A tale of two chocolate workshops

Despite starting to make a living out of talking about and tasting chocolate ten years ago, I hadn’t actually attempted to make chocolates or even chocolate-dipped fruit on my own since some time before this. I observed other friends make them, but I was content with making cookies, cakes and brownies. Mostly I make food because I enjoy eating it, hence I will even whip up cookies or muffins over a cake that might have to bake for 45 minutes (what, wait over an hour from deciding to make a cake and actually getting to eat it?). The idea of a several-stage, seemingly complicated and messy process that might also fail, didn’t quite seem worth the effort.

Then I got invited onto two chocolate workshops within the space of two weeks. Thiscoincided with conversations with a dear friend looking for chocolates for her wedding. I recommended a few chocolatiers but she decided she would buy some love spoon moulds (she was marrying a Welshman) and make them herself. From my wedding last year I know that adding something that mammoth to the To Do list last minute is a guaranteed precursor of stress so in a moment of extreme empathy I volunteered to do them for her. At least I felt I had enough friends in the industry to give me some advice. The workshop invitations could not have come at a better time. I picked up tips to make it so much easier and also had a reason to practice the new skills meaning that hopefully they’re now embedded!

Chocolate Love Spoons

I was really rather proud of how the spoons turned out and received William Curley’s first book from the friend as a thank you. This is a book I have previously looked upon as containing far too many intimidating recipes to justify purchasing for myself, even though I have always recommended it for others. Now? Bring it on.

 

The two classes I went on were really quite different. Still I would thoroughly recommend them both. Which one depends on your objectives. Allow me to elaborate. If you’re looking for fun with some friends for a few hours and a chance to learn some introductory skills to make homemade truffles for your dinner party then the 2.5 hours at Bake with Maria will be totally enjoyable as well as useful for this.

AnnaMarie at Bake with Maria The class is in a small but pretty industrial unit near Hampstead. After being welcomed with a homebaked treat the education begins with a tasting that’s a useful introduction to the process of chocolate being transformed from bean to bar and also different styles of chocolate including flavoured bars and a truffle or two. Then you’ll watch ganache being made and get your gloves on and transform that ganache into little balls and coat them with cocoa. There’s plenty of time to ask the sweet teacher AnnaMarie for tips. In the short class you’ll also have time to learn the basics of tempering and pour chocolate into lollipop moulds and sprinkle them with nuts and other treats. A perfect thing to learn to make teacher gifts or kids party treats.

 

If you think you want to go to the next level of expertise, to add to your skills as a baker, to get the edge for a kitchen-related interview or to start a home chocolate-related business then the amount you cover in a day with Cookery School at Little Portland Street is staggering. The room is large and filled with stainless steel and professional kitchen lighting, as well as mirrors and screens to make sure you can see everything (even though the class is capped at 12 so it’s not totally necessary). We also started with a cocoa and chocolate production background and tasting here, this time it was a roundup of premium brands used in professional kitchens in London as well as a few other UK-made artisan bars. My classmates here were all on an intensive eight week cookery course covering every specialism a modern chef should know, which should give you an idea of the calibre of this class.

Roz and the Portland Street Cookery School chocolate workshop

Roz and the Portland Street Cookery School chocolate workshop

For each chocolate skill we were given the demonstration by Stephen, who is currently a chocolatier for a restaurant group making thousands of filled chocolates a week. School owner Roz gave us a demonstration of honeycomb which is the basics of a caramel with added complications so if you can master this you can master any caramel. The practise and tips in tempering made my days moulding the chocolate love spoons infinitely quicker, easier and less messy. Most exciting for me was learning how to make praline. I *love* praline and the good quality paste is pretty pricey. Now I can do it myself and it stores for ages. Simpler than I’d expected and you don’t even have to make it regularly (assuming you want to eat it regularly and, well, why wouldn’t you?).

praline

Caramelised hazelnuts cooling to be blitzed into praline paste.

Most of what we saw being made at Portland St we then went to create ourselves including the seed tempering, piping ganache and filling and capping moulds. The best thing is that someone always made a mistake (yep, I made plenty) which meant we all learnt how to fix mistakes (or when to give up and start again!). This is invaluable when you’re actually trying to repeat the process at home. It’s no good just seeing how it looks when it all goes smoothly. What happens when you’re at home and the lumps won’t melt? And what made the honeycomb so dense? Not all of us have chocolatiers on speed dial (and because of this experience I didn’t need to hassle any of the ones on mine!).

