Edouard Hirsinger is like his chocolates: natural, pure and bold, with an amazing mixture of creativity, under a delicious coating of freshness. In a word: unique! His “Chocolats vivants” are also a true taste revelation. In his chocolate factory, the Chef, 53, consecrated “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” in 1997, explains his job and his passion as an exceptional craftsman, both rooted in his region’s history and bubbling with new ideas. He works for the return to true authenticity, the one that gives meaning and creates a new sensibility.
It all began in June 1900 when his great-grandfather, Auguste Hirsinger bought the business of a pastry shop in the heart of Arbois (Jura), to continue to make sweet treats (the house is more than 150 years old). Since then, the business has been handed down from father to son. Edouard succeeded three generations of Chocolatiers: his grandfather from 1930 to 1960, his father from 1960 to 1990 and himself since 1993. “I have the weight of history behind me, but this is also a strength. It gives a great serenity to say that we have always held our own. His grandfather had made passive resistance at the arrival of the Germans by closing his shop for five years, even though it was very complicated to live because they had no income.”
With more than a hint of pride, Chef Hirsinger presents the particularity of his old House: “a recipe book from 1892”. All the recipes of his great-grandfather are recorded by hand, including that of the famous chocolate: “le tout t’Chef”, a small pebble made from black praliné and hazelnuts from Italian Piemont, which is still made today.
In 1976, he had the revelation when his parents brought back a box of chocolates from Henri Leroux, a Master chocolatier in Quiberon. He exclaimed: “That’s what I want to do later!” This very sought-after work, very original and with very clear tastes. Later, as a tribute to his Leroux, he created the “Triple H”, an autumn chocolate, with three H-shaped bumps to express: Homage of Hirsinger to Henri Leroux. “It is a complicated chocolate to make because entirely handmade, with three layers to reflect its Breton origins: a nougat with buckwheat, a ganache with caramel in salted butter and a compote of apple a little acidic like cider.”
Despite this early inspiration, when he began his career at the age of 18, he lacked the original passion. He worked for a year in Cannes, then for 6 months in Lyon. The rest of the time, he trained with his father in the chocolate factory of Arbois and the passion arrived by practicing. “Because I did not have a network to get into the right houses, I did not have the opportunity to work at a leading chocolate maker of that time.” But he realizes today that this apparent disadvantage has been in fact a chance: “I am a virgin of any influence. So, I have a really particular style compared to other chocolatiers.”
The young Edouard began to make his mark in the boutique, behind the native house. “At that time, we had only two specialties all year round, like most of the chocolatiers. And we had just an assortment of chocolates for the holiday season, as well as some special treats for the summer, which could withstand the heat as there were no refrigerated showcases”. Out of curiosity, he made a tea ganache, with 500 grams of cream and produced 2 kilos of hand-soaked chocolates. His mother put this novelty between the two specialties. There, the young Chef found his clientele and took the habit of constantly innovating while exploring new ground.
He will even update the ingredients from the past, including the know-how and the good recipes. “One day I found an old licorice box, a sort of juice with natural extracts. My father told me that it is not used today. I changed my recipe of tea ganache by putting licorice instead.” Then, there were two trays, one with tea and one with licorice. He will also undertake a qualitative study to find the best local suppliers or original partners, (those who worked for his grandfather), “by coherence, conviction and willingness”. The eggs are organic from a neighboring artisan, the cream is pasteurized A.O.P. from a cooperative of Bresse, the butter comes from a cooperative of Jura. The Chef also works with the best regional products: almonds and lemons of Provence, chestnuts from the Var and Espelette pepper from the Basque country.
“One of my biggest dreams would be to find a new type of filling – something other than praline, almond paste or ganache”. Modestly, the Chef admits having already tested textures and finishing touches, but that he continues his explorations.
