15 March 2008

The Golden Star of Denise Acabo

Arranging the Bernachon chocolate bars:
A long way from Hershey

UPDATE: As of spring 2014, Mme Acabo has closed her shop. Signs posted on the storefront thank her customers for their unshakable support.

I remade the acquaintance last week of Denise Acabo, the proprietress of what must be one of the most distinctive candy shops in France, not least for its location — which is just off the Place Pigalle. Improbably nestled among sex shops and kebab restaurants, l’Étoile d’Or (The Golden Star) looks like any respectable neighborhood candy shop in this country. Once you walk inside, however, you quickly discover that there’s nothing ordinary about the place, and that Mme Acabo is no ordinary bonbon-monger.

Seldom anywhere and never in France have I met anyone who takes more pleasure in her work: she is nothing short of inspirational. I arrived the other day with a friend who was visiting from New York, and we found Mme Acabo in an expansive mood, eager to share with us the stories behind each and every candy.

Because she specializes in high-quality products direct from the regional makers, and a number of certifiable classic candies with venerable (and sometimes titillating) histories, she has abundant subject matter — and she loves to talk (and to sing) about these things. You’d be amazed, as we were, to learn how many candies were used as aphrodisiacs, or to ward off venereal disease, or to feed the starving during plague years. Some of the candies are made using recipes that are hundreds of years old (or thousands, as in the case of the Graines d’Anis, candy-coated pellets originated by the Greeks), and many (Bergamottes from Nancy, Calissons from Aix) are symbols more important than any flag of the discrimination and flavor of the towns they come from.

It must be said that I’d heard of many — most — of the delicacies on display, although I’d sampled only inferior specimens in other places, never the really high-end wares that Mme Acabo sells. I didn’t dare tell her so.

“I love good food,” Mme Acabo declared at one point, “but if it’s not the highest quality, I’d rather eat nothing at all.” She told us that she seeks out the best and most authentic variety of each candy, and in many cases you can buy a particular bonbon either from the maker or from her, and from nobody else on earth — or at least from nobody else in Paris, which as we know amounts to much the same thing.

She’s especially keen on freshness, and when possible she sells candies made with organic materials. “You wouldn’t believe the artificial colors people try to sell,” she said. Well, yes, actually, I would; I’m from America.

Proving that it’s possible to own a candy shop and still have good teeth

She’s been in the business for some 30 years, she told us, but she has the enthusiasm and fashion sense of a schoolgirl: she wears jumpers and plaid skirts, and keeps her hair in pigtails.

One would speak of a kid in a candy store, except that she’s a shrewd businesswoman — and moreover, on my first visit to the shop, a year ago or so, Mme Acabo was assisted by her granddaughter, a little girl of seven or eight, who was as sober and reserved as any grownup. The lesson: Candy is serious.

But candy is also magical, and I’m reminded of Mrs. Corrie, a character in the Mary Poppins books. In her sweet shop, she sells gingerbread (as does Mme Acabo), and on each piece of gingerbread is a gold star. Children aren’t allowed to keep the stars; they must return them to Mrs. Corrie. And then one night, Jane and Michael Banks look out their window to see Mrs. Corrie atop an immense ladder, held in place by her two very tall daughters. With a pot of paste in one hand, she’s sticking those stars against the sky.

I’m betting Mme Acabo could do the same thing, if she chose to.