Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel at dusk

Mont Saint-Michel at dusk

I recently spent a weekend with friends exploring the French region of Brittany, home to the ancient castle of Mont Saint-Michel. After a leisurely drive through rolling French countryside dotted with sheep and stone farmhouses, the castle loomed abruptly on the horizon, as if dropped out of a fairytale. Dating back to the sixth century, this ancient abbey and fortress is perched atop an island and accessible only by a single road, which winds towards the fortress walls through shifting sandbanks and chilly tide pools.

Town around Mont Saint-Michel at dusk

The winding streets inside the walls of Mont Saint-Michel

You enter through a drawbridge and weave through the narrow streets and steps of the castle’s village. The houses are crooked from having stood so long and every turn offers a damp view of a cobbled alley, tiny window, or thatched roof. Having passed the busy shops and attractions, you climb the last flights of steps to the nave of the castle’s church, where softly tinted windows lend the space a pale glow. You step out onto the abbey’s balcony and are whipped by the strong winds of the Atlantic ocean. Looking out at the awe-inspiring views, you understand why this was once known as the end of the world.

The end of the world: view from Month Saint-Michel

What was once known as the end of the world

As we left, we stopped at the Biscuiterie de la Baie du Mont Saint-Michel to pick up several packets of the cookies for which the region is known. These cookies are crumbly bits of heaven and made from the region’s specialty: salted butter. Because of Normandy and Brittany’s proximity to the sea, the regional cows and sheep graze on salted grass. And unlike many regions in France, these farmers transform this salted milk into butter rather than cheese. A glorious occurrence for all.

La Chapelle-Saint-Aubert, Mont-St-Michel

La Chapelle-Saint-Aubert at Mont Saint-Michel

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Le Salon du Chocolat

Chocolate at Le Salon du Chocolat, Paris

Chocolate at Le Salon du Chocolat in Paris

The Salon du Chocolat, one of the world’s most famous chocolate expositions, recently came to Paris. Rest assured, yours truly would not miss such an occasion. With more than 250 chocolate vendors and 25,000 attendees, the Salon du Chocolat is a delectable wonderland filled with cases of exotic candies, towers of colorful macarons, stacks of sticky nougat, elegant chocolate sculpture demos, vibrant cultural dance showcases, and even a luxurious chocolate fashion show. But most importantly, the Salon du Chocolat is a wonderland filled with… free samples!

Salon du Chocolat Map, Paris

This is just the first floor!

However, due to the aforementioned 250 chocolate vendors and 25,000 attendees, the Salon du Chocolat requires focus. Without a strategy, you could easily end up overwrought and spinning in circles, clutching a map and laden down with 20 pounds of expensive chocolate. Thus, I offer up my top ten tips on how to get the most [free samples] out of your visit to the Salon du Chocolat:

  1. Don’t spend too long at the big brand name booths. Their showy displays are gorgeous and entirely tempting, but linger as you might, there will be no free samples. Take your “I-was-here” photo and move on.
  2. Similarly, be cautious around the booths that display only pre-wrapped chocolate bars and delectibilities. While these products are most certainly delicious, there are no free samples. Continue on your way until you find a booth with mountains of unwrapped chocolate bricks. These are the vendors that will chisel off a corner for you.
  3. If you don’t speak French, it’s good to know that “puis-je essayer…” means “can I try…” and seems to work well when stammered with a look of complete innocence and naiveté.
  4. There is always one vendor at each booth who is holding out a tray of samples while talking to a potential customer. Swoop in and snag one of these samples without fear of the vendor striking up a conversation with you in French. Long arms are useful here.
  5. Carry a notebook and pen with you. Pick your vendor of choice and pause next to their booth with a discerning look in your eye. Glance at their logo and then scribble something in your notebook (I prefer a nice doodle). The vendor will think you are a critic and free samples will pour into your hand.
  6. Move past the cookware, bakeware, and jewelry booths. Shop later: you’re on a mission!
  7. If you have access to small children, bring them! Vendors think it’s adorable when a small child snags a fistful of chocolate samples. I found that their reaction is different when an adult does the same. Clearly, there is some age discrimination happening here.
  8. Attend a live cooking demo and sit in the front row. The chefs will bring out surprise trays of their creations, but only enough for the first row. Children receive preferential treatment here, as well. See Tip #7.
  9. Consider going later in the day when the crowds have started to thin. A vendor’s chocolate chunk sample size corresponds negatively with their stress level.
  10. Bring crackers and a bottle of water. If you implement the above tips correctly, you’ll have a sugar high in no time and be in desperate need of some non-chocolate based sustenance. The sandwich lines are hours long and will suck up precious free sample time. Come prepared.

And that, my friends, is how you master the Salon du Chocolat! Take in the delightful energy of the show around you as the scent of cocoa powder wafts through the room and smiles light up the faces of both vendors and attendees alike. I can think of no common denominator loved more dearly around the world than chocolate! Coming soon to a city near you!

Chocolate Fashion Show at Le Salon du Chocolat, Paris

Chocolate Fashion Show at Le Salon du Chocolat in Paris

Nougat at Le Salon du Chocolat, Paris

Nougat at Le Salon du Chocolat in Paris