 Chocolates made by Jennifer Earle  Chocolate truffles

This day of making was intersected with a most delicious lunch. The advantage of the class appearing as part of an intensive course across all disciplines means you’ll get to sit down to bread baked on site and some more gourmet dishes with top quality ingredients. We had slow cooked quail, Greek salad and spiced pumpkin soup accompanied by organic wine. Divine. Neither class comes especially cheap but they were enjoyable and both taught by chefs with years of experience so if you think you’re going to use the skills again they actually very good value. And you get to take home a whole load of chocolates! Which at the prices charged in most of the London boutiques it practically pays for the class ;-) (and makes you realise, if you didn’t already, why these chocolates aren’t – and shouldn’t be – cheaper!). In my next Chocolate Ecstasy newsletter sent out this week I’ll be sharing 10% discount codes for both so if you do want to book it’ll be even better value! To sign up fill in your details on this page: http://chocolateecstasytours.com/news.

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Akesson’s wins the Academy of Chocolate 2015 Golden Bean Award

Last week saw chocolate maker Akesson’s take home the coveted Academy of Chocolate Awards 2015 Golden Bean Award for the best bean-to-bar chocolate.

Akesson receiving Academy of Chocolate Award

Bertil Akesson and his team member, Maria, accepting Gold Academy of Chocolate Awards from host Nigel Barden.

The very first cocoa plantation I went specifically to visit belonged to Bertil Akesson Senior, at one time a Swedish diplomat who had come to base himself in Madagascar. The plantation was on the very Northern tip of the main island of Madagascar.

Along with two fellow cocoa-fiends from Sweden, I flew from the capital, Antanarivo (Tana), in a very small and disturbingly worn-looking plane to Nosy Be, the island just off the tip of the mainland. We checked into a hostel and wandered into the village, stumbling across an-almost empty bar built into the cliffs with views across the sea.  We ordered a drink and, as we chatted, the locals arrived, then the DJ, then the disco lights.  An entertaining evening.  Sore heads were comforted by hearty breakfasts and terrible coffee in the morning; we headed to the port to haggle a ride on a motorboat back to the main island to our accommodation closer to the cocoa plantations.

Several uncomfortable hours later, the boat pulled up at some stone steps falling into the water that led up a slope into trees where we could just see glimpses of the roof of an old, colonial style farmhouse.  We unloaded our packs and our selves, hiked up to the house and settled into the furniture on the wide verandah that encircled the house.  We drank very welcome cold juice. Quickly followed by cold beers and a swim at the private jetty.

Our beds for the night were in individual cabins away from the main house.  After seeing the guards patrolling with guns and being warned to stay alert for snakes and spiders, the Swedish girl and I decided to camp in together.  There was no electricity after 9pm and I still remember how suffocating the heat felt as I lay under the patchy mosquito net of my hard, single bed. Not quite the island paradise I’d imagined.

Daylight came slowly after a fitful sleep that had me jolting at every snap of a twig as the guards made their rounds and each time an insect buzzed too close to my ear.  A cold shower brought my wakefulness to “almost” and we went for breakfast in the main house.

We were picked up by the farm manager in his 4X4 to traverse the local roads to reach the plantations.  Even holding tightly to the inside of the car our heads kept hitting the ceiling with each pothole – and there were many.  We were dressed in long trousers and long-sleeved shirts to discourage the mosquitoes.  The trade off was sweltering in the heavy, thick heat of the forest.  Our guide was South African and knew the plantations inside out.  He shared with us their strategies for getting higher yields from the crop and how a single tree could produce pods of more than one variety.  We saw seedlings being pruned and learnt how it was only at this size that the trees needed shade from the canopy, once the trees were able to produce fruit (from 2-3 years) direct sunlight wasn’t a concern.

Jennifer Earle and a cocoa pod in Madagascar

Checking out fresh cocoa pods for the first time, in Madagascar, 2010.

