The first 70 articles I wrote for this blog are all about watchmaking. And I expect pretty much the next 70 to be as well. But sometimes, it’s nice to make a little exception. Especially when it comes to high quality chocolate, the exceptional treat par excellence.
Actually, in my mind, there is a connection between watchmaking and Langel, the wonderful chocolate maker in the old town. When I show friends from abroad around the city’s watchmaking heritage, for instance the original Rolex site and the Omega museum, I always end up swinging them by the Ring plaza. After all, when they visit Switzerland, chocolate is usually on top of the souvenir list, and I can’t think of a better place to get it from.
A new beginning in the old town
Patricia and Sébastien Langel opened their shop in 2010. Back then, the Bienne old town was not the trendy, not to say bobo or hipster haven it has become today. To be blunt, it was easier back then to find meth than organic coffee. Things have changed radically since. Early believers in the area’s potential, such as Sockeye (truffles and smoked fish) and Krebs (music instruments) were then joined by the Langels. A few years later, we have the fantastic quality and variety that today make the old town the place to Biel on many fronts.
Sébastien is a pastry chef and confectioner by training. Patricia studied accounting. She runs the show behind the scenes and usually manages customers as well. Sébastien makes the chocolate and occasionally helps with customers too. While neither one is from Bienne itself, the married couple is from the region, and, just like the city, each is bilingual, seamlessly switching between French and German depending on the customer. “It was a dream for us to open our own place here”, said Patricia.
When I first moved to Bienne, I walked past Langel’s a few times, and always wanted to go in. But I couldn’t. Why? The opening hours are quite limited. Wednesday to Friday, from 9 am to 12 pm and again from 2 pm to 6.30 pm, and 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday. While this can sometimes be disappointing, it is also what guarantees the authenticity and freshness: everything is made by Sébastien and freshly packed by Patricia. Closed days do not mean they are not working, on the contrary. « Tuesday is when most of our production gets done », Sébastien explained.
The freshness I just mentioned is probably what struck me most the first time I tried one of their chocolates. It’s as if nothing between Sébastien’s work had time to be lost between the moment he finishes and Patricia swiftly sealing it tight. Of course, this will only hold if you respect their rule: eat the chocolate within 20 days of purchase for a full, preservative-free, sensory experience.
Chocolate made in Bienne
Because this blog is about making, let’s talk a bit about what exactly is produced at Langel’s. After all, seeing the pieces of chocolate coming to life right in front of customers is one of the most striking aspects of the experience. And while cocoa does not grow in the city of watchmaking, Sébastien performs the essential steps of confection by hand, right here in the Bienne old town.
It all starts with couverture chocolate, a high grade of chocolate, quite different from what we can typically buy in commerce. Couverture chocolate is finely grained cocoa with a high percentage of cocoa butter, instead of other additives. It is sourced by the Langels from their regional suppliers, mostly based in Switzerland, with another one in France. The cocoa beans typically come from South or Central America, and occasionally Africa.
It’s (almost) all about temperature
What struck me the most in Sébastien’s explanations is the importance of temperature. The consistency of the end result is directly linked to how temperature is managed throughout the production process. “Many places use chocolate fountains”, Sébastien explained. “I prefer to do it all by hand. It’s more work of course, but it enables me to get the exact result I want.”
The shop’s construction is also an asset in keeping things not too hot or too cold. Located in a vaulted cellar of the medieval old town, it stays nice and warm in the winter and perfectly cool in the summer without the need for any artificial heating or air conditioning. Energy bills are kept low and chocolate is produced in the best possible conditions.
With the holiday season approaching, Patricia and Sébastien are about to start the busiest period of their year. “It’s even busier than over Easter. I think the weather helps”, Patricia told me. Tomorrow, the Langel advent calendar will be available. But if you want one, you had better hurry: only 150 are produced, and they sell out fast. In fact, I already booked one, and so did a customer during the interview.
To stay on the holiday theme, my last question to the couple was about a special category of their customers: children. In today’s world of fast consumption TV-advertised supermarket candy, do kids still show any interest in real, handmade chocolate? “Often, when they come in, you see their eyes suddenly open, as if they had entered a magical place” said Patricia. Sébastien added: “Sometimes, they come on their own, and use their pocket money to buy a lollipop.”
More than chocolate
I can only recommend the chocolate lollipops at Langel. And of course the Pavés, representing the old town’s cobble stones. Oh and the Diamants Tonka, Truffes Noires and Fleur de Sel pralinés. If I wanted to talk about watches, I could even recommend their watch-shaped chocolate, which required a custom mold, but this article, for once, is not about watches. One of my personal favorites is their chocolate bar for making your own hot chocolate at home, with its assorted spices. But then, there’s also the Diamants Nougat…
Despite the assortment being limited to keep things fresh, there is clearly enough to choose from. And while chocolate is certainly the motivation for going to Langel, I always feel like I walk out with even more than that. Chocolaterie Langel is about an atmosphere, about values, believing in what is hand made with passion, believing that you don’t need to grow into an ever-expanding business to be successful. For all those reasons, Langel chocolate is one of my favorite things made in Bienne.