Today is the official first day of Chocolate Week and now that Chocolate Unwrapped is over there is no official “center” for the event. For the next seven days Chocolate Week goes virtual with events scattered throughout the city at various locations including the shops of participating chocolatiers. My main chocolate-related goal for the day is to prepare for a pairing event hosted at the Westbourne Grove shop of Arisan du Chocolat.
The event is called Sophisticated Pairings
and is part of my work to extend the audience for chocolate tastings by embracing other gourmet foods. Chocolate and wine pairings are common as are chocolate and beer and chocolate and beer and cheese pairings. My sophisticated pairings session for this evening will include 8 different chocolate (plus the cocoa liquors of two of the chocolates), balsamic vinegars, artisan salts, olive oils, and cheeses and charcuterie. There will be none of the traditional elements of a chocolate tasting per se
The London day is bright and clear and cool and there is a full day of things to do ahead of me before the tasting can begin. My first objective was to find the food hall at Selfridges where I would buy the cheese and charcuterie. It's a simple matter to take the Piccadilly line from Earl's Court to Green Park then transfer to the Jubilee line to Bond Street where it takes only a few moments for me to orient myself and make my way to the bastion of British retail.
Once inside it doesn't take long to find the food hall and the cheese display. I know that I want an aged Parmesan and luckily for me and for my guests there's a fresh-cut wheel of a thirty-month-aged specimen that should suit perfectly. New parmesans like the kind you get in most grocery stores are dense with one-dimensional and oversalted flavors but aged parmesans can be quite flaky with nuanced and delicate flavors.
Harder is the next selection as I want a goat cheese that's not too goat-y. After a few moments and commiserating with the person serving me over the fact that the case is too cold to really be able to taste the cheeses I'm sampling I settle on a British goat's milk cheese called Ticklemore – not too tangy or goat-y with a nice flaky texture.
Next I hit the charcuterie counter which is just steps from the cheese. There are loads of Italian and British specialties but I am looking particularly for bresaola, which is an air-cured beef, and a prosciutto. While there are a half-dozen choices in the prosciutto category (including an Iberico ham at 18 GBP per 100 grams (or about US$137/lb)) that I would love to select but it's way out of the price range for this event, there is only one bresaola choice – an American wagyu beef bresaola at a more reasonable (but not really reasonable) price of 6.50 GBP per 100 grams. I need 15 slices which ends up being about 220 grams or nearly a half-pound which amounts to about US$25. Armed with the prosciutto, bresaola, and cheeses I pay for my purchases and head back out to Bond St to catch the tube to my first meeting of the day.
Totally coincidentally, I was contacted just a few days before I was scheduled to leave for London by a book packager located in the Islington area (Angel tube) who was considering doing a book on chocolate and did I want to be considered for the project because they were heading for the Frankfurt book fair and wanted to promote the book to publishers? We had a lovely meeting and agreed to meet when I was back in London before returning home.
From there it was a short walk along to Camden Passage off the Islington High Street to one of Paul A Young's shops. I already knew that it was closed on Mondays but I walked by to take a photo of the exterior.
Then it was back on the tube to Bayswater to drop off my loot from Selfridges at Artisan du Chocolat and take a look at the setup for the tasting before heading out to my afternoon meeting and shopping expedition.
Satisfied with all of the preparations I started walking from Westbourne Grove towards the Belgravia Square shop of Rococo where I had a late-afternoon meeting with founder Chantal Coady and Sara Jayne Stanes that I'd arranged well before I set out on the trip.
Chantal is probably the best-known figure on the London chocolate scene and Rococo has been in business for about 20 years. Chantal is the author of several books on the subject of chocolate and is one of the founders of the UK Academy of Chocolate. She may be best known for her campaign for Real chocolate – chocolate that contains no added fats other than cocoa butter (one of her books is titled Real Chocolate).
I made a huge directional error when I assumed I could walk from Bayswater to Belgravia because I was not careful to ensure that the two maps I printed out actually overlapped in the corner where I thought they did. So I got to the edge of one map and found myself, instead of the expected one street west of where I needed to be (Knightsbridge tube at the top of Sloane St), about two miles west of there at the High Street Kensington tube stop. Though it was in the midst of rush hour I was able to flag a cab and make it to the foot of Motcomb St (Rococo is at #5) just on 5:00. I was the first of my party to arrive only to discover that ChocolateLife member 'masur' (who is also a member of the Swedish Academy of Chocolate) was seated enjoying a late afternoon tea.
Sara Jayne Stanes arrived shortly thereafter and we talked about how we started out in our respective Chocolate Lives. Sara was originally a documentary film and television commercial producer who was exposed to chocolate by chef Michel Roux during the course of producing one of her projects. That introduction – in the very early 1990s – piqued her interest in a way not all that different from my own. One difference however is that Sara was asked shortly thereafter to write a book on the subject and she soon found herself on cacao plantations in Mexico, among other places.
When Chantal arrived the conversation turned to the evolution of the London chocolate scene, the differences between people's attitudes towards chocolate in the US and the UK, and about the Academy of Chocolate's awards and some of the differences between the Academy's perception of how they conduct the Awards and the perception by some of the public (and especially some members of the UK chocolate artisan chocolate community) that the Awards and judging process were not as transparent as they could be and needed to be.
