This evening, I spent two hours eating chocolate.
OK, maybe not quite. But I spent two and half hours learning about chocolate, and there was tasting involved. Because zoo_music_girl and I were at a tasting at my favourite chocolate shop in London (and therefore, the world) L’Artisan Du Chocolat, run by the man behind the chocolate, Gerard Coleman.
It’s a fantastic experience, it really is. We were shown to the little room above his shop near Sloane Square, which was slightly like a trying-to-hard-to-be-trendy restaurant, with each place setting adorned with a single knife, a square glass plate and a glass for water, but the table on which they were set were on a horseshoe, all facing in to the centre, so it sort of came off feeling like a business meeting room.
If Coleman is to be believed, then I suspect the single most important thing I’ve learned is that the chocolate business is full of lying bastards out to exploit the public and flog inferior crap. This is not how he put it, and it’s not how he comes across (more of that in a minute), but over the course of the anecdotes about other chocolate makers, it’s very hard not to see a picture emerging. Coleman has apparently heard other people in the chocolate business say things like “you don’t have to like what you make”, something I (and he) find incomprehensible. As far as I’m concerned, if a person can’t stand behind their work, then they are a hideous shitehawk, and should be scourged with rusty barbed wire.
Here are a few things I know now that I didn’t know before:
There are three kinds of chocolate beans: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitatio. Criollo is the original kind, the sort that the Spanish nicked off the Aztecs. This is the stuff that produces the all round best-flavoured chocolate. So, of course, most chocolate is made with the inferior Forastero, which is cheaper, and easier to grow in bulk. Trinitario has a variety of strengths, being a hybrid of the two. (Only 5-10% of the world’s cacao is good quality Criollo, or higher grade Trinitario, mostly single estate specialists.)
But let’s talk about what we’re sold as “chocolate” in this country.
Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking about things like “percentage of cacao solids” and such like as the mark of quality. And I have to admit, I’ve tended to do exactly that myself up to now. But what Coleman was at pains to impress on us is that what matters, first and foremost is the quality of the ingredients. That the chocolate be made with top quality beans. There’s a process of natural fermentation involved in preparing the beans before they are roasted (effectively, the seeds are allowed to sit in their own fermenting pulp for up to five days) that stops the beans from germinating, and imparts most of the flavour to the chocolate. Except that most of the beans in the world are not put through this process, because it takes five days, and requires that the stacks of beans be moved and turned regularly, because, like compost, the bottom of the heaps can get bastard hot. It’s slow, and labour intensive, so instead, most beans are just washed in acid, instead, which has much the same effect in terms of stoping them germinating, but imparts much less flavour.
Here’s a thing for you: one of Kraft-Jacobs subsidiaries is responsible for almost all of Belgium’s chocolate imports. They’ve got a diamond-trade like monopoly on it. So, next question: how many of you associate “Belgian chocolate” with being quality stuff? Say, a brand like Leonidas? And yet, it’s all made from the same kind of inferior quality beans.
Or how about Thorntons? I’d hope that most of you don’t think of them as seriously premium quality, but again they use the same bulk imported Belgian chocolate as everyone else, and their new “premium” range works out more expensive per kilo than the stuff that L’Artisan do.
Or Cadburys. Of course they’re not premium chocolate. But today I learned the real reason why their chocolate is a bit sickly tasting. It’s not because their chocolate is just 20% cacao solids. It’s because they don’t even use the entire product of the bean. Chocolate is a natural emulsion, a mixture of oils and water and solids, and the flavour comes from all of them. Except that Cadburys (and others) have twigged that they can get rid of the oils, the cacao butter, and flog it to the cosmetics industry, and replace the oils with vegetable fat. Is anyone surprised to discover the flavour changes?
I could go on. He was full of stories about the things other chocolate makers do wrong. At some points, I wondered if this was all just marketing shill, designed to makes himself and his business look good, but listening to him talk, I was forced to conclude that no, it isn’t. It’s just that he’d got a terrible zeal for chocolate. He wants us all to know the same things he does, to demand the same things he does, because the only reason that these bastards get away with serving us inferior crap is because we don’t know what the good stuff is. Coleman, in his own words, doesn’t think “there’s anything to gain from being dishonest with your customer”. I can only agree.
