Joël Durand The Best Chocolate Maker in Provence
A Precocious Talent
“As a young boy in Brittany,” says Joël Durand, “I had three dreams—to be a chef, a pastry-maker, or a race car driver.” A smile crosses his face. “My parents made it clear that driving race cars was not in the cards, so I started cooking when I was six.”
Durand quit school at 14 and apprenticed as a pastry maker in Cherbourg. His talent quickly became apparent because he had a professional certification as a pastry maker and as a confectioner, chocolatier, and ice-cream maker within three years. And that was just the beginning.
At the age of 17, Durand was hired by not one but two restaurants simultaneously, managing over two dozen pastry makers. And these were not just any restaurants, but top destinations in the resort town of Megève—one of the restaurants had a Michelin star!
After Megève, Durand took his talents to Scotland, directing the pastry operation at the famous Turnberry hotel. Then he returned to France, working at luxury hotels before finally opening his shop back home in Brittany. He found himself working more and more with chocolates and finally, in 1996, decided to move to Provence, opening a chocolate boutique in St-Rémy-de-Provence.
Going to the Source
Why Provence? Durand had become fascinated with infusing chocolate with different flavours. He had begun developing new chocolates, starting with chocolate with lavender, and wanted to be close to where the flavours originate. Provence is a wonderland of scents and flavours, and here Durand could seek out the farmers who could provide him with the best ingredients or even forage himself. In addition, he could experiment with different flavours to see which went best with chocolate.
Hence was born Durand’s flagship product, the Alphabet of Flavors. Each imprinted with a letter of the alphabet, this series of chocolates contains a wide variety of different flavours. It is remarkable how well he combines them, the rich chocolate balancing perfectly with another flavour, expressing each beautifully. There are so many flavours that Durand has run out of letters and started using punctuation marks!
The flavours of Provence are well-represented by chocolate with lavender, chocolate with thyme, and chocolate with rosemary, among others. However, so do Durand’s native Brittany essences, featuring chocolate combined with that region’s famous salted butter caramel. And Durand is not afraid to try flavours from far-flung lands, so you’ll find things like chocolate with jasmine and chocolate with Sichuan pepper. Whatever combination you can think of, Durand has probably tried it.
Many of Durand’s chocolates feature the image of an elephant in a jungle, but why is that? “It reflects the route d’épices (spice road) and all the Asian flavors that I love to use.” He smiles. “I designed it myself.”
Durand has earned a reputation for excellence not only in Provence but throughout France. He has been featured in French newspapers and magazines and has appeared on national television, explaining why people come from far and wide to visit his boutique.
A Passion for Discovery
The Alphabet of Flavors is an example of Durand’s creative approach. “My passion is to help people discover new tastes, new aromas. I’m inspired by the people I meet and the smells and tastes in the local markets. I’ll try anything!” He has recently been working with a Canadian dance company, creating chocolates with maple syrup. “Maple syrup is very tricky to work with,” he says, “but I’m delighted with the results and so are they.”
Durand’s passion has recently taken him to Menton, a French coastal city famous for its sunshine and citrus trees. Working closely with small producers, he has developed a series of flavours he calls La Mentonnaise. Offerings include chocolate with mandarin orange, chocolate with clementine, and my favourite, chocolate with lime. He also makes citrus jams and confit fruit, plus several combinations of balsamic vinegar infused with citrus flavours.
“I am so excited about these products that I’m planning to open a second boutique and workshop in Menton. I’ll have to split my time between St-Rémy and Menton, but the possibilities are incredible!”
Joël Durand Maître Chocolatier (website)
3 boulevard Victor Hugo
Tel: +33 (0)4 90 92 38 25
Closed Sunday afternoon and all day on Mondays
There are English speaking staff available
Visitors are offered a sample of the Alphabet of Flavors—try one!
Image Credits: All images courtesy of Joël Durand except for the exterior photo, which I took.
This article is based on content that Keith is collecting for his third book, “An Insiders Guide to Provence,” with a publication date of December 2021. Click here to pre-order the book.