The potholed roads, the haggling, the guns, some harassment, the pervasive poverty - especially in the dirt roads that made up most of the capital city – plus the limited electricity all surprised me.  All I’d known of Madagascar previously was stories of beautiful flora and fauna and bright blue skies.  We saw this too, but the state of the country in 2010 made it one of the more unsettling locations I’ve visited.  It was worth it for my first sight of cocoa growing. To taste the sweet sourness of the pulp that clings to the seeds. To spot the vanilla plants wrapped around the trees, their flowers mixing with the cocoa flowers into an intoxicating, heady scent. To meet many smiling locals and watch kids kick a football in the dust and on the grass, the adults gathered around a TV to watch the game played in another country. To see whole communities getting involved in a harvest.  I’d still love to return one day.

 

The plantations I visited now belong to Bertil Akesson Junior who harvests the cocoa, pepper and vanilla and, with the help of a French chocolate maker, transforms them into award-winning bars.  Last October he opened a small store in Notting Hill, on Blenheim Crescent.  More than 20 varieties of pepper, his full range of bars plus bars made by others from his cocoa beans and a selection of sugars and other cocoa products line the drawers and shelves of beautiful wooden furniture, and sacks of beans lean artfully against the window.  It features on the Notting Hill Coffee & Chocolate Tour and wins over more people to 100% chocolate than any other sugarless bar is capable of doing.  What really impresses guests is the 75% Madagascan bar though.  Proving that the Academy really are recognising and awarding chocolate that most chocolate lovers will appreciate.

 

The Golden Bean for bean to bar maker is the Academy of Chocolate’s highest honour.  Actually a golden painted wooden cocoa pod, the trophy represents the best in class for artisan chocolate produced anywhere in the world. Akesson’s 75% Criollo Madagascan Chocolate scored more highly than any other dark bean to bar chocolate.  It is sensational.  This year for the first time the Academy required that all chocolate samples were sent in identical 5g moulded bars to ensure true blind sampling with no identifying marks.  No matter how subjective we like to think of ourselves as judges it is impossible to not let our unconscious associations interfere so this is an excellent progression for the awards (though, of course, might limit the entrants willing or able to enter).

Academy of Chocolate Awards

There were also two further “Golden Beans” given out: to Chika Watanabe for Best Newcomer and to World Chocolate Guide’s very own Dom Ramsey, who has moved from writing about chocolate to creating it.  He was awarded “One to Watch” after his first two bars won Bronze awards in their category.

Other Gold Award winners included:

Rococo - who took a swathe of awards for their plain dark ganaches and caramels

Ben Le Prevost – Best Filled Chocolate – Fruit category for Raspberry, Lime & Chilli

Berries Luxury Pudding Makers & Confectioners - Raspberry & Rose Jelly Heart; and Blackcurrant Caramel Dome

Demarquette Fine Chocolates - Imperial China chocolate

Chococo - Totally Twisted Nose (gin and watercress)

Hotel Chocolat – Single Malt Cardhu Whisky filled chocolate; Salted Caramel hot chocolate

Benjamin Chocolatier - Palm Blossom Caramel

Chika Watanabe - Tajine Apricot filled chocolate; Yuzu Mint Caramel

Coworth Park Hotel - Muscavodo & Ginger Caramel

Selfridges - Hebridean Honey and Sea Salted Caramel

Winchester Cocoa Company - Ginger and Muscovado Caramel

Yauatcha - Raspberry Rose chocolate

Kokoa Collection – Best Unflavoured Drinking Chocolate – Dark Haiti 75% Hot Chocolate.

Past winners who didn’t submit this year included Amedei, Paul a Young and William Curley, in case you noticed their absence.  Some of them participated in the judging, instead.  There were also other great chocolatiers and chocolate makers who were not judged as part of this competition because submission is via companies who choose to (and pay to) enter.  For further information on the awards go to www.academyofchocolate.org.uk/awards.

Finally, more photos from Madagascar in 2010. It truly is a beautiful country with charming residents.

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Pump Street Bakery pops up for one week only

Pump Street Bakery Pop Up ShoreditchThe wonderful Pump Street Bakery, based in Orford, Suffolk, have brought a selection of their pastries and bread and – importantly – their chocolate to London for one week only.

The bakery was founded in 2010 by father and daughter team Chris and Jo Brennan.  Jo’s just days away from having her own child so hopefully the legacy will get a chance to be carried on!  When they first opened they used Valrhona for their baked goods, but a few years ago Chris decided to buy a grinder and have a go at making his own chocolate. With help from Green & Black’s Head of Taste, Micah Carr-Hill, they quickly became one of the most respected UK chocolate makers, following in the footsteps of Willie Harcourt-Cooze and Duffy Sheardown, with some serious packaging that’s both functional and very cool.

