January 29, 2013
I rolled up my sleeves and got dirty with the yummy stuff, all in the name of research of course.
It was a Saturday afternoon that found me back on Wardour Street, drawn by the beacon of chocolatey promise that is Paul A Young’s flagship store. My visits to Soho these days are rarely free of a visit to this purple paradise, for a fix of my old favourite salted caramel, or to investigate the newest creation of this chocolate alchemist. But this time was not to be a flyby, and I was going to be doing more than just choosing what to sample. I was going to be getting my hands dirty and making it myself!
I am not by nature a critic. If I care about something, and I certainly care about chocolate, then I am always drawn to doing it myself, rather than expecting someone else to do it for me, and standing in judgement. So in many ways it bemuses me that I have become a chocolate writer and even judge, rather than a chocolatier. This is uncharacteristic, so I have to ask myself why? I cook a lot, teach baking, and develop and publish recipes, many of which involve chocolate as I love it so much. But pure chocolate work, with all the tempering and temperature control that it requires, is a specific talent. Paul A Young has it, in spades, and I couldn’t bear to do it unless I could be as good as him, or some of the other greats I meet on my travels. And I know, in my heart, that that isn’t possible. Equally, when I encounter such talents, when I taste some of the things I have been lucky enough to taste in the last few years, I want to shout about it, to spread the word, to ensure that understanding and recognition is there for this treasure. So my word has become mightier than my wooden spoon.
Nonetheless I jumped at the invitation extended to me by Michael Lowe, Paul’s head chocolatier at Wardour street, to sit in on one of his master-classes. Firstly, the kitchens at Wardour Street are spacious, fitted with expanses of marble tempering slabs, and filled with all manner of treats to incorporate into the chocolates. The only limitation would be my imagination. Secondly, Michael is a delight; passionate, knowledgeable and highly skilled.
Michael is Australian born and trained, initially as a pastry chef because pure chocolate training wasn’t to be found where he grew up. But he always knew he was heading for chocolate, his focus was clear. He clearly loves his job, and demonstrates a childlike glee for the Wardour street shop. (For more about the boutique see my earlier post on a visit there and tasting.)
We began our afternoon with some background knowledge, Michael talked through the basics of chocolate ingredients and how best to taste chocolate. Cocoa pods, beans, cocoa mass, nibs and butter were all explained and inspected, and where relevant tasted. Throughout the afternoon he patiently answered the many questions that were raised as we went from the very straightforward to the advanced, from munching samples of some of the different couverture chocolates used in their kitchen, to the rather more complex task of hand tempering on a marble slab.
My previous attempts at tempering have seen mixed results. But when it works, boy is it satisfying. The elusive ‘snap’ of a beautifully tempered bar is the sweetest thing when it has been created by your own fair hands. After watching the, frankly mesmerising, demonstration from Michael, we all managed just that. The couverture used was Pacari 70% raw, the inclusions were as varied as the people in the room, times five as we made five bars each. Personally I like a bit of sea salt, and the rum soaked raisins were calling my name. But the stand-out favourite of my tasters back home was the bar I studded with salted popcorn. Who knew?
In addition to the bars, we were treated to the even messier job of making hand rolled and dipped truffles. Each student produced a ganache flavoured with anything they chose from Paul’s well-stocked cupboards, these ranged from basil, lemon grass and port, to rose and cardamom. I was in a purist mood, and thinking of the fine pairing of plums and dark chocolate I lifted my Valrhona 70% ganache with nothing but a generous slug of Sipsmith Damson vodka.
The ganache rolled into balls with the help of a fair amount of glorious terracotta coloured Valrhona cacao powder, we set about coating them in more of our tempered Pacari couverture. The ever patient Michael was on hand, and hands on, to tame any errant truffles. It is not the easiest of tasks and you would have struggled to find any that were fit to grace the shop displays upstairs.
But boy did they taste good!
To finish we all had a bit of a taste-athon, checking each other’s flavour combinations and basking in the generous comments of approval from Michael, before packaging up the seemingly vast quantities of chocolates we had each produced to take home.
My journey home was spent thinking what an enormous amount of very messy fun I had had. And in the smart purple bag I was clutching I had the most thrilling stash to take away with me. While the contents of that particular Paul A Young bag couldn’t match the elegant and well judged perfection of the chocolates hand made day out by the chocolatiers themselves, and they certainly wouldn’t have passed muster if I had had my judges hat on, they had an extra ingredient that almost made up for the lack of finesse. Pride. Thank you Michael for a fab afternoon.
(If you would like to attend a masterclass at one of Paul’s boutiques check out their website. The next one is on Saturday 2nd February 2013. Hurry, there might be a place left!)