CLAUDE’S CHOCOLATES: A DELICIOUS DISCOVERY!

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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.

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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.

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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 )

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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

Hours:
Mon – Sat 10 AM – 6 PM
Closed Sunday

ST. AUGUSTINE CITY WALKS: TOUR DE CHOCOLATE

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The time had arrived; Saturday at 2:00 PM: CHOCOLATE TIME!

After first reading about this tour in the St. Augustine/ Ponte Vedra, Florida’s Historic Coast 2013 Travel Planner, I immediately ran to the computer to look up the tour on Trip Advisor. Good news; the reviews were positive, so I was ready to book our tour( http://www.staugustinecitywalks.com )!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was very happy that Isabelle added a tour to their calendar, just for us. As it turned out, we were the only two on Ed’s tour, yesterday afternoon. Lucky us!

The reviews had all emphasized the quantity (and quality) of chocolates, chocolate desserts, and chocolate drinks that would be served during the tour. So, a strategy was hatched: Bring a thermal bag with a sheet of re-freezable ice and take my servings (except drinks) to go. We would then share Bruce’s servings.

As it turned out, it worked out to be a perfect strategy. At the end of the tour, we weren’t stuffed or sick. And, I am now enjoying another amazing serving of chocolate covered cannelloni, as I peck this out on my netbook…

Before I continue, I must pause here to thank my very willing and enthusiastic sherpa: Bruce. Without Bruce, I would have had a very sore neck from carrying and increasingly heavier bag, due to the full-sized desserts we were given on the tour, along with our packages of chocolates and bottled water.

Our guide for the tour, Ed, was a very upbeat and enthusiastic guy, who also happened to be a speech professor at Flagler College. Speech is the appropriate topic for him to teach, because, man, that guy could talk! But, he was very knowledgeable about the history of St. Augustine, so we received a good history lesson, in between our chocolate indulgences.

We didn’t have to walk far on this City Walks tour for our first chocolate stop; we went right next door from the Tours Saint Augustine/ St. Augustine City Walks office to meet Mark, owner of The Market on Granada; a specialty gourmet shop that sells a chocolate infused red wine ( http://www.themarketongranada.com ). We were poured a glass of Chocolate Rouge wine (Modesto, California) to pair with creamy Havarti cheese and Le Gruyere cheese. Wow; what a great pairing!

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Ed asked us to save half of our wine serving for our next pairing: Claude’s Chocolates (http://www.claudeschocolate.com/ ) . Located in the back of the same shop, Claude’s is a small chocolatier, selling high-end, high-quality European style chocolates. Claude’s best friend and mentor is Jacque Torres; a world renowned chocolatier and pastry chef. The two grew up together and Jacque taught and trained Claude in the fine art of making premium chocolates.

Claude learned well. His chocolates were as exquisite as what I had remembered enjoying from the best chocolatiers I visited and bought chocolates from in Belgium. We tasted three different dark chocolates and paired them with our chocolate infused wine. HEAVEN.

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We then got to select four chocolates each, as well as our preferred variety of chocolate bark to take in boxes to go. Bruce let me select his four for him. I married a great guy, didn’t I? Although, I’m sure any of Claude’s chocolates are amazing!

Next stop: Right next door (again!) to Hot Shots Bakery & Café (http://www.hotshotbakery.com/ ) . Hey, I thought this was supposed to be a walking tour! How are we supposed to walk off all that chocolate if we keep going door-to-door? We got a good laugh out of that, but it was very convenient!

Hot Shots served us a “Chocolate Cloud”; chocolate cake topped with chocolate mousse and covered with dark chocolate. Decadent! I was very happy they packed one to go, because it was quite rich and filling!

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We continued on our walking tour to Vino Del Grotto, a “Galleria Lounge” where wine tastings are offered, desserts and coffees served, wine and gourmet goodies are sold, and gorgeous art hangs on the walls (http://vinodelgrotto.com/ ).

We tasted everything pictured below; some mixed together in a decadent chocolate cocktail. I enjoyed it all, but we went crazy over the chocolate balsamic. We returned later, after the tour, to buy a bottle. (Shhhh! Don’t tell them this, but we would have bought a bottle, anyway, even if we hadn’t each been given a $2 off coupon!)

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In between stops, Ed filled us in on St. Augustine’s history; much of what we had already heard on the previous nights’ City Walks tour with Maggie. But, we didn’t mind; the history of St. Augustine is full of interesting tales, well worth telling and hearing again.

All of our stops were within the Old Town and Spanish Quarter of St. Augustine; the most historic and picturesque part of the city. And, we were fortunate to have a beautiful day to enjoy.

Our next stop brought us to Chianti Room (http://www.pizzalleyschiantiroom.com/ ); an Italian restaurant that gets very good reviews on Trip Advisor. If their chocolate covered cannoli is any indication of how good their other food is, I would highly recommend this restaurant when you visit St. Augustine. If you don’t go there for dinner, at least go for dessert; specifically THIS dessert. I have never been particularly crazy for cannoli; I can take it or leave it. But, one bite of this chocolate cannoli and I was smitten. No, I was HOOKED. Seriously. If I lived in St. Augustine, I would get into BIG trouble (both in the wallet and waistline) with that stuff!

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Needless to say, when Bruce passed on sharing the remainder of the second serving, tonight, and let me polish it off on my own, I was seriously smitten with HIM!

At this point, we waddled out of Chianti Room, staggering in a chocolate stupor to our next chocolate stop: Crucial Coffee (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g34599-d2390703-Reviews-Crucial_Coffee_Cafe-Saint_Augustine_Florida.html ) .

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Thank goodness for our thermal bag. By this point, we really needed it. (Note to Isabelle at St. Augustine City Walks: Suggest to your boss he has some thermal bags made with “St. Augustine City Walks Tour de chocolate” printed on it. You could sell them to your tour customers, specifically for this tour! And, you can pay my commission for the idea in Claude’s chocolate or Chianti Room chocolate cannoli!)

At Crucial Coffee, we were killed with chocolate (and wine) kindness. We were first poured a glass of pinot noir, to enjoy in their lovely outdoor café, while admiring the quaintness of the little hut where they operate. It dates back to the late 1700’s where a blacksmith used to work.

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Our glass of wine was followed by a frozen mint hot chocolate drink that was refreshing and delicious. We thought that would be it, which would have been just fine with us. But, it was followed by a dessert trio of homemade dark chocolate peanut butter cups, a chocolate covered strawberry, and vanilla ice cream topped with a dark chocolate garnish. Awesome!

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Now, we were on a serious chocolate high, as we buzzed up the steps to Fudge Buckets (http://fudgebuckets.com/ ), to taste various flavors of fudge. I had previously purchased four “buckets” (and got a fifth bucket free), on the recommendation of other Trip Advisor reviewers, so I am now well stocked for a fudge tasting encore, upon our return.

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Mercifully, this concluded our Tour de Chocolate. Ahhh, but I was one happy camper! My taste buds were smiling.

We had great fun on our tour and enjoyed our time with Ed. The only thing missing was not hearing more about chocolate history and facts; something I would include if I ran a similar tour. But, I did learn one thing about St. Augustine’s chocolate history: Chocolate made its way to St. Augustine’s shores in 1671; long before Milton Hershey came on to the seen!