October 7, 2014
Fine chocolate brand Valrhona launched a new chocolate, and I had the chance to go to the party, taste, and investigate.
Much of what I do is meeting, tasting and recording the new creations of artisan chocolatiers and small-batch chocolate makers. These chefs are working at the cutting edge of chocolate innovation, in that they play and invent, taking chances on new flavours, experimenting with new cacao origins or processes. But as passion for chocolate only grows, and globally pastry chefs are increasingly savvy about the potential of my favourite ingredient, so the larger fine chocolate brands are also pulling out all the stops to create new products for them. Valrhona, the French fine chocolate brand named after its home in the Rhone valley, is one such company. It has been instrumental since its inception in spreading the word about fine chocolate to professional kitchens worldwide, and has earned its position as the French Michelin-starred chefs chocolate of choice. Almost without exception Valrhona is used exclusively by the top French chocolatiers I meet.
On 26th September in London, a veritable dream team of of top pastry and chocolate talent assembled to celebrate Valrhona’s launch of their latest chocolate. Above, from left to right are; Andrew Gravett, Andrew Turner, Olivier Batel (of Classic Fine Foods, Valrhona’s UK supplier) Barry Johnson, Andrew Blas, Javier Mercado and Benoit Blin. They were joined by the great and the good from the UK’s professional kitchens, at an Afternoon Tea Extravaganza hosted by Classic Fine Foods, within the sumptuous rococo splendour of Hotel Café Royal’s Pompadour Room. The order of the afternoon, along with seeing and sampling a whole range of Classic Fine Foods latest offerings, was to ‘meet’ Valrhona’s newest baby Biskélia, a 34% milk chocolate.
This chocolate is not a retail product, but launching as a couverture for chefs, hence the assembled company. The Hotel Café Royal’s Executive Pastry Chef Andrew Blas and Valrhona’s Andrew Gravett had pulled out all the stops to showcase the chocolate in an indulgent multitude of tasty cakes, verrines and afternoon tea delights. The Hotel Café Royal’s Pompadour room was the scene of a tea to tempt even the elevated guests assembled. Tables were elegantly heaving with delicacies, and champagne flowed.
There was a celebratory mood in the room, which owed much to the delicious generosity of the party. But the presence of all three members of the UK team heading for Lyon in January 2015 for the Pastry Coupe du Monde world finals, added to the mix. The UK was the winner of the European Pastry Coupe in January of this year, ensuring its place in the upcoming world final. Only the top three scorers go through to compete on the world stage, and the UK win was a confident achievement. Denmark and Sweden gained the two other European slots, but with considerably lower points totals.
Barry Johnson, Principal Chocolatier of Rococo chocolates, takes the role of team captain, with Javier Mercado of Le Cordon Bleu and Andrew Blas completing the stellar trio. Their coach, Martin Chiffers and UK Coupe du Monde Chair Benoit Blin (Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons Executive Pastry Chef) add to the exceptional quality of what the UK will be offering. Good luck boys!
On the occasion of the Biskélia launch Barry Johnson had not been called upon to create any show-stopping pieces montées, but had used the new chocolate in a simple ganache square, designed to allow us an unadulterated first taste.
As with everything Barry makes these were delicious, a clean showcase of the chocolate we were all there for. But I couldn’t help sneaking a few of the other treats he had on offer too, and particularly loved a darkly enrobed strip of candied lemon. I also saved my analysis of Biskélia for later, when I could taste it unadorned, and without the distraction of an Afternoon Tea Extravaganza in full flow.
And what an afternoon tea it was! I was only physically able to sample a paltry few of the things on offer, as there were so many delights. These little salted caramel chocolate tartlets belied appearance and were unexpectedly creamily light and delicately flavoured.
Mini-cones were used to showcase the new chocolate and Guanaja, an old favourite of many of the assembled chefs. Possibly my favourite treat of the afternoon was a little verrine of full-flavoured boozy fruit-filled caked, topped with Biskélia mousse. The warmth and acidity of the fruit and booze offset the sweetness of the chocolate, which in its turn rounded out the sweet caramel notes of the cake. Delicious!
But what of the chocolate itself? Is it something that as a chocolate connoisseur you should seek out and analyse for its use of fine cacao? Probably not. This chocolate, along with Caramelia and Dulcey from the same stable, are ideas to spark more of the same in the chefs who use them. They play on the inherent comforting qualities of chocolate, enhancing them, inviting chefs to take it further. Biskélia, as the name suggests, draws out the toasted biscuity qualities in milk chocolate. As I opened my little sample bag the smell was that of opening a packet of biscuits, milk chocolate digestives maybe. The texture is ultra smooth and the melt is easy and creamy. This is not a dark milk, it is light in colour and light in taste. Eating this evokes childhood biscuits, dipping a caramelised cookie in milk, teatime. It is not a challenging set of tastes, quite the opposite, and wholly comforting for that.
Andrew Blas and co. did a stunning job of interpreting Biskélia. I look forward to seeing what the rest of the assembled company, and their colleagues beyond, will make of it.