Pump Street Bakery pop up chocolate bars

The chocolate, made from the beans sourced directly from Madagascar, Venzuela, Ecuador and Grenada, has already won a host of awards, collecting a few more at the Academy of Chocolate Awards night on Thursday last week. They also have a full time chocolate maker on staff too, who’s manning the pop up this week so can answer any questions you have!  (That’s Rob in the picture below.) If you pop in you’ll be able to try their newest bar, Rye Crumb, Milk and Sea Salt.  It is a unity of deliciousness that is insanely moreish. You’ve been warned.

Pump Street Bakery pop up

The temporary shop is at 67 Redchurch St (near to Shoreditch High St and past Mast Brothers).  It is small but a stylist’s dream. White walls, exposed brick, fresh flowers and the bars hung in frames… As well as their full range of bars, each day they’ll be selling the rye and the sourdough loaves that both appear in the chocolate bars and their infamous Eccles Cakes (so full of curranty goodness!), croissants and pains aux chocolat with their own Ecuadorian milk chocolate, plus a rotating pastry. Today it’s raspberry doughnuts. Check out their Instagram feed for daily updates; if you can cope with drooling on your phone.

Pump Street Bakery pop up Redchurch StPump Street Bakery pop up Vermont sourdough bread
Pump Street Bakery pop up Eccles cakes
Pump Street Bakery pop up chocolatePump Street Bakery pop up chocolate

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Mast Brothers arrive in London

Mast Brothers ShoreditchThe bearded brothers who rocked the chocolate world with their Brooklyn factory have crossed the ocean to set up in London. It’s their first shop outside of New York and they’ve chosen to take on London’s already thriving chocolate scene. But just like in New York they’ve centred on the hipsters young, affluent market.

Mast Brothers Shoreditch bean to bar chocolateSetting up in Shoreditch alongside other edgy brands they’ve filled the window with brimming hessian bags of cocoa beans and a neon strip light sign. Inside the walls are white or exposed brick (very East London) and white cubes run around two edges with more in the middle displaying the chocolate and a small sit-up bar along another edge.  The main serving counter fills up the far side of the shop and coffee machines and chemexes sit behind a glass cabinet of ganaches.  The back wall is glass, behind which you can see the cocoa grinders turning, bearded chocolate makers in their whites and industrial shelves piled high with huge slabs of plastic-wrapped chocolate.

Mast Brothers Shoreditch

On the opening day they were giving out cocktails and sampling bars and their spread.  The spread is probably the best I’ve ever tasted.  The hot chocolate is rich but served in small takeaway cups for £5 a piece not the cheapest in town.  It is, of course, made with their chocolate which sells at £8 bar.  More alarming was the single chocolates that were priced at £3 each.  No significant discount applied by buying a full box.  I’m hoping they’ll bring across some of the baked goods I tried on my last visit to their Brooklyn HQ in 2012.

Mast Brothers Shoreditch chocolates Mast Brothers Shoreditch milk chocolate

It’s brilliant for the chocolate world to have a maker in town.  Most people still are so detached from the process of making chocolate; hopefully Mast Brothers will help to open people’s eyes to why good chocolate shouldn’t be cheap and make chocolate lovers more conscious of the subtlety of flavours between origins.  Good chocolate does not just taste of chocolate.


Mast Brothers Shoreditch cocktail

Mast Brothers Shoreditch bars Mast Brothers Shoreditch bar

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Impending chocolate shortage? How to avoid the “crisis”.

Global Cocoa Shortage - Cocoa PodThere have been murmurings of an impending chocolate crisis for some months now but the major press seemed to pick it up this week. As I stood in the airport ready to fly to Milan on Monday I was called by the BBC to see if I could come on BBC Worldwide that evening to discuss the chocolate shortage. Sadly there were no suitable studios in Milan so I had to pass but my brain kept ticking. It’s a topic I’m extremely passionate (read: opinionated) about.

I’m still in Milan but given that I’m here on behalf of the tourism board promoting Milan Expo 2015 (www.wonderfulexpo2015.info) it seems fitting alongside the Expo’s theme of Food and specifically “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” to start this sustainability conversation with chocolate.

