Shaney Hudson meets a famous French chocolatier and takes home bitter-sweet souvenirs.
Christophe Meyer has the wide eyes of a small child and as he talks, his hands flutter like a bird's wings. He is a third-generation chocolatier from Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France. Chocolate is his life's passion. As we sit in the back room of his salon de the, I realise I am in the presence of a real Willy Wonka.
I knew nothing of Meyer or his chocolate factory before I came to this town, but his patisserie, Christian, has been operating for 100 years. A French friend brought me along to meet him, having swayed me from shopping and sightseeing by the promise of handmade ice-cream, delicate macarons and delectable pralines.
We enjoy a feast of chocolate eclairs filled with fresh cream. We also have champagne ice-cream souffles encased in chocolate. Then we meet the chocolate-maker.
He is a skinny, eccentric-looking man wearing chef's whites that are splattered in chocolate. He walks towards us, his hand outstretched in greeting.
"Chocolate for me is just like wine,'' he begins. "The only difference between wine and chocolate is that wine is liquid and chocolate is solid.
"It's the same passion.''
According to Meyer, there are more than 500 different tastes in dark chocolate. He says the language of wine can be used to describe chocolate.
Meyer explains that the quality of chocolate is dependent on the quality of the soil in which the cacao tree grows, the quality of the cocoa beans the tree produces, and the fermentation process.
We ask him where the best beans come from. He says 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the world's cocoa beans come from Africa, but all the best cocoa beans are from South America and islands such as Madagascar and Haiti.
The real fun takes place during the cooking process. "I'm just like an artist with a paintbrush, and the chocolate from each country is the colour,'' Meyer says. "You mix it with herbs, spices, fruits, everything.''
He much prefers intuition to a recipe. "I am just like a child ... I love playing and my favourite toy is chocolate,'' he says.
Time is ticking away and if we don't leave, we'll miss our afternoon train back to Paris. Meyer jumps up and insists: "You must taste!''
He runs to the vats of ice-cream and scoops out a spoonful of caramel and sweetcorn ice-cream from one tub before scraping a paddle-pop stick through some strawberry and Szechuan orange ice-cream from another. While our taste buds relish the exotic mixture of flavours, he dashes about the shop collecting various wares.
He hands us chocolate-covered mint leaves that have been made using fresh mint from his grandfather's garden; a palm-size box of white-chocolate mango truffles; and a box of lemongrass-infused chocolate drops.
Blocks of chocolate from Suriname, Curacao, Vietnam and Colombia are stacked and handed to me like library books. A box of mixed truffles is added. I struggle to juggle it all while a shop assistant fumbles for a shopping bag in which to put it. Meyer's passion is surpassed only by his generosity.
Two days later, I peel back the pale-green wrapper of a slender block of Christian chocolate and snap off a piece. It is smooth, bittersweet dark chocolate from Haiti, with a strong smokey flavour. Suddenly, from inside the wrapper, there comes a brilliant flash of gold.
I laugh: it's the last of Meyer's secrets. The inside of the wrapper is plated in shiny gold, just like in Roald Dahl's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Just like Charlie, I've found my golden ticket.
The writer was a guest of UTracks and Rail Europe.
Utracks run an eight-day, self-guided cycling tour of Alsace that takes in Strasbourg from $1390, including accommodation, cycle hire, maps and luggage transfers between hotels. 1300303368, utracks.com.au.
Patisserie Christian has two salons de the where you can taste his creations: one at 10 Rue Merciere in the tourist area near the cathedral and tourist office, and the original salon where Meyer creates his chocolate at 12 Rue de l'Outre. +03 88 320 441, christian.fr. Meetings are by appointment only.