Indulge Your Senses and Don’t Forget to Share
Do you love fine chocolate? If the answer is yes, do I have a scoop for you! The next time you’re in Ponte Vedra or St. Augustine, Florida, – the lucky people who live there already know – be sure to pamper your palate at Claude’s Chocolate. Everything you see in either of the stores is handmade with fresh ingredients, tempting to the eye and impossible to resist.
Simon, Otto and I had the opportunity to visit both Claude’s Chocolate stores and meet owners, Claude and Nicole Franques. Nicole graciously took time out of her busy schedule to speak with us on two separate occasions, giving us a new respect for those who make their living in chocolate.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this decadent confectionary. My first encounter with a magical chocolatier was in Boquete, Panama with Chox. At that time, Deborah Gershon was making chocolate in her kitchen from the bean to the box. The results were simple and scrumptious. Then there was Chocolat by Adam Turoni in Savannah. His are works of art down to the last detail. Like Chox and Chocolat by Adam Turoni, Claude’s Chocolate is in a unique class with freshly made ganache and a variety of treats that will make your head spin. In other words, viva la difference.
How Do They Do That?
Both Claude’s Chocolate locations sell their impressive range of chocolate delights, but Claude and his pastry chef associate, Susie, produce all the truffles, bonbons, bark, and other goodies at the 2,00 square foot Ponte Vedra store.
When Nicole showed us around the production area, we were surprised at how little there was in the way of sophisticated machinery. One reason is that the chocolate Claude uses isn’t produced onsite. It is imported from Belgium through a chocolate manufacturing company with a long history of quality and consistency. Also, Claude and Susie make everything by hand.
Claude uses fresh butter and cream to make the ganache with which he fills his creations. He then heats it to a precise temperature on the stovetop before pouring it in a thin layer into a mold. The ganache needs at least 24 hours to become firm enough for the next step. Then using a tool with thin wires called a guitar, Claude cuts it into uniform Pieces. The ganache is now ready to be placed on a conveyer belt and sent through the enrober.
The enrober is a versatile machine designed to coat things with chocolate: ganache, pretzels, crystallized ginger, Oreo cookies, peanut brittle, and anything else that tastes good wearing it. As the treat of choice moves through, it is coated by way of a curtain of chocolate from a tank that tempers and keeps it at the correct temperature. The perfectly coated pieces emerge and are gently dropped on to wax paper where transfers do their work marking them for easy identification of the filling. Some pieces are pressed with the tines of a fork or decorated in some other way.
A less complex machine is used to temper chocolate and fill individual molds with a thin layer from a spout near the bottom. These chocolates need at least two days to set and are then, after being filled, sealed with a top layer of chocolate, followed by more hardening time.
Claude Franques was born and raised in France and in the 1970s, was working as a chef. Nicole’s parents owned a bistro in Manhattan’s theater district and needed a chef. Her father signed Claude’s visa enabling him to work in the United States, and when Nicole met Claude in the restaurant, it was a recipe for romance.
Starting near the bottom of the culinary totem pole at the bistro had its frustrations for Claude. Salmon was the only fish on the menu, and mashed potatoes were classified as a vegetable. But as he moved up the ladder, Claude gradually began making changes to the menu. His timing was impeccable, as American palates were beginning to develop a higher level of sophistication. By the time Claude and Nicole left NYC to retire in Florida, 15 varieties of fish could be found on the bistro’s menu.
When the Franques first arrived in Florida, they opened a bistro. So much for retirement. This wasn’t what the couple had in mind, so after two years, they threw in the dish towel and decided to find something less all-consuming to occupy their time.
They didn’t have to look far. While still in Manhattan, Claude had begun to dip his spoon into the art of chocolate making with the help and encouragement of a friend who was a pastry chef. Now he makes chocolate full-time and loves it.
After more than ten years in the chocolate business, Claude and Nicole are still working hard, and there have been sources of stress by the names of Matthew and Irma, which caused serious flood damage in the St. Augustine store. Despite hurricanes and other challenges, producing and selling fine chocolate is still easier than operating a full-service restaurant. For one thing, there are fewer ingredients to worry about and none that are highly perishable. But the best part is that they can be home most evenings.
