Helene De Maredsous remembers fondly the afternoon snack of French bread and chocolate that her mother often offered her and her four brothers and sisters.
"Maman would put pieces of bread, bars of chocolate, and sometimes some jelly out on the table," says the young Parisian mother of two girls. "The final preparation - and eating - were up to us."Ingredients for the typical French afternoon treat couldn't be simpler: 4- or 5-inch hunks of French bread - crunchy crust outside, moist and airy within - and bars of unadorned chocolate, about the same length as the pieces of bread.
"It doesn't really matter what chocolate," says de Maredsous, "although Maman always had semisweet, just some basic store brand. It was more economical."
The chocolate bar is stuffed into the bread, and voilia: pain au chocolat.
Despite the treat's simplicity and the ready availability of its ingredients, it is on French culture's endangered list.
Reasons for its disappearance include a proliferation of commercially prepared goodies vaguely resembling the homemade original and the shrinking size of the average French family.
"There were five of us kids, so there was nothing easier than put-ting out a loaf of bread and the chocolate bars," says de Maredsous. "It's true, though, that with just two children like we have, you're left with the rest of the bread, or there's too much chocolate around, so it becomes easier to buy a package of cookies."
The greater number of working mothers is another reason the store-bought substitutes are crowding out the original. But as France's public gardens buzz with active children on these fall afternoons, the patient observer occasionally can still spy a piece of chocolate being poked into some fresh French bread.
For Hne de Maredsous, it's a pleasant remembrance of things past.