May 21, 2013
A first report on my collaboration with Michelin starred restaurant The Curlew in Bodiam.
The wonderful thing about being a food writer is sharing secrets and discoveries. That could be a recipe, or spreading the word about the extraordinary, world-class delicacies that I come across in my travels as a chocolate expert and judge. There is finer, more diverse, more complex, more refined chocolate being made now than ever before. And it is my joy to bring other foodies to the party, show them the light.
It is an even deeper joy when I get to share some of this knowledge with someone who has the palate, the power and skill to revel in these discoveries, create with them, and share further. Such a someone is Andrew Scott, Head Chef of Michelin starred restaurant The Curlew in Bodiam, with whom I am lucky enough to be collaborating on developing chocolate desserts for the restaurant.
The Curlew is a restaurant striking the right balance between refinement and relaxation. No unnecessary napery or ceremony, but seriously comfortable chairs, and a winningly knowledgeable, on the ball, and welcoming restaurant manager Marcellin Hardouin. Owners Mark and Sara Colley are brimming with vision and foodie passion, and tenacious in their pursuit of excellence for their corner of East Sussex. The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in January 2011 and has kept it since.
Andrew Scott came to The Curlew in October 2012, by way of a string of Michelin starred kitchens. He has worked under Simon Rogan at L’Enclume and was most recently head chef of Mallory Court. It is fair to say that the day I was due to meet the great man, and bring chocolate to the restaurant for a first tasting, I had a degree of trepidation. What would someone with that pedigree, that palate, whose knowledge of chocolate had been honed in those award-winning kitchens, make of my ‘expertise’ and box of treasures?
Armed with the best, gloriously augmented by the most recent finds from judging the 2012 finals of The International Chocolate Awards, I entered the restaurant knowing that at the very least I had things for them to taste they were unlikely to have tried. A funny thing about chocolate is how little is generally known, the potential that rests in those little beans, the differences in the final chocolate that result from different cacao varieties and different handling through its many processes.
In the event it was an afternoon of revelation on all sides. I was met by the whole team, Mark and Sara wanted to be there, and for all their chefs and front of house to enjoy the chocolate, meet me, and take part in the ideas we might have for the restaurant. It was a jolly experience, there is nothing quite like feeding people great chocolate to lift your day. My main focus was on Andrew Scott, and his sous chef Nick Bennett. In Andrew I found a man open and excited to learn more, taste more. It is in his nature and his food, this pursuit of both excellence and pleasure.
Andrew’s food is precise, balanced, full of flavour and technique, but understated. It is there to enjoy, doesn’t demand reverence, but probably gets it nonetheless. In tasting some of the best chocolate in the world he recognised, instantly, an opportunity to take something to another level.
Another level meant future meetings, discussion and tasting, cutting down my extensive long-list and selecting the chocolates that Andrew most wanted to focus on and work with. A dream list of chocolate was drawn up, including things by Pacari, Duffy Sheardown, Original Beans, The Grenada Chocolate Company and Michel Cluizel.
While Andrew got busy in the development kitchen I had to sit on my hands and wait, until last week when I got the call for our next meeting. There was something to taste. What I have been able to do is bring new tastes to a man willing and able to use and enhance them. What he wanted to do was take that inspiration and see where he could go. Our aim for The Curlew, a dessert that could serve as a degustation of three of the finest chocolates, while remaining a coherent and enjoyable plate of food.
The care and precision, tweaking and refining that I am witness to is admirable, and it is huge fun to be in on the process, not least because I get to eat a lot of exquisitely made chocolate desserts!
On the occasion of this most recent meeting there was much for me to try, and the discussion was focused on which chocolate would best suit each element on the plate. Was there too much, too little, how best for it to balance and sing?
My first problem was that it was all just so damn yummy that to pass any kind of judgement felt churlish, but then things came into focus. The sea salted chocolate mousse made perfect sense with a 60% from The Grenada Chocolate Company, its deep and pure cocoa notes marry perfectly with the salt, and any higher percentage would fight with the rest of the elements on the plate.
A water-based ganache was made for the Pacari Raw 70%. This innovative technique is allowing Andrew to bring an intense element to the plate without the unnecessary richness of a classic cream ganache and avoiding the dilution of flavour that the dairy would bring, The Pacari is one of the most interesting chocolates in the world, a complex, green and fruity series of tastes that bring the true flavours of the cacao brightly forward. It is an audacious chocolate and an exciting choice by The Curlew. They are in good company, it won best dark bar in the world last October at The International Chocolate awards finals.
The final choice was for a perfectly creamy milk chocolate ice cream. This was a no-brainer for me. Duffy Sheardown, leading light of the burgeoning artisan bean to bar chocolate making scene, and one of the few masters working in the UK, has made a milk chocolate that I could eat every day. It brings all the beauty of its Venezuelan cacao to the fore, while adding just the right amount of gentle comfort that a milk chocolate can give.
At this point I will say no more. If I tell you how Andrew has put these things together I will spoil the surprise. I am not even going to post a photo, as this is still a work in progress, and he must have creative freedom to develop up until the launch. But suffice to say I could not be more excited, and my next post from The Curlew will scrimp on no detail to bring you the result of our endeavours. You will eat vicariously through me, and if I have anything to say about it will likely be booking your own table to try for yourself.