The conversation was accompanied by various beverages, and I opted for a hot chocolate. It was in the French style in the sense that it was bitter/dark and not at all sweet. Although the chocolate taste was fine, it was thinner than the consistency I prefer most.
Because Chantal had arrived a few minutes late by the time this conversation was winding up it was getting very close to the time I was supposed to be back in Bayswater to set up for the class. At the last minute, however, I was invited to a short tasting of some their current pieces by their current chief chocolatier, Laurent. I asked him the question I normally ask in these situations, which is to pick three or four pieces that he felt best represented his approach to his work. The pieces arrived and my impression is that they were very well made in the classic French tradition but with flavors that were more forward and recognizable, putting them squarely in what I call Nouvelle American
and that others call Modern French
. One surprise was a layered piece with ganache and a quince pate de fruit (jelly). Quince is an underused fruit flavor in chocolate.
I made my way from the shop in a rush as I needed to stop and get the last elements for the tasting – beer. Fortunately there was a Waitrose at the bottom of Motcomb street and I popped in and bought some Guinness and Pilsner Urquell. Armed with these I was able to hail a cab and make it back to Artisan du Chocolat just a few minutes late.
Setup took quite a while as we assembled 15 plates for the tasting, each with three different balsamic vinegars (a bulk organic balsamic vinegar purchased at Sainsbury's and two I brought from the US – a 5-year aged balsamic from Manicardi, and one of my favorites, a balsamic condimento
from a company called Villa Manodori); two olive oils (a bulk organic oil purchased at Sainsbury's and an organic artisan oil from Italy I brought from the US); two salts (a black Hawaiian salt and an Italian sea salt made in Bologna that is seasoned with garlic, black pepper, rosemary, and sage); the two cheeses and the bresaola and prosciutto from Selfridges; and a selection of 9 AdC chocolate bars (three origin chocolates – Congo, Madagascar, and Bali - and the liquor from two of them (Congo and Bali), and four flavored chocolates – mole, matcha, saffron, and tonka).
As participants waited for us to finish (it took some time to finish such an involved plating) they enjoyed one of the drink specialties of the house – a take on the classic Bellini made with Prosecco and frozen cacao pulp replacing the traditional white peach puree.
My tastings are never scripted and are often very wide-ranging in scope though I always have an idea where I want to start and where I want to end. In this case it was a little less scripted than normal because I was not as familiar with the chocolates as I like to be and because Gerard was also participating as a guest and as a presenter. This led for some lively interactions between the two of us as Gerard would clarify some specific points with respect to how AdC does things and the other participants had an opportunity to ask kinds of questions of Gerard directly which really added to the presentation.
It is important to me to at this point step aside and say that my goal with this class was not to present pairings that I thought 'worked' to the participants. Each of us possesses our own sensory apparatus and perceive smells and tastes differently. Each of us also has our own preferences when it comes to tastes and textures so that what I really like, one of the guests may dislike intensely (and vice versa). Rather, the purpose of the tasting was to make people aware of the taste version of a concept I know of from my art school days about complementarity.
Josef Albers is a famous artist known for, among many things, for his voluminous color field studies. In these he played with slight nuances in differences in hue, shade, tint, and other elements of color to see how colors that were juxtaposed affected our perception of those colors. If you ever do any of these yourselves (i.e., if you've ever painted your house), you know how your perception of a color can totally change when they are seen in conjunction with other colors.
The same thing is true with taste except that it's more complicated because taste is also influenced by the sense of smell as well as the texture of a food and how it is eaten (chewed, left to melt/dissolve, etc). This idea affected the selection of items to be paired with the chocolates.
The three different balsamic vinegars had differing levels of acidity both in the nose and on the tongue as well as different levels of sweetness. The black salt had a charcoal-y minerality and was real crunchy with a large variation in crystal size while the Bolgonese sea salt was quite herbaceous. The olive oils showed similar variation with the bulk being quite timid and the artisan oil quite grassy with a peppery bite.
After talking a little bit about the history of the Bellini and Prosecco (I am on record as saying that it is one of my favorite beverages for pairing with chocolate and I think it is one of the most versatile wines for pairing in general) it was on to the tasting part of the evening's activities.
A blow-by-blow description of the pairings would be at least as long as the presentation itself so I don't think that that approach will work here. While it is easy for most people to imagine the taste of salt and chocolate or vinegar and chocolate or even cheese and chocolate, it's a little harder to imagine wrapping a small piece of chocolate in a piece of prosciutto or bresaola. For me, it's moving in this unexpected (and unexpectedly interesting) direction that is keeping chocolate tasting fresh. What is most interesting to me about these particular combinations is the role texture plays in the pairing.
The prosciutto, for some reason, has a tendency to hide the flavors of whatever it is paired with – compared with the bresaola. Both are a little salty and the prosciutto has more fat, but as was demonstrated with the olive oils, fat is a good medium for distributing flavor to it would be natural to assume that a fattier prosciutto lead to better flavor perception but in practice (at least in this case, with this prosciutto) it doesn't.