May 15, 2012
Lunch in Soho with the innovative chocolatier.
An encounter with Damian Allsop is a serious pleasure. Serious, in that he is at the top of his game, chocolates don’t get more refined, more delicious, closer to perfection, than those Damian makes. And serious because he is an artist, a perfectionist, a fount of knowledge about fine cooking, and the world of chocolate in particular. So both my mind and my taste buds were looking forward to our time together.
In the event I wasn’t to have the sublime pleasure of any of his chocolate on this occasion. Damian had meetings in London, so we met in Soho. But I assure you that I will take the first opportunity to visit his HQ in Kent, sample all the newest offerings, and report back. He told me of his exciting new bars, featuring the ethnically diverse flavours of London. Those have me particularly intrigued!
On this occasion, before hunkering down in a corner of Bar Italia for the interview proper, our stomachs dictated we get a spot of lunch. Damian, whisked me into Barrafina, where we perched at the bar overlooking a team of chefs, cooking to order their fabulously tasty, precisely executed, Spanish classics.
It is a cuisine close to Damian’s heart. His wife Anna hails from Girona and he has true knowledge of the country, gained during stints as executive pastry chef at not one, but two Michelin-starred restaurants in Catalonia. We each had one perfectly seasoned scallop, which arrived elegant and inviting on the shell. And the lip-licking, sea-salt encrusted, Padron peppers, with the combined warmth of the pan and their natural piquancy, will not be forgotten in a hurry.
In between nods of appreciation for these treats, and tales of food and festivals in St Sebastian last summer, Damian told me about working with a growing number of Michelin-starred chefs. He creates bespoke chocolates for them to serve as the piece de resistance at the end of the meal. It is testament to his brilliance that he has such a starry array of collaborators. Having been on the other side of those kitchen doors himself, he knows just what makes them tick, choosing now to sprinkle his culinary magic from the outside. This allows him to be a bit of a maverick, honing his skills, wholly focused on refining and perfecting his chocolates.
Key to Damian’s excellence is his purist approach. He told me about a turning point, when he realised that to do justice to the superb Amadei chocolate he had just discovered, he needed to reinvent classical patisserie techniques. The conventional approach, making ganaches with cream, was muffling and altering the complexity and beauty of the flavours. The result was his water-based ganache. This innovation produces a texture as richly smooth as you could want, with a lightness that is quite new, and which allows the flavours of the chocolate to open up and sing. It is the technique he now uses to showcase the gloriously diverse tastes of the chocolate he works with, of fascinating origin and from the best makers in the world.
He is truly excited about the wonderful chocolate that is now at his disposal, feeling it to be “the best chocolate that has ever been made”. It is therefore not surprising that he gets hot and bothered about brands that try and pass for fine chocolate, and charge accordingly, but fail to deliver. Overblown claims regarding origin and quality of beans are a marketing man’s trick to add gloss to an indifferent product. They can be very misleading, and do a disservice to the buyer seeking out genuine quality. For Damian, whose life’s work is dedicated to the pursuit of true excellence in his field, it is galling. As someone who is doing all I can to let people know about the very greatest chocolate, I couldn’t agree more.
How to stop the charlatans? I think after tasting some of Damian’s chocolates you would be left in no doubt about what is worth your attention. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case the chocolate. Do try them if you can, they are available through his website, as is a full list of shops, stockists and restaurants. When you eat one, take your time, revel in its ability to combine complexity of flavour with purity of delivery and say thank you for the artists of this world, the idealists who do go that extra mile.