In 1993, he took over the business with his wife and bought refrigerated display cases (at 16°C), which enabled him to realize his creations even in the summer. His father retired and he bought an enrobing machine to continue to devote himself to the creation of new chocolates. After a few years, while visiting friends who are Michelin starred chefs, he had the idea of making seasonal chocolates. “Since the cooks have cards according to the seasons, I said to myself: I want to do like them!”
This way, before anybody else, Chef Hirsinger launched the seasonal chocolate ranges: with wild blackberry, rhubarb, meadowsweet… and all the products that allow him to create tastes, flavors, textures and new shapes. “I find my inspiration in everything. Nature, my travels, my meetings, my shots for some new products that I can discover, and of course the ability I will have to integrate them in chocolate”. And it worked! After the “summer” and “winter” chocolate collections, new “spring” and “autumn” ranges arrived. Today, in his shop, we find classical chocolates, sold all year round, and a dozen of seasonal specialties. “Chocolates follow the passing of the seasons and live with their time and their local and regional roots”. For example, a chocolate with the salt from the salines of Jura, or one based on walnut and curry paste, to marry the aromas of the “vin jaune”, another specialty of the region.
Quickly, his talent and great creativity brought the reputation of the Hirsinger House to a worldwide fame. Exceptionally, he found himself in 1997, at the same time managing a high-end centenary house, and consecrated “Meilleur ouvrier de France”. This does not go unnoticed in Japan. “The Japanese themselves came to visit me eleven years ago. They wanted to import my chocolates for Valentine’s Day and their Chocolate Fair”. After five years, he signed an exclusive partnership with a third company that proposes to open a shop in Tokyo. “Japan came as a gift. They offered me a brand positioning and not just to import my chocolates in an ephemeral fashion effect. That’s what made me accept, and on condition of always making my chocolates here.”
“The Japanese are very sensitive and have stronger emotions than the French. I saw a Japanese young woman bursting into tears while tasting my chocolates”. They understand that there are several layers, up to 4 sometimes! And that is not easy to do, because the Chef adapts the shapes of his chocolates according to his idea of creation and the taste he wants to achieve. “A good chocolate is the aromatic complexity, the length in the mouth and many other things that must always be composed with a balance. I would like this science to be taught one day in my profession.”
Another specialty of the Hirsinger House is the name “Chocolats vivants”. “A great chocolate is like a great wine. It cannot stand imperfection and needs extreme rigor in its manufacture, its conservation and its consumption”. The Chief introduced this concept ten years ago to summarize his personal approach of his job and his practice. Everything that can be done by hand, in a traditional way, in the pure respect of tradition, is privileged, “even if it is longer and more expensive”. This “Chocolats vivants” label guarantees the three essential qualities of an exceptional chocolate: raw materials, recipes and freshness.
A common practice among chocolatiers, at Easter season for example, is to prepare the boxes of chocolates six months in advance to lighten the year-end work. “But, when you freeze a chocolate, the ganache in the liquid form will swell and take up more volume. During thawing, the filling separates from the inside. So the technique is to replace the water with more fat and sugars, which stabilizes the product. But this brings a sweeter taste, more fat and therefore, more sickening. And I refuse to do that! I accept to do things in a longer and more complicated way, because I’m a passionate person, and because the result is not the same.”
Recipes are also designed to ensure optimum taste within 15 days of manufacture. Every week, a “chocolate tour” is organized and each type of chocolate is remade every ten days. The name “Chocolats vivants” thus summarizes a general state of mind and the Hirsinger signature.
In his “laboratory” of Arbois, with great humility, the talented Chef Edouard Hirsinger, 53, continues to freely create for our greatest happiness, “a chocolate that has a soul and that has a story to tell. A different chocolate!”
Interview with Carine Mouradian, on March 3, 2017 in Arbois.
“For me, the most important thing is to lead a high-end chocolate house that does not sleep on its achievements, doing the same thing for 100 years. To be authentic is to be entirely in the moment, in the modern world, assuming the legacy of the past. That’s why I still make old chocolate specialities with the products of today, and I constantly innovate by launching new recipes.
