December 3, 2013
There is so much Christmas chocolate goodness out there that I couldn't fit it into just one post.
In some respects chocolate is a bit like fashion, it has to reinvent itself to present new offerings around a succession of seasons. It is retail after all, and those punters need sparkles to draw them in. Hence the proliferation of foil, and the re-boxing of the usual with santa themed excess packaging. However the world of chocolate that I know contains a wealth of passion and talent that never ceases to amaze me. These are the artisans and chefs who take each new season as an incentive to create, to flex their skills at recipe invention, and delight in a new reason to tempt us with their offerings.
A box of chocolates from the hands of one of these creators is a fabulous thing, a lesson in the classics with a masterclass in reinvention thrown in. And because it is Christmas there is no need to stint on anything. Bring on the indulgence!
There are few places you are more certain to find surprise and delight than one of Paul A Young’s four London boutiques, and inside his trademark purple boxes. His Christmas selection of new flavours includes the heart-warmingly familiar flavours Mulled Wine, Whisky Truffle and the delectable Orange and Cinnamon Dark Muscovado Caramel. But you can also riff around the edges of your Christmas memories with Log Fire, flavoured with pine, sandalwood, cedar wood spices and vodka. Or for the traditionalists there is Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh. He’s even got your back covered with the Driving Home, a coffee cream.
Another wholly reliable source of superb boxes of chocolates is Rococo. They have won so many awards this year for their filled chocolates that they have created a new box filled only with their medal winners. That would be quite a treat for any gourmet in your life. Or I would forgive you, feel I have found a soul mate even, if you were to buy it for yourself, send everyone else off for the afternoon and curl up for some serious solo chocolate appreciation. Principal chocolatier Barry Johnson is also bound to have some new seasonal things up his sleeve that will be well worth a try. It would be rude not to, wouldn’t it! Rococo are one of the stars in terms of design too, with their beautiful packaging making their things an ideal gift. Their cute gifts and shapes and painted things are works of art. I loved these lollies, so very much more charming than a slab wrapped in decorated foil.
One of the nicest things about writing about chocolate is getting to meet and discover smaller brands and new talents. A box of different flavours is a chance to see what they are doing and try many of their recipes. A new(ish) discovery for me is Kokopelli’s, the creation of lifelong chocolate lover Steph, whose technical skill is evident from the moment you open the elegant blue box to reveal her pretty creations, and whose talent with flavours is evident as soon as you start tasting them. Ginger and hazelnut feature, alongside more experimental flavours such as Earl Grey tea or the pairing of raspberry and black pepper. Of her Christmas selection is was particularly impressed by the Clementine Pate de Fruit, a clear and aromatic square of beautifully made citrus jelly, very well matched by a fine and crisp shell of fruity dark chocolate. I am also truly enamoured by the Nutmeg Caramel, with its fine domed shell of dark milk chocolate. The caramel notes of the chocolate marry perfectly with an excellent buttery caramel rich in the warm spice. It is quite delicious!
In my travels, judging the best in the world, I am often in the position of debating the fine differences between work by chocolatiers who are the top in their respective countries. Sometimes it is nice to find something undiscovered, maybe not the finished article, maybe not ready yet for the world stage, but with promise, with good intentions and some things that are taking good aim. Started by Patricia Hodgkinson (a pastry chef by training) two years ago in Tunbridge Wells, I Wanna Cocoa is working with Felchlin couverture, a legacy from Patricia’s 6 year sojourn in Switzerland. She is making filled chocolates and bars with a good range of flavours and inclusions.
The Christmas collection features three boozy filled chocolates. For me the Remy Cognac Advocat in white chocolate is too heavy handed on the alcohol, but the strength of it does cut the sweetness. More successful is the well balanced Taylors 10 year old port with lemon juice and zest in Arriba 72%. The port is a subtle grapey backnote for a chocolate rich in blackcurrant notes, lifted and enhanced with lemon. The zest and port together evoke a good mulled wine. The final chocolate in the Christmas box is a Guinness caramel in 38% Maracaibo milk chocolate. This is a fine and fluid caramel, nice and dark, easy to like and well matched with the chocolate. I could have done with a stronger beer note here, it is very subtle, but what there is serves to add to the toasted edge of the caramel and prevent the whole from being too sweet. There is lots to like here, and I look forward to trying more from I Wanna Cocoa.
Another one-woman operation is Toot Sweets by Julia Wenlock. Julia makes award winning filled chocolates using really interesting and full flavoured couvertures from Original Beans, Amedei and Marou. I was particularly delighted by her gloriously studded wreath, a riot of seasonal tastes and colours.
As I have mentioned many times, there are few better opportunities to shop for your own chocolates than The Chocolate Festival. December the 13th, 14th and 15th will see the South Bank populated by a dream team of chocolate makers and chocolatiers. You can walk, taste, chat to the makers themselves, and hone your chocolate knowledge all in one place. There are always a great range of talks and demonstrations over the three days, many of them for only a nominal fee. Not to be missed if you can get there. I wouldn’t miss it and will be reporting back for my next post.
Last but not least, thinking of present giving, and the insane flurry of torn paper and the gorging, followed by a slightly flat feeling. It is all over too fast! Why not give, or beg to receive, a voucher for something to look forward to. I have had some wonderful times attending chocolate classes, many of which you can read about if you scroll back over previous posts. Rococo, with their new Moxon Street venue, have a fabulous range of upcoming events. They are hosting chocolate workshops, of course. But they also have tasting evenings, such as the Rum and Chocolate event on the 16th of January that has made it onto my wish list.
For a thorough-going treat, the kind of afternoon that will let someone know quite how much you wish to spoil them, I can’t think of a better gift that a voucher to William Curley’s dessert bar. A five course tasting menu composed entirely of desserts and finished with petit fours. This journey through the refined and creative Curley kitchen is a decadent and elegant joy. Not every course is chocolate, but fear not, there is absolute mastery of flavour here whatever the ingredients. There is tremendous subtlety and restraint at work, ensuring that while you leave feeling thoroughly spoilt, and delighted by new tastes and combinations, it is a well balanced thing. Each dish is delicate, not too rich or sweet, in harmony with its components and with the dishes that go before and after. The couple of hours you are there are pure escape and pleasure. Wouldn’t it be nice to start the year knowing you had that to look forward to at some point?