December 2, 2014
A little guidance, or temptation, as to what chocolate to go for this advent.
So, advent has begun, excitement is reaching a pitch. And if you are in charge of present buying you will be scratching your head more than usual.
I’ve said it before, chocolate is the perfect gift! Everyone loves it, and it doesn’t have to be worn, dragged out of the sideboard and put on display, read, or any of those other pesky things that unwanted presents end up forcing on you before the next time that present-giver visits. So, give the thing that you would like to receive, and you never know, you might get to share.
Each year there are new and delicious things on offer. The number of questions I get about what chocolate to buy increases tenfold in December. So here is a look at some of the new flavours and ideas from those chocolate makers worth spending those Christmas pounds, and calories, on.
Before you start, or after you come back, you may like to fortify yourself with a warming mug of hot chocolate. These Hans Sloane hot chocolates come in various varieties to suit your mood. As you can see, they are all made up of large beads of real chocolate, so the resulting drink, whether made with milk or water (or how about stirring in a dab of brandy) are a luxurious molten chocolate experience. My favourite was the Ecuador 70%, smooth, fruity and cocoa rich, a lovely pick me up (or wind me down).
Christmas shopping underway, you could treat yourself by popping into La Maison du Chocolat to get in the mood. My last piece detailed their work and that of head chef Nicolas Cloiseau, and I can’t think of any Christmas showpiece more stunning, or better for getting you into the Christmas mood.
Heading to the high street, Hotel Chocolat has chocolate treats for every taste and budget. I love their riffs on the cracker, some of which are so enormous that one would do for your whole party. No dodgy plastic toolkits or nail clippers here!
With their Rabot range Hotel Chocolat are ensuring that they cater to the more serious chocolate buyer. They have many bars that are worth a taste. I love the St Lucia 70% dark milk. A stack of those, for comparison tasting, tied up with a smart ribbon would make a great present for a newbie chocophile.
The Rabot 1745 Wreath, made with 72% Madagascan dark chocolate, Piedmont hazelnuts, Marcona almonds, and South African Raisins, is quite delicious. The chocolate has a very smooth melt, a bright start, with lots of green and fruity flavour notes, followed by depth and considerable smokiness. Rammed with the great textures of seasonally appropriate fruit and nuts this is a very handsome thing indeed (see main photo above), a fine thing to grace the festive table as a centrepiece.
Those in the know, for example if you follow me on Twitter, will know that Chococo made a genius advent selection box this year, with one of their innovative fresh chocolates for each day, and eating order instructions. I hope you have got yours and have already much enjoyed the Dorset Blue and Cinnamon Bliss. I have, and I am suitably blissed out. If you missed out then order some of their chocolates anyhow, surely that is what Christmas shopping should be; “one for Auntie Val, one for me..” And if you are looking for gifts and stocking fillers, Chococo never fail to come up trumps with quirky things, and no compromise on the quality of the chocolate.
The dark chocolate tree in the photo above, is made with 67% Grenadan chocolate and studded with roasted cocoa nibs; serious chocolate, seriously glam, with its glittery exterior and nib studded interior. Each of the four baubles is made with a different combination of 43% Venezuelan milk chocolate, either with chocolate buttons, or honeycomb chunks inside, or 67% Grenadan chocolate, with Madagascan 67% buttons (two great chocolates in one little gift, I like what they did there), or chocolate covered coffee beans inside.
A personal favourite from Chococo this year is this fabulous 43% Venezuelan Trinitario milk chocolate campervan. I can think of no better present for the indie-cool free spirited, retro chic loving chocoholic in my life.
It’s a bit of a thrill to see the finest chocolatiers pulling out the stops to make fun seasonal gifts. No excuses for buying novelty chocolate this year, when the likes of Paul A Young has full on glam metallic baubles and a trio of chocolate footballs. He’s even helping out with the Christmas cooking by doing a seasonal take on his famous salted caramel; a rum and caramel sauce. Pour that over your ice-cream on Christmas eve or Boxing day and you might be arguing over which of the holiday puds was your favourite. No offence Mum, of course the Christmas pudding was the best you’ve ever made!
For those very special people, yes that is you Mum, a box of Paul’s chocolates would be a proper treat. Every year he goes all out to introduce new flavours, evoke the best of Christmas food, but ring the changes. This year new flavours include some exciting collaborations; Brewdog Porter and ginger molasses cake, and some total crowd pleasers, how about a Fruit & Nut Paul A Young style! There are some intriguing flavour combinations; Persian Spices is a rare white chocolate from Paul, a smooth white chocolate ganache with a rich infusion of that hard to handle spice, cumin. I found its earthiness a tempting and unusual addition, so different from the spices we are more used to seeing with chocolate. There really are too many to mention, and there is no substitute for visiting one of Paul’s shops, breathing in the atmosphere, and browsing to find your own favourites. My favourite? I think the Mulled Wine truffle is a fine piece, and just what Paul does best. It is a firm dark ganache, super fruity, floral even, and as it melts the clear and warming taste of mulled wine floods the mouth. It is a little bomb of nostalgia, evoking moments huddled against the cold, hot spiced cup in hand. This is like the Pimms chocolate I so love during the summer, and for me this is where Paul’s genius lies, in evoking something entirely different, doing justice to it and your memories, and all the while creating a delicious chocolate.