My work reflects what I am. I am lucky to be balanced by nature, to be fairly stable and I am very careful to keep my feet on the ground. When one becomes “Meilleur Ouvrier de France”, (which is the supreme distinction in a trade), there are two solutions. We may say, “I am the best! The others are underneath now!” Or we may choose another option saying: “I will have to start again!” I took the contest as a start, not as an end. And I think I can always improve and that’s true. Being recognized is very pleasant, but it is also dangerous. Thus, every morning, I have a ritual to stay in my place; I sweep past the store and tap the carpet in front of the shop. This brings me back to reality, and it is also my grounded side.
Authenticity means being connected to its environment and its roots… And these are in the character and spirit of the Jurassians: a love of well done work and a love of precision. If I was not an Arboisian, if I didn’t have my story rooted behind me, I would not do things the same way. Of that, I am sure ! And I will not have the same convictions and the taste of the local products. In the end, I have an extremely personal vision of chocolate, which is diverse and very varied. The chocolates I create come from plants, flowers or fruits specifically from the Arbois region. You can say that my chocolates have “a story to tell”. And when you eat an assortment, you have the reflection of my personality through everything I do. And I do not seek to appear anything but who I am. I have this simplicity and I explain what I do. Those who do not cling to the mind or who do not have that sensitivity, for me, it does not matter.
I attach great importance to hand made craftmanship. It’s a pleasure for me to work with my team, at early 6am, and work with my hands. Of course, I’m tired at the end of the day. Of course, I am very demanding with my collaborators. But something mysterious happens when it is a human, and not a machine, who works with chocolate. People bring an extra soul, even more if they put love there. And we feel a real difference. Then, when you have tasted a certain level of quality, you can hardly turn back … The strength of my products is that once you have tasted them, usually you come back!
Innovation is fundamental. I have lots of ideas constantly. Both to make new chocolates, or to evolve my business. Sometimes, some are complicated to achieve; I start them, to get back to them later. What stimulates me is having these issues and dealing with complexity. I also evolve personally, while trying to remain modest and simple. The chocolates I make now are more sophisticated than the first ones. Fortunately, otherwise it would be repetition! The advantage of the experience has allowed me to have more confidence in myself. And when success arrived, it strengthened me and this is really a good motivation. When people tell me: “I do not like chocolate, but I like your chocolates. That’s great!”
Regarding the whole industrial approach in my trade – for example, selling oneself as a brand to open more boutiques and increase the turnover? It does not irritate me, but I know what I want, and I do not hesitate to say that I am making something that is different. The type of chocolate that I do, the way I do it, is not suited to mass production because it implicates decreasing the quality of craft work and simplifying the recipes to become adapted for conservation. I refuse to do that! Then I have a kind of wisdom: “What’s in it for me?” I have such a quality of life here that many appreciate when they visit me. And I also have a very strong connection with this region and this house.
In the end, the most important thing is to be serene in what we are, and in what we want. We must avoid being fashionable, because fashion is ephemeral, and try to be who we are, without copying others and without worrying about their opinion. It’s not easy, especially at the beginning. One doubts, one wonders, “Am I right to want to do things differently? How will this be received? “. But this may require levels of boldness and a certain strength of character. Today, when I am told that the booklet of my products is “complicated”, I reply, exaggerating of course, that “they are not chocolates for the “misunderstanding”, but for those who taste them with their senses. So much the worse for those who do not understand! “.
The most important thing in life is to find the material that allows you to express your sensitivity. I had that chance! And I always look for seeking new possibilities because they are infinite, getting satisfied with myself only when I succeed in complexity. It is therefore transforming and developing the profession that is the most important. Yes… leaving its mark in the experience of people, and in the profession.”
Interview with Carine Mouradian, on March 3, 2017 in Arbois.