One of the wonderful things about chocolate is that it has many lives. Pure and unadorned, showcased by chocolatiers in truffles and bonbons, mendiants and pralines, and in the hands of pastry chefs, transformed into many of the finest examples of their art.
As Grand Jury of The International Chocolate Awards I get to taste the finest things an ever-growing band of passionate chocolate makers are producing. There are geniuses among their number. Their wares are worth all the eulogising given to the finest wines. What we are looking for in judging is an understanding of the particular character and subtleties of a given cacao. It is delicious indeed finding evidence of increasingly sophisticated and sensitive processing being used to create chocolates that are true to their variety. A really great chocolate will also have a well-balanced flavour profile, so decisions about its percentage cocoa mass and any added ingredients will have been expertly made.
Chocolate is essential to any pastry chef. Those in the know understand that the development of ever more interesting chocolate is an enormous addition to their palate of possibilities. One of the great joys of having the latest knowledge of fine chocolate is sharing that with open-minded chefs, expanding their range and understanding of the potential of this divine ingredient.
One such is Andrew Scott, Executive Chef at Sudbury House Hotel, in whose fine dining Restaurant 56, he presents precise and elegant food, of classical technique, full flavour, and made with local Cotswold fare. Our latest collaboration, the Artisan Chocolate Plate, is the result of a comprehensive tasting of a hugely diverse range of wonderful chocolate. That was a tough afternoon for all! Our aim was to pick three chocolates we truly fell for, a trio that also hung well together, and inspired a suitable dish for the time of year. The result is a winter chocolate dessert that is a joy to eat. I confess to a wistful sigh when the plate was licked clean.
Our trio began with a beauty from Michel Cluizel, the French fine chocolate maker that has pioneered the creation of single origin chocolate for many decades. Los Ancones 67%, a dark chocolate from Caribbean Trinitario cacao, is glorious. It won the gold medal for best dark chocolate in Europe at the 2012 International Chocolate Awards. It is full of round smooth fruit notes and warm with hints of winter spice. Andrew has emphasized these qualities in a form of pastilla of fine brik pastry which cracks open to reveal a heart of molten chocolate fondant and its accompaniment of quince puree and tarter, crisper cubes of the poached fruit. In the middle of the plate is an ice cream of Original Beans white chocolate. A brand new release by this ethical and consistently delicious chocolate maker, Edel Weiss is their first white. It is unusual in that it contains no vanilla, allowing a cleaner and less candy-like result. The ice cream serves as a perfect palate cleanser for the dish, rounded and pleasingly creamy in taste and texture. It sits on a soil of the unadorned chocolate, to allow it to be tasted in its pure form. Finally, Andrew has taken a chocolate from one of the leading lights in artisan chocolate making in the UK, Duffy Sheardown. His multi-award winning Ocumare 55% Dark Milk, a caramel rich wonder from Venezuelan cacao, is made into a cool and meltingly smooth parfait. The flavour of the chocolate is delivered beautifully and added to by a crisp shell of the chocolate for intensity and texture. The parfait also has a seasonally fruity core of mandarin syrup. Each element on the plate stands on its own as a true and happy take on the chocolate in question, and together, with hot, cold, cool, crisp, tender, sharp, mellow and deep, it is a chocolate lover’s delight.
Selecting the right chocolate for the job is an enriching process of experimentation. Nicolas Cloiseau, Head Chef of La Maison du Chocolat, has a range of standard and custom-made Valrhona chocolates at his disposal when he creates the patisserie for the global network of their boutiques. His work must stay true to the classical canon of a revered house, but he reinvigorates those classics with French restraint and panache. His Mousse du Choc, a little verrine of loveliness, seeks to rework the timeless chocolate mousse, retaining its essential well-loved tastes, but with a modern lighter touch. The mousse itself, which hides pieces of soft meringue for texture, is very light, barely sweet, with a hint of malt in the taste. This is topped by a layer of malleable ganache. Each verrine is decorated with curls of dark chocolate. Each element separately is delicious, but incomplete. Together they add up to the clean easy cocoa flavour of a classic chocolate mousse, good enough to satisfy any French maman, but with more interest, more moments of light and dark. The result evokes memories of chocolate mousses loved and eatenwhile focusing on the chocolate itself with great clarity.
