Walk into Claire Burnet’s kitchen in Swanage, on the Dorset coast, and you will find all manner of produce: watercress, mint and black garlic, perhaps, from nearby farms; jars of honey from Bob, the local beekeeper; a range of artisanal spirits, including Twisted Nose, a small-batch gin from Winchester; and maybe a Blue Vinny cheese from Woodbridge Farm, an hour’s drive away.
Nothing strange about that, you might think: chefs all over Britain are seeking out local, seasonal produce as never before. But Burnet is not a chef: she is a chocolatier, and all these ingredients are destined to flavour her range of handmade Chococo chocolates – yes, even the garlic and the blue cheese.
She is part of a new wave of chocolatiers trying to persuade us to take chocolate seriously. There is, she says, “as much difference between real chocolate and industrial confectionery as there is between a grand cru burgundy and a bottle of plonk.”
In highlighting the merits of genuine chocolate, Burnet has history on her side: and it is a very long history. First cultivated in Mesoamerica almost 4,000 years ago, cacao – and the chocolate drink made from it – played a central role in Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures. The Mayans even had a “chocolate god”, Ek Chuaj: merchants would use cacao beans as currency, and many festivals were held in the deity’s honour.
The Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate to Europe in the 16th century: mixed with honey, cinnamon and vanilla to counteract cacao’s natural bitterness, it became highly fashionable among the nobility, and was widely thought of as an aphrodisiac, although it was prohibitively expensive for the general population.
At this point, it was still a drink. The first chocolate bar, of the kind we would recognise today, was made by Joseph Fry in 1847, while the “conching” process (in which chocolate’s natural grittiness is slowly removed, improving both texture and flavour) was invented by Rodolphe Lindt in 1879. Since then, chocolate’s rise has been extraordinary: an estimated $102.2bn will be spent on chocolate worldwide in 2017.
There are dozens of different factors that will influence the quality of the final product. Like wine, terroir – the location of the cacao plantation, its altitude, soil, rainfall and sunshine – affects quality, as does the variety of cacao (in order of quality, the low-yielding Criollo beans are considered the finest, followed by Trinitario, then Forastero, which accounts for 85 per cent of global production); the care taken in fermenting, drying and roasting the beans; and the conching, which can take many hours, even days.
Like wine, too, it is not enough just to know a couple of buzzwords, like “70 per cent”, or “Belgian”: they are not in themselves any guarantee of quality. According to Burnet, “We’re stuck in a time warp in the UK. If you see the word ‘Belgian’ on chocolate, it should be a big red warning light. Check the ingredients: if it contains vegetable fat, palm oil, vanillin [synthesised vanilla flavouring], step away. Industrial chocolate contains a lot of sugar – it’s cheap and addictive – so look for a high percentage of cocoa solids.” If a dark chocolate contains only 50 per cent cocoa solids, almost all of the other half will be sugar.
Willie Harcourt-Cooze, the owner of Willie’s Cacao, whose obsession with chocolate led to a Channel 4 documentary series, Willy’s Wonky Chocolate Factory, goes the whole hog. He owns a cacao plantation in Venezuela and controls everything from harvesting to conching and moulding: “bean-to-bar”, as it is known. “I don’t believe in adding anything to chocolate: not lecithin [an emulsifier, commonly derived from soy beans] or even vanilla. Cacao has a great flavour: why would you want to mask it? The big boys want to achieve consistency of flavour: I want to celebrate the differences.”
Harcourt-Cooze buys beans directly from other farmers, too, and roasts them in antique “ball” roasters, just adding raw cane sugar and cocoa butter. In a throwback to chocolate’s Mayan origins, he also sells pure cacao (£5.99), to be used in sweet or savoury dishes, from eight different estates in South America, the Caribbean, Indonesia and Madagascar. “The differences in flavours are astonishing: even within Venezuela, made from the same Trinitario beans,” he says. “Cacao from the inland Las Trincheras estate, near my own estate, is smooth and nutty, whereas the Rio Caribe cacao, from the coast, close to Trinidad, has distinct coffee notes.”
