purchased at their St. Augustine location (6 Granada Street), one visit to their Ponte Vedra location (see below for details) and a taste of one of Claude’s exquisite chocolates will convince you that Claude and Nicole learned the fine points of the entire chocolate business very well. From the Chewy Caramel with Sea Salt to the Mayan Spicy, Claude’s bonbons and truffles are decadent, delicious treats!
Visit Claude’s Chocolate at:
The Shoppes at St. Johns Oaks
145 Hilden Road
Ponte Vedra, FL 32081
Tel: (904) 829-5790
Mon – Sat 10 AM – 6 PM