Advances in technology have made it possible for people as far away as Japan to enjoy the best of France’s chocolate delights.
“We can send our product quickly by airplane and it will arrive in just two or three days,” says Clément Groisne, managing director at the Japan office of Parisian chocolate maker Hugo & Victor. “Unlike in the past, we can instantly freeze chocolate the moment we’re done making it. We can easily preserve the quality of the ingredients, and it’s hard to tell the difference in taste between fresh chocolates and chocolates that have been frozen.”
However, despite the availability of a freezer and a short plane ride, importing chocolate in time for Valentine’s Day still gives Groisne a headache every year. Department stores’ strict standards on everything from the quality of the chocolate to the packaging make it difficult for even the best patisseries in Paris to break into the Japanese market.
“Our criteria for choosing a chocolate maker is someone who has skill and has already created a lot of buzz with his product,” says Teruhiko Kawaguchi, a food buyer for Isetan Mitsukoshi Ltd.
At Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku, which hosts an annual event called Salon du Chocolat in January, not just any old brand is good enough for the chocolate lovers who come from all over Japan. Buyers narrow down their choices by looking at past winners of the Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France triennial competition or poring over guidebooks published by the prestigious Club des Croqueurs de Chocolat (Chocolate Appreciation Society).
Even then, being regarded as one the best chocolatiers in France or having years of chocolate-molding experience does not guarantee you a ticket to Japan.
“We try to look for chocolate makers who can adjust to the Japanese consumer,” says Kawaguchi. “Even if you’re the best, if you think that the packaging that the chocolate comes in is unimportant, you won’t be able to do well here.”
In Japan, presentation is as important as taste, especially when it comes to impressing a significant other on Valentine’s Day.
“Packaging is very important. These days, more and more women are also giving out chocolate to their friends, so they want products with cute packaging,” says Kanako Otani, a food buyer for Shibuya Hikarie’s ShinQs shopping section.
If it’s packaging that the Japanese want, then Hugo & Victor has one less thing to worry about. Its chocolates at this year’s Salon du Chocolat come in boxes that resemble hardcover books — a design that is based on the fact that the name of the brand was inspired by French writer Victor Hugo.
“In Japan, limited-edition products are popular, and consumers want to see things that we usually don’t make in France,” says Groisne.
In a country where new flavors come and go on the convenience-store shelves and sweet makers constantly scratch their heads as they think of new products to entice customers, Hugo & Victor couldn’t have found a better country to fit in. The patisserie takes the flavor of its sweets seriously. While some of its chocolates are available throughout the year, others are switched out every two months depending on what is in season to ensure fresh, quality ingredients. That concept works well in Japan, where consumers prefer a bit of a variety.
Even without a shop to sell its products, Hugo & Victor has been enjoying popularity in Japan since it started participating in Salon du Chocolat in 2011. The brand is hoping to capitalize on this by opening a store in Tokyo later this year. Its chocolates go for around ¥4,000 a box of 12.
“In 2011, our stock sold out within three days, and we once had to extend operations by 30 minutes because we still had waiting customers,” says Groisne.
So when you’re chomping your imported chocs this Valentine’s, spare a little love for the people who brought them here.