As France endures a third national Covid-19 lockdown amid its burgeoning third wave, some 60,000 non-essential shops across the country this Sunday – Easter Sunday – will join the estimated 90,000 already shuttered since March 20 in hard-hit areas like Paris. In France, it has hardly raised an eyebrow that chocolate shops count among the list of merchants authorised to remain open. This holiday season certainly counts as an essential one for France's chocolatiers.
Indeed, the French are among Europe's foremost chocolate fiends. The average household in France consumed 7.2kg of chocolate last year, according to the country's chocolate trade union, the Syndicat du chocolat. French connoisseurs have a significant weakness for dark chocolate, which makes up 30 percent of the chocolate the country enjoys, compared to five percent in Europe as a whole, according to market research group Kantar.
Ninety percent of the country's chocolate makers are small and medium-sized firms, according to the Syndicat du chocolat.
With revenue upward of €3.3 billion last year, the profession employs 30,000 people in France, from French giants (Barry Callebaut, Cémoi) and foreign multinationals with factories in France (Lindt, Ferrero) down to artisans with the most creative takes on Easter standards.
Some creations are virtually museum-worthy: For 2021, La Maison du Chocolat's master chef Nicolas Cloiseau created a limited-edition chocolate art piece entitled "Egg U.F.E. – unidentified flying egg" handmade from 7kg of chocolate for the sweet sum of €1500.
The average annual Easter chocolate budget in France, however, rang up at €19.31 in 2018.
The Easter season, which represented €296 million in chocolate sales in 2019 according to Nielsen, is second only to Christmas (€759 million) in importance for the country's chocolatiers. The week leading up to the Easter holiday weekend generally represents more than half of Easter chocolate receipts.
The shock of France's first lockdown last year left the country's chocolate purveyors in the lurch. With some retailers closed, and locked-down consumers perhaps focused on other priorities, 2020 Easter chocolate sales dipped drastically. Large retailers saw chocolate revenue dip 27 percent on the all-important season.
"Children are the most resilient segment of the market, especially when locked-down or self-isolating seniors are snubbing the [chocolate] and sharing is limited to close family and friends," according to French trade magazine LSA Conso.
This year, even as the country finds itself confined again for the Easter weekend, the industry believes it is better prepared. Chocolate-makers and retailers stretched the season out to get the festive sweets in front of consumers earlier and developed "click-and-collect" and online sales, putting to work "the lessons of the first lockdown", as Syndicat du chocolat chief Patrick Poirrier has called them.
Although no stranger to the festivities in France, the Easter Bunny, which is German in origin, isn't the star of the occasion here that it has become in the Anglo-Saxon world. In the Catholic tradition in France, Easter lore has it that chiming bells distribute the sweets. Chocolate bells, eggs and hens make up a considerable chunk of France's Easter treat iconography, with fish another biblical reference commonly turned chocolatey for the occasion (although bunnies, ducks, pandas and kangaroos are evidently welcome, too).
The bell custom comes from the symbolic pause in chiming their bells that churches mark between Good Friday and Easter Sunday in mourning for Jesus Christ before the resurrection. To explain the bell's silence, children were traditionally told that the bells had flown to Rome to be blessed by the pope. Upon their return, amid prolific chiming, they are said to bring back chocolate eggs that "land" in fields and gardens – or on apartment balconies.
Indeed, while the country's first lockdown last year meant closed parks and gardens as well as a stay-at-home order that allowed just a single hour a day for getting fresh air within a one-kilometre radius, France's latest lockdown encourages venturing outdoors. The new rules allow unlimited time outside within a 10-kilometre radius before the 7pm nationwide curfew and public green spaces remain open. The upshot for a chocolatier? Easter egg hunts.
"Outside! That makes all the difference compared to last year when we were constrained to stay locked up inside," Poirrier, who is also CEO of chocolate giant Cémoi, told Le Parisien. "That's what gives us hope for this edition."