Valrhona has a long history of working with chefs, and it is often the Michelin starred chef’s choice in France. , Executive Pastry Chef of The Hotel Café Royal in London, is one of the three-man team taking the UK hopes to the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie final in Lyon at the end of this month. He is also the first chef to develop a bespoke chocolate with Valrhona in the UK. The result, Profile 66, is his very own chocolate workhorse. It is designed to serve the myriad needs of a pastry kitchen supplying everything from afternoon teas, cakes for the opulent Sienna marble clad café that fronts along Regent Street, fine dining desserts for the various restaurants headed up by Andrew Turner, and collections of seasonal chocolates. Profile 66 launched in late October, and is easy to like, its dominant flavour notes are delicate fruit, such as apricot, a light caramel, and gingerbread warmth. Andy created a dessert for me, listening carefully to the strengths of his new chocolate, complimented by others in the Valrhona stable. The central element is a silky mousse, the fruit notes increased by the addition of some Manjari 64%. It reveals a heart of Kalamansi lime mousse, which zings along with the fruit in the chocolate. There is also a pocket of liquid chocolate, cooling and clever. There is a tasty nod to the season in a swipe of sharp, spiced puree of dried fruit. Eaten with a little of an aerated ganache of Caramelia the fruit takes on a nutty, chestnut quality that is quite delicious. Completing the plate are a palate-cleansing milk sorbet, an incredibly moreish compressed Stollen crisp that had me begging for Andy’s Stollen recipe, and a tempered ‘roof’ of pure Profile 66. A plate of winter chocolate heaven indeed!
In the UK, it is exciting that chefs increasingly use many different chocolates and chocolate houses to expand their range of chocolate tastes. When I first met Matt Gillan, Michelin-starred chef of The Pass in Sussex, Saturday Kitchen and Great British Menu contributor, he already knew much about chocolate. He had brands such as Original Beans and Michel Cluizel in his kitchen, and was mixing and matching with vigour. His latest creation displays his customary flair with technique and flavour. A ball of Valrhona Manjari 64% mousse is served cool, coated in the earthy nuttiness of pistachio crumb. The cocoa hit of a Valrhona 85% sorbet smoothly cleans and intensifies what is going on in my mouth. A cookie crumb filled with the smoky crunch of cocoa nibs adds texture and plays up the toasted flavours. Deep-fried caramelised pumpkin seeds are a bit of a revelation. The fruit and nut quality of the whole is further enhanced by drops of a deeply verdant pumpkin oil and a puree of passionfruit and pumpkin, which sounds complex, but it just simply right. The plate is topped by a glossily tempered curl of dark chocolate, an unadorned mouthful of the taste that weaves its way gently through the whole dish.
In a reverse of the usual order, Ibring you savoury after sweet, with a dish by Great British Menu contributor Graham Garrett. Graham has deservedly held a Michelin star at his restaurant The West House in Kent for twelve years. Pioneering local produce and a phenomenal way with flavour, he has serious form with chocolate, sparked off by his friendship with Damian Allsop, one of the world’s greatest chocolatiers. With his Pure Collection Damian showcases that which excites him most from a global pick of chocolate makersand sets their inherent brilliance alight in his innovative water ganaches. Graham uses a range of chocolates in his work, and earlier this year created a chocolate plate that danced with many of them, bringing multiple techniques to bear to delicious effect. It was an exercise in celebrating chocolate, there were no flavour pairings, no dairy even, just chocolate, aerated, caramelised, as a sorbet, a mousse, a tuile. His latest creation takes the opposite approachand demonstrates his mastery of the ingredient’s range. While the chocolate plate was a entire box of fireworks, this is one perfect sparkler.
The dish is a riff on a pork bun, a beloved memory of meals eaten touring the Far East during his past life as a rock star. The pork is replaced with a slow braise of hare, the steamed dough is brioche, a more indulgent and yet somehow also lighter interpretation of the original. An extraordinary sauce glazes this heavenly globe, an intense thing gleaned from the meat and the vegetables used in its preparation. This is topped with the grassy, bitter edge ofwatercressand the peppery hit of freshly grated horseradish. And the chocolate? It’s in the sauce, an expertly judged grating of The Grenada Chocolate Company’s 100% spreads its magical undertones. Does it make a difference? I tasted the sauce before and after. It was great before, but the chocolate managed to both mellow and deepen it, it completed it, it made it magnificent.
I would say that sums up the potential of chocolate as we now know it, in the hands of a great chef. Bloody magnificent! Thank you chefs for some very happy eating.