So, what about the chocolate we actually tasted? Well, I’m not going to give you a detailed account, I’m just going to pick up on a few things from my notes.
We started with trying a rosted bean. It was odd. Not unpleasant, but odd – a textture a bit like a nut, a flavour somewhere between chocolate and coffee. The we moved on to trying the paste that results from the chocolate making process, before anything else is added. 100% cacao solids, if you like. And it was rather nicer than the 99% stuff I’d had a few weeks previously, because (I assume) it was from a much better grade of bean. This stuff, was basically, what the Aztecs invented. And apparently, used to give their warriors before they went into battle as a stimulant. Women, it turns out, were not allowed this stuff. I’m sure that at this point, several of my friends are giving thanks that we live in a more enlightened era…
(One might want to think about the fact that chocolate triggers dopamine release in the brain. I suspect that eating a lot of 100% solids could have a mildly consciousness-altering effect. One might draw parallels with the various other civilisations that got their warriors all fucked up on drugs before sending them out to fight…)
We then tried a couple of other kinds of dark chocolate, which were nice in different ways, before moving on to the milk chocolate. And this is the one I found most interesting. You see, I know a few people who are inverse chocolate snobs. They tend to say that they like Cadburys and Galaxy and the like, because chocolate is comfort food. That it shouldn’t be harsh, or bitter. (Personally, I find a good rich dark chocolate plenty comforting.) I would suggest that they go get a bar of L’Artisan’s milk chocolate. They’ll never go back to Cadbury’s again. Rich and warm and basically fucking gorgeous. Comfort food like your mother’s rice pudding. (Or whatever milky, creamy dessert your mother made that you loved.)
And then we got on to the flavoured fillings.
Most mass produced chocolates are very, very limited in their range of flavours. They can’t have anything that contains water, or cream, or fresh fruits or herbs, because all these things will introduce bacteria into the chocolates, and turn their shelf life from years and months to weeks and days.
Gerard Coleman, on the other hand, doesn’t see anything wrong with telling his customers that they’ve got to eat this stuff inside a fortnight. So as well as his caramel (salted – fucking gorgeous, and understandably his best seller), his praline, and his champagne truffle (all of which are several stratospheres above the standard long shelf-life versions), we get to try ganaches of wine, mint and earl grey tea. And again, all of them are fantasic. The wine is a Cote du Rhone, and is clearly identifiable as a red wine, although perhaps skewing a little toward blackberries. It’d be interesting to compare it with the source wine, which, if I have deciphered my notes correctly is a Domaine Lafond “Roc Epine”. The early grey tea is marvellous, starting with the bitter chocolate, then this great wash of delicate, floral and refreshing tea, and then moving back to smooth chocolate finish.
The mint interested me because it’s the best example of what they do. You see, I’d had their mint before, at the Fat Duck, and as you may recall, had enthused about the fact that it was proper natural mint flavour, tasting like the herb itself, instead of the artifical “mint” flavour we associate with mint chocolate. Well, so it was again. Bit it was slightly different, because, well, it was a different mint crop they’d used to make this. And so they’d also changed the chocolate that it was wrapped in, to another estate, with a flavour profile that suited the mint better. That’s how they work – they marry the specific flavour of a particular chocolate with the right filling. And bastard hell, they’re good at it. Coleman’s passion pays off for him in spades.
In another man, that passion might seem like arrogance – after all, he’s not shy about saying what he thinks of other people’s operations, and his opinions are almost universally unflattering. But not only is his chocolate of a standard to justify it, but one gets the sense that he would far rather not be saying these things. He’d like everyone to be eating the really good chocolate, and I don’t honestly think he’d mind too much if someone was doing a better job than him, so long as everyone knew what good chocolate was, and how to get it. The whole thrust of the evening was that if everyone learned what it was, we’d demand it from manufacturers, and everyone would be better off for it. I can only hope he gets what he’s after.