When you visit one of Claude’s locations, the biggest challenge will be deciding what to try first. Simon and I sampled three of Nicole’s favorites on our first visit:
- Dark chocolate with hazelnut ganache: The filling had an easily identifiable, but subtle, hazelnut flavor. The texture was luxuriously creamy, as are all of Claude’s ganaches.
- Dark chocolate with lemon ganache: The flavor of the filling was more pronounced than the hazelnut, but not in the least overpowering. Several months later, I stood in front of a gelato shop, savoring the same flavor combination and remembering that chocolate.
- Dark chocolate with absinthe ganache: I’m not a big fan of licorice, but the absinthe in this ganache was gentle and created a perfect balance of flavors with the chocolate.
Although approximately three-quarters of the chocolate Claude uses is dark, confections of milk and white chocolate are still popular. One of the store’s best sellers is a Mimosa Truffle: white chocolate with a bubbly and orange infused ganache.
Claude isn’t afraid to introduce exotic flavors to his ganaches. Earl Gray tea, ginger and passion fruit can be found alongside the peanut butter and salted caramel treats.
The stores sell large quantities of assorted barks: nuts, peppermint, and cranberry with pumpkin seeds during the holiday season. And speaking of the holidays, truffles, bonbons, brittles, bars and Claude’s signature hot chocolate, make thoughtful gifts for your favorite folks.
Claude and Nicole do all their own packaging. If you’re in a hurry, you can find pre-boxed truffles. Or you can pick up a box and fill it with the chocolates of your choice. Don’t feel like chocolates? Try some of Claude’s cookies or pound cake.
You never know where you might encounter Claude’s Chocolate. Claude custom-creates chocolates for a local art gallery, a shop specializing in exotic oils and kinds of vinegar, and St. Augustine Distillery. The favors at your next wedding, birthday party, or other special events may turn out to be one of Claude’s creations. You may even find yourself participating in a chocolate-making class at the Claude’s Chocolate store in Ponte Vedra. There’s no escaping Claude’s chocolaty goodness, but then, who wants to?
Hints for Happier Chocolate Consumption
All Claude’s Chocolate for his creations is stored in a room in the Ponte Vedra store. Large bags of pellets and enormous blocks wait to be transformed into tasty treats. But what if you want to store those treats at home? Nicole had this advice:
- The optimum temperature for storing chocolate is 69 degrees. This is the exact temperature in the stores.
- It’s best not to refrigerate chocolate if possible
- If you must refrigerate, wrap the box tightly in plastic and make sure the chocolate comes to room temperature before unwrapping.
- Keep chocolate away from humidity and water. “Water and chocolate are mortal enemies.”
- You can vacuum pack chocolate to retain its freshness longer.
- Keep chocolate away from items that produce strong odors such as onions and scented candles. Chocolate will take on the odors, which will compromise its flavor.
- Chocolates containing ganache should be eaten within two to three weeks. After that, it will still be edible, but the flavor won’t be as good.
- Solid bars will last several months if stored at the right temperature.
Claude’s Secret Ingredients
Claude knows how to make fine chocolate. By now, he can probably do it in his sleep. But as outstanding as his confections are, there several other ingredients that make Claude’s Chocolate stand out.
Let’s begin with customer service. Claude and Nicole have developed a strong local following and many customers are regulars. They will consistently choose Claude’s Chocolate when they want to purchase a special gift, need favors for an event or are craving a secret nosh. Of course, they love the chocolate, but it’s the way they’re treated that keeps them coming back for more.
Another ingredient is a dedication to quality. Fresh ingredients and fine Belgian chocolate are the foundation for Claude’s creativity and skill. The chocolate contains 100 percent cocoa butter and has no preservatives.
Add to this combination a hefty dose of courage and determination in the face of major challenges, and you have something superior.
If I needed a holiday present, a hostess gift, or a sweet way to say, “I love you,” Claude’s Chocolate would be my go-to store. And I’d treat myself to some of that addictive chocolate covered ginger – just because.
145 Hilden Rd.
Ponte Vedra, FL 32081
Open Monday Through Saturday From 10 AM – 6 PM
6 Granada Street,
St. Augustine, FL, 32084
Open Daily from 10 AM – 6 PM
Keep up with the delicious doings on the company’s Facebook page.