He is also a chocolatier. As well as cacao and chocolate bars (from £1), some of his bestsellers are a range of Black Pearls (£6.59): soft caramels flavoured with apple brandy, sea salt or passionfruit, covered in chocolate and attractively packaged in golden, cacao bean-shaped tins.
Salted caramel is very much the flavour of the moment. Chocolatier Paul A Young, who has shops in Soho, Islington and the City, makes truffles (from £2 each) with a hugely adventurous range of flavours, but it is his sea-salted caramels (from £2 each) that fly most quickly from the shelves. “I started making them 15 years ago, and it still took them 14 years to take off, but they’re huge now.”
Young extends the same ethos to the fillings for his chocolates as he does to the chocolate itself. “Most chocolate manufacturers worry about shelf life, so they use preservatives, often sugar and alcohol. Many of our chocolates have a shelf life of just a week, but the flavours have real integrity.”
He makes chocolates to order: a lime/pickle caramel, for Indian chef and restaurateur Vivek Singh; a port and Stilton truffle, for Christmas; and even a black pudding and cider truffle: “I took black pudding from Ginger Pig, made it into a kind of soup with the cider, strained it, then mixed it into the ganache.” For his tobacco caramels, he buys pipe tobacco from Davidoff – “beautiful, soft tobacco, which we infuse in caramel: I took it off the list but our customers demanded we put it back on” – and makes trays of scones and pots of jam for his scone, jam and clotted cream truffles. Part of his art lies in choosing the best chocolate to pair with each filling: “The trick is like matching food and wine: trying to find a chocolate and a filling that really complement each other.
“Chocolate has become a craft again, and the chocolatier has become a chef. In the same way as people are looking for small-batch gin, or hand-thrown pottery, or artisanal cheese, they now want genuinely handmade chocolates.”
“Handmade” is a word that irks Claire Burnet. “It’s so frequently abused. You can buy ready-made chocolate shells, fill them with pre-mixed ganache and call them handmade. We had a buyer from a department store in the kitchen recently: she simply couldn’t believe that we made everything from scratch, with proper ingredients: no oils or artificial flavourings.”
So what will take over from salted caramels as the Next Big Thing in chocolate? According to Young, “There are no specific trends other than creativity. There are lots of excellent chocolatiers in France and Belgium, but they aren’t pushing the boundaries, whereas the Japanese are hugely innovative.” His miso, black rice vinegar and black sesame truffle (from £2 each)with its astonishing, sour-sweet hit of umami, is a case in point.
All three recommend newcomers to fine chocolate start by trying bars from a number of countries and getting accustomed to the different flavour profiles to decide which they prefer: Cocoa Runners (cocoarunners.com) has a fine selection. Burnet says Madagascan chocolate “has red berry flavours; Ecuadorian has floral notes; Grenadian is woody with citrus top notes; and Marou’s Lam Dong chocolate (£6.95) from Vietnam has a yeasty, Marmite-like character. And when we try Tanzanian chocolate, someone always says ‘bananas’!”
Young, meanwhile, characterises Dominican Republic chocolate as “biscuity, with toasted nuts”, Peruvian as “floral and fragrant”, and Ecuadorian as “ripe tropical fruit, especially mango”. Harcourt-Cooze would add Cuban (“honey, jasmine, lavender”) and Indonesian (“caramel, coffee, nuts”) to the list, while cautioning that “there are at least 400 different flavour notes to chocolate, so it’s a complex business.
“Make sure your chocolate is at room temperature, put a small square in the middle of your tongue, close your eyes, try not to bite it and let it melt. When you breathe deeply, you will start to taste the chocolate: its flavours will evolve as it dissolves.”
For these three pioneering British chocolatiers, flavour is everything; and, in their joint mission to return chocolate to its rightful place as one of the world’s greatest, most complex foodstuffs, they are definitely raising the bar.