The whole Idea of Chocolate Week in the UK has been to build awareness for the growing artisan and high-end chocolate world in the UK (not just London) and drive foot traffic into the stores rather than taking people out of their workshops during the busy holiday production season and gathering them all together in one place for the public to parade in front of.
This year the organizers decided to add a small trade show component to Chocolate Week – Chocolate Unwrapped - as a way to officially mark the start of the week and to see if they could attract a different audience. Unwrapped was a small (about 20 exhibitors) tabletop show that included a small chocolate art exhibit and a series of lectures and tasting presentations. Tickets were sold to sessions that two-and-a-half hours, more than long enough to see and taste everything.
For me it was like being a kid in a candy store except I didn't have to pay. I believe I was the only journalist from North America attending and I may have been the only journalist from outside the UK to cover the show. Taken entirely unto itself, Unwrapped did not warrant traveling all the way from the US to see it. However, the UK chocolate scene has seen tremendous growth in the past five years and there are many people I have known and known of for quite some time that I have never actually met.
People like Martin Christy, who in addition to being the founder of seventypercent.com, one of the oldest chocolate review sites (I started corresponding with Martin shortly after starting chocophile.com back in 2001) is also highly involved in the Academy of Chocolate. The Academy had a table at Unwrapped and Martin was sharing his passion and enthusiasm with chocolate to a large number of attendees and even arranged a live interview with cacao growers in Ecuador via Skype which was pretty cool.
Martin Christy, editor of seventypercent.com
Another person I've needed to meet was Sara Jayne Stanes. Sara wrote a very early book on chocolate (1994 or thereabouts) and in addition to having been awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her work with food over many years is also heavily involved with the Academy of Chocolate. I had already scheduled a meeting with her for Monday with Chantal Coady of Rococo, but Sara was giving a lecture on cacao and chocolate in Mexico so I sat in even though I was more than a little groggy from the flight and feared that if I sat down in a comfortable chair in a warm and slightly darkened room I might immediately nod off. Thankfully I did not embarrass myself that way. One of the key takeaway points for me of the talk was Sara's use of the word “tastewashed” to describe how most people's palates have conditioned away from appreciating fine chocolate.
Sara Jayne Stanes, OBE
Though small, the exhibit did contain a mini Who's-Who of the London chocolate world including Melt, Sir Hans Sloane (helmed by US-born Bill McCarrick), Rococo, Artisan du Chocolat, Paul A Young, and Paul Wayne Gregory. Notable newcomers included Lauden and DeAngelis.
Brighton-based Choc Chick
is a relatively new company onto the scene specializing in “raw” chocolate and offering in addition to a small line of bars and truffles a small kit containing bags of cocoa powder and cocoa butter plus a small bottle of agave syrup and instructions on how to reconstitute the ingredients to make “raw chocolate bars” at home.
, headquartered in London's Notting Hill, is one of the names that gets mentioned in any discussion of the top chocolatiers in the UK. They still do everything by hand and take a spare but elegant approach to packaging. Ganaches are quite wet (so very short shelf life) and should you visit them don't pass up their hand-wrapped dissolve-in-the-mouth caramels, either the chocolate or the sea-salt varieties.
Samples of Melt's bar boxes
Sir Hans Sloane is a rather well-known figure in London and was involved in the cacao trade early on, which is one of the reasons why Bill McCarrick and his partners chose to name their company after him. I think many Americans would know the London landmark Sloane Square, which was named for Sir Hans. Among other things, they are known for being one of the first chocolatiers in the UK to start making their own chocolate (they have a 50kg Netzsch ChocoEasy). Bill described to me the simple technique used to make their drinking chocolate product: they pan demerara sugar crystals. Simple, straightforward, yet remarkably elegant and they can also be eaten, not just melted into hot milk.
Bill McCarrick, chocolatier
Another relatively new company is headed by a veteran of the European chocolate industry, DeAngelis
chocolates. Founded by Rocco DeAngelis, the company makes and sells a modern interpretation of traditional Modican (Sicily) chocolate. Steeped in history using techniques not all that different from those employed hundreds of years ago, Modican-style chocolate is grainy and coarse – and crunchy from the very large size of the sugar crystals. DeAngelis has modernized this style by refining the sugar to a far greater degree. The result still has the light/open/airy/sandy texture of Modican chocolate, but without the crunch. There are five flavors in all, all made from the same base chocolate with added flavors and inclusions. The melt profile is very clean and, from my tasting there are two standouts – the almond and the pistachio bars. Like all of the chocolate mentioned here these are not available in the US – yet.
London's chocolate scene is graced with two Pauls – Paul A Young and Paul Wayne Gregory
. Mr Gregory is a gregarious Jamaican and his approach to his chocolate is as open and gregarious as he is personally. Simple enrobed ganache rectangles, minimally decorated, that deliver strong, bright, clear, recognizable classic flavors with a strong chocolate finish in attractive packaging.
Paul Wayne Gregory
Red-headed-and-bearded and bespectacled Paul A Young
is something of the enfant terrible of London chocolatiers – for the moment. After all, it does take a certain level of confidence – if not hubris - to produce a Marmite truffle. Now even though I lived in New Zealand for several years in my youth and have Australian relatives, I have never warmed to that peculiar culinary delight (and I use the term very loosely) known as Vegemite. Though legions of fans engage in raging debates about the relative merits of Vegemite over Marmite (and vice-versa), I have never been convinced of the evolutionary necessity of caring enough to be able to tell the difference between the two let alone choose sides. Though there it was – the Marmite truffle. I can tell you that eating Marmite this was by far the most enjoyable Marmite experience I have ever, well, experienced. I am glad I ate it but I don't know that I would order a box for anyone but a Marmite lover (or to annoy a Vegemite aficionado). Nonetheless, the piece itself was impeccably made and the fit and finish on everything else I saw displayed the same level of competence and panache. PA Young is also currently the sole distributor of TCHO chocolate in the UK.
Yes, you are reading the card correctly - those are Marmite truffles
Also present were newcomers Lauden, standby Thornton's, and Rococo and Artisan du Chocolat – the latter two given short shrift here because I will be spending more time with them before I leave London and the former two because today is a busy day filled with meetings with a packager interested in my assistance on a book project and with Sara Jayne Stanes and Chantal Coady, followed by a pairings class with Gerard Coleman at Artisan du Chocolat. Along the way I have to do some ingredients shopping for the class. It looks to be a beautiful Monday here in London. Bright clear-blue sky and cool at the moment (10C or 50F) reaching all the way to 15C (about 60F) at the warmest part of the day. I will be back at the keyboard this evening after class.