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Bitter, like chocolate

So, Saturday saw us at the poshest chocolate shop in town, L'Artisan du Chocolat, for one of their occasional chocolate tastings. Belated birthday present — belated because, on the date we were supposed to go, Andrea had a cold.

Wise decision to delay it, it turns out. Because if there's one thing you want to have at a chocolate tasting, it's a fully-functional nose.

The shop has a tasting room upstairs, which is tastefully laid-out with long tables, square glass placemats and stone water pitchers. The effect is only slightly spoiled by the vacuum cleaner lurking in the corner. Probably about 20 of us there — a combination of thirtysomethings, middle-aged couples, and a group of eleven-year-old girls on a birthday treat.

The tasting is led by L'Artisan himself, who as you'll have guessed from the name of the shop is Irish. Actually, he's very Irish. Gerard Coleman is small, bald, in his late 30s, surprisingly slim for a man whose job involves scarfing chocs, and is very, very enthusiastic. The more enthusiastic he gets, the more Irish he gets, until he's pronouncing all his "th"s as "d"s and the word "specific" as "pacific". Which is a little bit confusing, when you're talking about Central America and Africa. I was wondering for a while whether he was talking about Pacific tastes, as opposed to Atlantic ones, before I figured it out...

...but anyway.

There was a lot of chocolate. We were started off with a couple of cocoa beans, roasted but otherwise untreated. Bit of a surprise, here. The beans are about the size of large peanuts, with a tight papery skin. Peel that off and the bean inside is dark-brown and glossy — it looks exactly like it's made of chocolate. But as soon as you handle it, it crumbles into sharp-edged fragments. Put it in your mouth and you get an intense, bitter and almost overwhelming cocoa hit, which instantly turns into a whole array of dark, fruity flavours that you just don't associate with chocolate. But it has the texture of ash, and you can't eat even the smallest amount without needing to gulp back some water.
The unprocessed 100% cocoa mass, which is what the chocolatiers actually buy in, is even odder, because it's made into bars for ease of transport and it looks just like chocolate... but doesn't taste like it.

Moving on from that, we got some single-estate plain chocolates. Again, huge differences in flavour from even what you'd think of as premium chocolate. New Guinea chocolate tastes of green peppers, fruity chillies and licorice. Venezuelan chocolate tastes smoky and leathery, almost like an Islay whisky. Apparently, Madagascar chocolate tastes of oranges (we didn't get any of that).

According to Gerard — and this was a surprise to me — over 70% of the premium chocolate we get is exactly the same stuff. Charbonnel & Walker, Godiva, Leonidas, lots of others, all buy their base chocolate off a large Belgian company. Gerard doesn't think much of them. They use African cocoa, which is a variety bred for yield rather than flavour. "Bland, flat and uninteresting, but very cheap," he says. "So if you've ever wondered why all those chocolates taste the same, that's why." L'Artisan buys cocoa closer to the original South American variety, from single estates. Or at least, Gerard buys from brokers who deal with those estates. He hasn't got the clout to deal with them direct, he says. He'd get ripped off.
I think the fact that he's a little soft-spoken Irish bloke who only employs 13 people might have something to do with that.

Back to the chocolates. Milk chocolate seems shockingly sweet after the heavyweight dark varieties, but it keeps the little girls happy. A chorus of shrill cheers goes up as Gerard hands out the samples. And then it's on to the filled chocs. There's a cocoa-dusted ball, filled with liquid salted caramel. There's a praline, mixed with bits of broken-up wafer and gingerbread spices. There's a soft marzipan, much less sweet than the commercial stuff, that's been spiked with rosemary. There's a thin disc, with a green Islamic pattern traced on top, that's filled with a truffle mixture flavoured with Moroccan spearmint-infused cream. It tastes like a cross between mint tea, mint sauce, an after-eight, and a strong espresso. There's a square that tastes of vanilla, cherries and woodsmoke, before leaving an almost harsh tickling sensation at the back of the throat that lasts for at least five minutes and can't be dispelled by water.

"That one's pipe tobacco," says Gerard. "We developed that with Heston Blumenthal. Kept getting it wrong — we were using the wrong tobacco."

The tobacco chocolate was a very odd sensation. Chocolate that hurts? I'm unconvinced. Maybe just one at the end of one of Heston's oddball meals would be great. But I don't think I'd seek them out.

The final piece is a treat for the girls, who love white chocolate (by the way, fact fans, white chocolate doesn't have any cocoa in it. At its best, it's cocoa butter, milk powder and sugar. At its worst, it's... some other fat, milk powder and sugar...). It's another disc, filled with apricot puree. Very runny apricot puree. It's gorgeous.

"We've got dis great new piece of equipment,' Gerard enthuses. "I bought it to make the liquid caramels — I can put a liquid filling directly into chocolate widdout having to encapsulate it in anyt'ing."
(Gerard often switches from first person plural to first person singular. I get the feeling he's a bit of a control freak. Although he says he works with his team, he also says that there are only two other people working fo rhim that he regards as skilled with chocolate, and he does all the experiments in developing new chocolates himself. I think he'd like to pull every lever and stir every pot himself, too).

So, the next thing we can look forward to from L'Artisan is apparently a white chocolate disc, this time containing olive oil. "Olive oils and cocoa butter are very similar, chemically, so they should work together," Gerard says. "I just have to figure out which olive oil to use, why it tastes like it does... how to work with it..."

His voice drifts away and his eyes glaze over. They have the same colour and sheen as his chocolate.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 9th, 2005 09:39 am (UTC)
That sounds like utter heaven :) Tried some Cocoa beans in St Lucia a few years back - the runny stuff they're covered in inside the pod tstes surprisingly like apple chewits - lovely stuff.
May. 9th, 2005 11:10 am (UTC)
May. 9th, 2005 11:49 am (UTC)
Let's face it, I'm going to have to go... mmmmmm......
May. 10th, 2005 01:55 am (UTC)
That... sounds... fantastic.
May. 22nd, 2005 01:56 pm (UTC)
Elf here...
Suddenly, this cool spring weather has become very warm...

If that wasn't food porn, I'm not sure what I was reading.

Feb. 20th, 2006 05:55 am (UTC)
I've had olive oil chocos from Geneviève Grandbois and he's right. You don't expect it to, but it works.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


Stu Nathan

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