For those remaining stocking fillers and little extra presents, Paul has adapted the new Fruit & Nut and Persian Spice flavours into these nice chunky bars. Not sure they are going to make it as far as the stockings!
My own personal Christmas arrived early, when my dreams were answered, and the Rococo fairy landed. Chantal Coady has had a stellar year, topped off by winning an OBE from the Queen for services to chocolate. Principal Chocolatier Barry Johnson isn’t looking too shabby either, heading up the three-man team going to the world finals of the Coupe du Monde in January 2015. What is wonderful for all of us are the tremendous number of truly excellent chocolates this creative outfit is producing. Testament to this is the huge number of awards they have garnered from the Academy of Chocolate and The International Chocolate Awards. So many in fact that they have produced a box filled only with award winners. I was longing for a box, and to be indulged with their caramels, which remain something I adore. Both arrived! And accompanied by three fabulously festive 65% dark flavoured Christmas bars. Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh literally sparkles with gold, and its smooth dark chocolate is enhanced with a drop of orange. It has justifiably been a best-seller since it was created in 1996. Christmas pudding is a clove-rich treat, with the fruitiness of cognac soaked raisins, the crunch of toasted almonds and an aroma that is utterly christmassy. My favourite of the three is the Morello Cherry bar, which is a delicious and classic pairing of mellow dark chocolate with sweetly sharp fruit.
As it says on box, the set of 11 award winners are ambrosial. Each chocolate is a masterclass example of it’s type. Rose & Cocoa Nib is the sophisticated cousin of Turkish delight, nothing over-perfumed here. The Grenadian Islay Single Malt Ganache presents an ultra-smooth, light-textured ganache packing an intensely peaty hit of great whisky, well balanced by a dark chocolate that lifts the taste-buds with a fruity end. A favourite of mine is the Salted Chocolate Toffee, Hazelnut Praline, whose dark shell is offset with a bite of salt. Inside, a dark caramel and the crispy crunch of hazelnut and feuillantine combine great textures and nutty, toasted, deep toffee flavours. Wonderful!
If it is possible to love something more than the awards box it is this array of beauty. I never grow tired of Barry Johnson caramels. This box presents his new Poire William caramel, which combines buttery caramel with a pear drop zing, inside a dark shell that deepens all the flavours. The Mandarin & Tonka is rich with full-flavoured fruit, and a touch of earthy tonka. The Kalamansi Lime Caramel remains one of my favourite things to eat, the zesty & intriguing grapefruity citrus softened by the buttery caramel. It has amazing depth of flavour, lip-smackingly good! Both things I would also say about the Passionfruit and Rosemary, which balances bright fruit, fragrant and earthy herb, with another perfectly fluid and delicious caramel. A quartet of glory!
Don’t forget, that while filled chocolates are wonderful presents, indulgent and seasonal, there are those moments, and those budgets, better suited to a bar of the pure stuff. Far better to buy someone a single bar of phenomenally good chocolate, than compromise on the quality to buy a box of bonbons. And for the connoisseur, introducing them to a fine chocolate maker is a gift indeed! I have been loving the Nicaragua Nicaloso 72% Criollo from Duffy Sheardown, a new chocolate he is going to launch at The Chocolate Festival in December. Molasses dark, smoky as hell, and then melting into something full of those classic almost savoury olive notes to be found in Nicaraguan cacao, this bar has tremendous length, and is a dark delight.
So, that is all your presents sorted, and now, to ensure you have a divine Christmas yourself, how about a little help with the dessert for your feast. Why not order one of Valrhona’s 12 Buches of Christmas? A new initiative by Valrhona, to bring the annual artistry of the buche to the UK, twelve top pastry chefs were challenged to create a fabulous new creation with Valrhona chocolate. With top chefs such as Andrew Blas of Hotel Café Royal, Sarah Barber of ME London, Luke Frost of Coworth Park, Lewis Wilson of the Ritz, Cherish Finden of The Langham and Eric Rousseau of Patisserie Belle Epoque (whose divine creation is pictured above) to name but a few, there are an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Every one was a work of art, all had the talent of their creator harnessed to out-perform their fellow pastry chefs, to tempt and delight. I was lucky enough to try them all, and if you can get your hands on one do! It would be hard to find a more decadent and fitting finale to a Christmas celebration. Most of the chefs have a strictly limited number of buches available to order, and are offering them for sale from the beginning of December.
Last, but not least, don’t forget that many of the above, and a whole lot more chocolate besides, will be at your one-stop Christmas chocolate shop, The Chocolate Festival, held on the 12th-14th December at The Business Design Centre, Islington.