Cocoa prices are rising again. In real terms (i.e. accounting for inflation) they’re not the highest they’ve ever been, but they are high. Economics 101 should tell us that prices rise when demand increases or supply decreases. In the case of chocolate (or cocoa, its main, crucial component) we’re seeing both simultaneously.

Countries that have always been big consumers of chocolate are eating more than ever. In the UK we’re now responsible for the largest consumption in Europe. And now the nations that were previously only mildly interested in chocolate are taking to it with the same gusto as the rest of us. Undoubtedly this was instigated by the major confectionery manufacturers and their masterful marketing attempt to extend their reach and boost their revenue. Their success is now our concern.

A lesser contributor to this looming dearth is the “fine chocolate industry” which is gently nudging consumers towards higher percentage cocoa chocolate bars. The more cocoa in the bar the greater the demand amongst the manufacturers for the ingredient, ergo the price goes up. The fine chocolate industry, however, pays cocoa growers between three and ten times the price that they would make by selling their cocoa – via convoluted channels – through the commodities exchange. Not to mention paying them as directly as possible avoids middlemen taking an unnecessary cut.


Most of the world’s cocoa (close to 70%) comes from two main producing countries: Ivory Coast and Ghana. Both have suffered from drought this year and the proximity of Ebola to these and other cocoa producing countries has also caused panic in the markets which always base their price on future expectations of demand and supply rather than the current conditions. Right now there are warehouses of cocoa beans that will last the world a few years still, even at our current rate of consumption. Unfortunately the trend is to a dwindling production which will, quite literally, eat into those reserves.

Cocoa Bean storage and cocoa shortage

The main problem is that actually the price of cocoa is NOT high enough. How can we expect farmers to keep growing cocoa when they can replace it with a crop that is easier to grow, more resistant to disease and pays more than double per hectare than they’re making from cocoa. At the recent Academy of Chocolate Conference the topic was “What price cocoa?”. Corn and rubber can yield a farmer a more financially rewarding life, even if in some cases this is short-termist. Farmers who remove their cocoa trees cannot easily change their minds. It takes 3-5 years from planting a seedling to yield fruit to harvest beans to sell. This is why we might see cocoa become as rare and expensive as caviar. We see each year that at least one of the popular chocolate confectionery lines has shrunk or maybe nudged the price up and the online community goes into uproar. How dare inflation touch our precious treat? Most people can’t comprehend the idea of paying £5 for 100g chocolate bar. Which astounds me when I see the same people buying the house wine – which is invariably quite ordinary – for the same price and finishing it in thirty minutes. Never mind the cost of cigarettes or a daily Starbucks habit. A 100g bar of 70% fine quality chocolate is hard to consume in one evening unless you’re chomping it mindlessly, and even then I’d be surprised.

Cocoa Bean in Grenada - worldwide cocoa shortage

If we’re making an effort to move consumption away from cheap fashion then we should be doing the same for cheap chocolate. The “us and them” mentality needs to stop. Yes, it’s cheaper to live in most cocoa-growing countries, but $1/day per family (and this is what some cocoa farmers earn) is well below the poverty line. We must start paying all cocoa farmers more.

If you want to ensure that there will be cocoa in the future then we all need to accept that it must cost more, but at least choose something that you will get more pleasure from each bite. If you think you don’t like dark chocolate I can almost guarantee you’ve just not tried one of the good ones. I’ve shown thousands of people on chocolate tours in the past ten years and at least a third of them have told me at the beginning they don’t like dark chocolate. By their first taste 99 of every 100 show surprise and have changed their mind. But if you’re the “one” then try some dark milk chocolates, look for percentages between 40 (not strictly dark milk) and 60%. Less sugar and more flavour. The more cocoa in a bar the less your body craves to eat more. And start asking about whether the chocolate manufacturer buys their cocoa direct and what price they pay.

Chocolate Bars Chocolate ShortageTo start you off, here are a list of some brands that I would recommend:
Grenada Chocolate Company (made in country and £1.35 – about 20-30% – of every bar goes to the growers, versus around 2p – about 2-3% – for every bar of Dairy Milk)
Willie’s Cacao (made in Devon and available in Waitrose)
Duffy’s (made in North Lincolnshire)
In fact, any of the bars sold on www.CocoaRunners.com and if you use the code ecstasy1 for a box or ecstasy2 for a subscription you will get a £3 or £5 discount.

May we all continue eating chocolate for many years to come.

 

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