November 19, 2013
My pick of what is out there to sweeten up your loved ones.
In my book chocolate is a year round thing. But I do know that it ramps up at this time of year, and quite right too, it makes the most perfect present. Almost everybody loves chocolate, and there is none of that choosing something that someone is obliged to wear/use/display (delete as appropriate) each time you visit. And while everyone always has too much to eat anyway, it is also when waistbands are undone and even the most hardened salad munchers are up for a bit of decadence. So what is out there worth your pennies?
Most of the year I am something of a chocolate purist, but when the Christmas bells are ringing, or it is time for one of life’s festivals, there is surely room to have a bit of fun with it. Getting traditional with flavours warms the cockles and seasonal shapes can be delightful and certainly get my vote, so long as the quality of the chocolate is also top notch. The angel and Christmas pudding chocolates by Chococo at the top of this piece are a lovely example.
For enchanting shapes for children and adults I am always charmed by everything made by Chococo. They don’t just make novelty shapes, they really excel at what matters, year round artisanal production of filled chocolates. They create delicious flavours with a range of fine couvertures. I was lucky enough to see and taste quite a few of the things they have for this Christmas, and from cute retro chocolate robots, to elegant spiced dark chocolate trees they have it covered. I am especially impressed by their cocoa pod ‘cracker’, a beautiful dark and white chocolate shell filled with a selection of tasty chocolates. When it arrives it is wrapped with cellophane and ribbons like a cracker, giving it real wow factor. It would be a joy to share.
This year’s selection of filled chocolate from Chococo is a combination of old favourites, among which are many award winning chocolates, and new seasonal flavours. Of those that are Christmassy I particularly loved the Nutty Nutmeg, a firm milk chocolate filled with a milk chocolate praline infused with the unmistakeable warmth of that wonderful spice. The nutmeg is perfectly balanced and enhances the nuttiness and caramel notes of the chocolate. If you love spice the Ginger Rush, a whole piece of crystallised ginger in the most elegant dome of dark chocolate is a winner. Both the spice and the chocolate are fruity and bright, and the warming heat of the ginger is just right. Chococo also do a wonderful job with boozy chocolates, a staple of this time of year, but so often badly judged. Old Thumper is a great one, making good use of the bitter notes and malt flavour of the beer in a melting dark ganache. And their mulled wine ganache has the Gold from the Great Taste Awards 2012, deservedly so. It is a smooth production, infused with just the right amount of booze, spice and grapey warmth to bring the whole alive.
Another artisanal maker really worth keeping an eye on is The Chocolate Tree. In the last couple of years they have started making chocolate from the bean, and the things I have tasted indicate they are doing a good job. They won two silver awards at the European semi-finals of The International Chocolate Awards 2013 and a nomination for a bar evocatively called The Chieftan. This of course refers to ‘the chieftan of the pudding race’ ie haggis, and is a delicious dark bar flavoured with haggis spices and pinhead oatmeal. It sounds unusual but makes great sense when you eat it. Lovely and wintery too. Their Christmas baubles have really blown me away, from the gorgeous cocao aromas on opening their box, to the glossy jewelled coloured ribbons, they are stunning.
A reliably good buy, and sure to impress in their smart French packaging, La Maison du Chocolat know how to do a chic Christmas selection. All are based on the ganache, which is the cornerstone of the La Maison du Chocolat brand. These are a celebration with subtlety. There are three Champagne or wine chocolates in the box, but they are not overly boozy. The alcohol serves more to the lift of the flavours than give a direct hit. There are eight chocolates crowd-pleasing chocolates in the box. All are good, and there are a few I particularly like.
Duo of Pears is a milk chocolate with a deeply caramelised pear compote. This brings out the toffee notes in the milk chocolate. There is a proper hit of cocoa and caramel flavours, but it is not overly sweet. An ideal chocolate with fruit for winter.
Noire de noir is a very good refined chocolate, very straight, but perfect of its type. A traditional plain dark chocolate ganache, but without the intrusion of too much dairy taste. The Madagascan Cacao, with its fruity notes of blackcurrant and raspberry, is given length and softness.
Blanc de Noir is a smooth dark chocolate ganache with champagne Blanc de Noirs. There are two different grapes involved, and the blend creates a real balance. The crystallised sugar that dusts it lightens its appearance and adds a texture that reflects the bubbles of champagne in an unexpectedly nice way. This was my favourite of the whole lot. It has the aroma and light feel of a champagne taste, unsullied by a hot alcohol sensation, really refined, delicate and delicious.
Looking closer to home, South Londoner Paul Wayne Gregory has a clear message, and he delivers it through flavours that pack a punch. His Christmas selection box contain chocolates so beautiful they are like little presents in themselves. There are three flavours, including a mild firm salted caramel, his extremely zingy and full flavoured passion fruit, and my favourite, the Christmas pudding. This is much like a mini pudding for one. The combination of spices, fruit and booze add up to an evocative mouthful. It is a nostalgic and warming set of flavours well judged and delivered. Paul also makes the funkiest shapes, including a beautifully made teddy and beetle car. Another perfect kids present are his salted caramel dark chocolate lollipops, filled with the most melting caramel, complete with celebratory popping candy. A holiday on a stick!
But if what you really want is one to one advice, and a chance to browse different makers and compile your own selection of things, Alexeeva & Jones in London is a great place to go. They have an edited collection of chocolatiers and chocolates makers worth a taste. The new boxes under their own name brand take a theme, say salted caramels, and include salted caramels by their own brand and a few of their featured chocolatiers all in one box. A perfectly delicious exercise in compare and contrast. For full chocolate largesse you could choose one of their prepared hampers, or put your own together and fill it with all the things they have that take your fancy. Your only problem might be finding anything you don’t want include!
For wider availability, and a range of chocolates across price tags and tastes, Hotel Chocolat always has a lot of good options. This year, if you really want to butter someone up, you could give them a promise of a meal at the newly opened Hotel Chocolat fine flagship restaurant, Rabot 1745 in Borough Market. With an innovative menu incorporating chocolate and cocoa across the courses, a coolly elegant central venue, and a major buzz about it, this would be a treat guaranteed to delight whatever special person was lucky enough to receive the invitation.