PARIS — Were it not for the Jews, France’s trademark pain au chocolat wouldn’t exist.

Fleeing the Inquisition, Portuguese Jews settled in nearby Bayonne in southwestern France in the early 16th century and established there the country’s first chocolate factories. The region’s residents quickly learnt the trade, and by the 17th century the Jews would be evicted again from what was by then France’s chocolate capital.

Next week, however, as part of its annual Chocolate Days festival celebrating the city’s 500-year chocolate tradition, Bayonne will pay homage to these intrepid Sephardi Jewish chocolate pioneers, starting May 10.

“Since we are the inheritors of the Jews’ savoir faire, it was our duty to thank them, but also to restore a historical truth: after they introduced chocolate in France, Bayonne Jewry was gradually evicted from the chocolate industry in the 17th century by the very people who had learned everything from them,” says Jean-Michel Barate, head of the Chocolate Academy and CEO of the Bayonne-based chocolate brand Daranatz.

For two days, the streets of Bayonne will be brimming with thousands of chocolate aficionados making the pilgrimage, and visiting local brands and factories – such as Andrieu, Cazenave, Daranatz, Pariès, and Pascal.

From a previous Bayonne Chocolate Days festival. The two-day festival attracts thousands of visitors. (photo credit: courtesy)

From a previous Bayonne Chocolate Days festival. The two-day festival attracts thousands of visitors. (photo credit: courtesy)

Michèle Kahn, author of the 2003 novel “Cacao” and Jewish history expert, will be one of the event’s ambassadors and will co-host a conference on the history of Sephardi Jews and chocolate in Bayonne’s 176-year-old national heritage site synagogue on May 10.

Her book tells the struggle of a Jewish family in 17th century Bayonne to defend its rights against the anti-Semitic chocolatiers guild which sought to evict the Jewish community from the chocolate trade.

Kahn told the Times of Israel the idea for the novel germinated from a visit to the Biarritz Chocolate Museum ten years ago. There she saw a memorial plaque for the area’s marranos – Jews who originally lived in the Iberian Peninsula and converted or were forced to convert to Christianity.

“When I saw the plaque, I became completely hooked on this part of Jewish history,” she says. “Because French people have ignored that it was Jews who brought chocolate to France, and because I come from this region myself, I felt compelled to write this book and tell this story.”

Before the French succumbed to chocolate, cocoa was first brought to Spain by Christopher Columbus, when he returned from his fourth voyage to America in 1502. There he had found cocoa beans used as currency by the local population.

However, unimpressed by the bitter-flavored chocolate beverage imbibed by the Aztecs (nicknamed “the drink of gods”), King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s court didn’t much partake.

Years later, another Spanish explorer, Hernán Cortés, presented King Charles V with cocoa beans and the secret of palatable preparation: Cocoa mixed with other colonial imports – vanilla, cane sugar, and cinnamon – formed a sweet, tasty concoction.

Eventually, cocoa became the fashionable drink of the Spanish aristocracy.

“We don’t know much about how Jews first got into the chocolate trade in the New World, but my opinion is that some Jews must have sailed across the Atlantic with Cortés, and then capitalized on their contacts with European Jewish communities,” says Kahn.

After the 1492 edict of expulsion of Spanish Jews and the onslaught of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536, some Jews sought asylum in France, and settled near the Spanish border in Saint-Esprit, on the outskirts of Bayonne, across the Ardour River.

Workshops and tastings at the Chocolate Days festival. (photo credit: courtesy)

Workshops and tastings at the Chocolate Days festival. (photo credit: courtesy)

Jews were granted rights of residence as conversos – “New Christians” – by local authorities in 1550, but were subjected to many restrictions on land ownership, retail trade, and travel.

Importing the tools and knowledge of cocoa, along with their contacts in the New World, Bayonne Jewry taught local workers the secrets of processing chocolate, but were eventually prohibited from working in this industry by the chocolatiers guild. A Bordeaux court annulled the decree in 1767.

By 1854, Bayonne was home to at least 34 chocolate companies and became known as the first chocolatier city in the country. Today there are some 200 families in the area.

“Chocolate as we know it today probably wouldn’t have existed, or entered Europe at this time of history, had it not been for the participation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the international chocolate trade,” Kahn concludes.