First Catch Your Cocoa Beans

6th July 2012

Nathalie Bonney meets some of London’s finest chocolatiers, and samples their wares, of course; rude not to…

Chocolate: Ask a European, and it’s confectionery made with the finest cocoa and butter and sold in chic chocolate boutiques. Ask a Brit, and it’s a bar of Dairy Milk or Galaxy from the corner shop. While many tourists come to the UK eager to take back some souvenir Cadbury’s, they don’t view it as chocolate in the strictest sense – too much vegetable oil and milk and not enough of the hard stuff. But there is now a growing breed of London chocolatiers who are putting the capital on the map as a destination de choc choix.

“You don’t have to go abroad to try great chocolate,” says Yael Rose, founder of the Chocolate Festival, which takes place every Easter and Christmas on London’s South Bank. “We’re developing our own unique style and the great thing about chocolate makers here is that they are always trying to be on the edge of something new.”

A quick look in the chocolate shop at upmarket department store Liberty gives the first clue to the changing face of UK chocolatiers. While Charbonnel & Walker, purveyors of the Queen’s beloved rose creams (and the violet creams to which the Queen Mother was partial) still take a central position, newer brands like Rococo, Cocomaya and Montezuma’s all hold their own too. The packaging looks fresh and different – less twee ribbon, more attention to modern design and gorgeous patterns. But as Jennifer Earle, founder of Chocolate Ecstasy Tours, explains, the reason that UK chocolatiers stand out isn’t purely down to clever design and marketing: “Everyone is so willing to innovate and there are so many chocolatiers who are passionate about the quality of their ingredients and making great tasting products, not just great-looking packaging.”

A self-confessed chocoholic, Jennifer established the tours to encourage people to go beyond biting off a corner of Lindt 70%, including “some of the shops that are harder to find or that some people might find intimidating to enter.” We start the Mayfair tour at funky restaurant and bar Sketch, where a woman who has clearly not seen, let alone slurped, a sweet drink in her life, brings over thick and delicious hot chocolate, made with luxury French brand Valrhona and served in floral teacups. Tour guide Russell Carpenter asks us to tell him our chocolate likes and dislikes. Birthday girl Vicky is first: “I don’t like cheap chocolate – like you get with Easter eggs…” Russell nods sagely, and Vicky continues “…my favourite chocolate is Cadbury’s.” Russell stops nodding. “Don’t get me wrong, Cadbury’s has its place,” says Russell, “but there’s so much better stuff out there.”

William Curley

Chocolate Ecstasy’s Chelsea tour also starts out with hot chocolate, but at William Curley’s light and airy Belgravia shop and café. Three seating areas throughout the airy shop enable customers to enjoy a hot chocolate, patisserie or ice cream in store. Stand-out ice creams include Toasted Sesame, Sea Salt Caramel and White Chocolate and Miso. Japanese ingredients are a common feature of Curley creations, thanks to the heritage of Suzue, wife in the Curley partnership. Scottish-born William, meanwhile, has no doubt contributed towards the nostalgia range. Coconut, peanut and nougat bars and ‘cart wheels’ are all Curley takes on popular confectionery. “It includes my versions of classic favourites, which I enjoyed as a kid… things such as millionaires’ shortbread and teacakes,” he says.

After training alongside chefs such Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffmann, Marc Meneau and Marco Pierre White, Curley became head pastry chef at the Savoy, where he met Suzue. The couple opened their first shop in Richmond in 2004, followed by the Belgravia store in 2009. Although his nostalgia range and patisserie may be popular (the Venezuelan chocolate cadeaux with rum-soaked raisins, genoise sponge and crème brulee filling is a must), it’s the unusual ingredients and flavours in his chocolates that probably get Curley the most attention. Apricot and Wasabi, Thyme and Scottish Heather Honey and Japanese Black Vinegar are a few of the cutting edge creations. He’ss quick to point out that he doesn’t create combinations simply to shock: “I try to blend flavours that will naturally work with chocolate – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.” The Japanese Black Vinegar chocolate is a great example of this: you don’t taste vinegar but the rich dark cocoa taste is balanced out by its inclusion. It doesn’t always succeed, though. “I have tried for ages to create a seaweed couture chocolate but it just hasn’t worked so far! I just can’t get rid of the taste of fish.”

Paul A Young

Another chocolatier at the forefront of the London scene is Paul A Young. Like Curley, Young is a trained chef and worked as head pastry chef for many years under Marco Pierre White. He is best known for his sublime Sea-salted Caramels, his Aztec hot chocolate and his ground-breaking Marmite Truffle. “The Marmite chocolate was a bit of a surprise success but making the combination of Marmite and chocolate work together to produce a chocolate that is so popular has been great,” says Young. Yael Rose even admits to liking this, despite being firmly in the ‘I hate Marmite’ camp.

Young splits his time between his three shops, located in Soho, Islington and the City. “I am in contact with Paul every day,” says Head Chocolatier of the Soho shop, Michael Lowe. Standing in the spic and span white kitchen, where new chocolates are made and developed each day, Lowe points out that there are no machines. “Paul would rather invest in people who really know and love chocolate. We are learning every day new things”. The walls are one giant white board with ideas scrawled across them and the staff are clearly dedicated and enthusiastic about what they do. Standouts in the latest collection include a refreshing Pea and Mint Ganache and a Pimms Truffle with strawberry, cucumber and mint.

“Young and Curley are definitely competing for the weirdest flavour chocolates” says Carpenter. Both these cutting edge chocolate makers insist that their decision to produce more unusual offerings isn’t a gimmick, though – and they certainly aren’t the only ones to be experimenting. Take Cocomaya’s Chocolate Tablets, for example: the Mumbai Curry smells of sweet cardamom but it also tastes of coriander, cumin and curry powder. Over in Chelsea, meanwhile, management consultant-turned-chocolatier Marc Demarquette (London-born to a French father and Chinese mother) has used Stilton and Caviar to create bespoke chocolates for customers. “It’s not about trendy experimentation, but all about creating unique and classically timeless recipes with a contemporary penchant, made from the most exquisite ingredients,” he says.

“I think what makes London stand out is the originality… some of the flavour combinations that are being created are so exciting and really work to create a delicious chocolate. There's such a passion for flavour and creativity that it's reflected in the chocolates that are being made,” says Kate John, director of Chocolate Week.

Both the Chocolate Festival and Chocolate Week, growing in popularity year-on-year, are indicative of the increase in chocolate shops and experiences to tempt eaters away from their block of Dairy Milk. The decadent Chocolate Afternoon Tea at London’s Landmark Hotel includes gorgeous orange and chocolate scones, plus an array of beautiful chocolate treats such as brownies, crème brulee and exquisite white chocolate and mint macaroons. Then there is Brighton import Choccywoccydoodah’s psychedelic shop and café situated off Carnaby Street, wowing the senses with colourful creations and towering cakes fit for an afternoon tea in wonderland. Meanwhile British cocoa producer and chocolate maker Willie Harcourt-Cooze is joined by Duffy’s chocolate as two leading UK chocolate makers that are frequently sold in the shops alongside highly regarded producers like Valrhona and Pacari.

London may still be in its infancy compared to Paris and Bruges – but that’s what makes it all the more exciting…

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