Reprinted with kind permission of the Marylebone Journal
Raising the bar Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu goes chocolate tasting at Rococo
“I’ve had worse jobs,” laughs Sam Smallman. “At the end of the day we’re not selling bricks. Chocolate is a wonderful product—people are excited as soon as they walk in here.”
Rococo Chocolates has a glorious new home on Moxon Street, and Sam Smallman has a dream job. Get this — regularly eating amazing chocolate is an actual requirement of his employment. “Part of my job as manager here is to make sure I know what we’re selling,” he says. “Working with any fine food, you can’t honestly sell something without knowing what it tastes like and why it’s so good, particularly as we’ve got such a strong emphasis here on pairing and tasting.”
Sam’s aim is to get customers as excited about fine chocolate as he is, partly through a regular programme of events, tastings and masterclasses. “We’re a country that’s grown up with chocolate, but we’re not a country that views chocolate as a fine product. But chocolate has come into its own in recent years, and people are really starting to care about where it comes from, who’s making it and how.”
Sam has offered to be my guide on a ‘bean to bar’ tasting adventure involving several of the fine chocolate bars in the Rococo range, during which he will teach me about the origins of chocolate and the techniques used in its production. For some reason he starts by passing me a small rugby ball. Before I can punt it the length of the shop he announces that I’m clutching a cocoa pod, the actual fruit from which chocolate is made. Well not exactly. The magic beans inside are all that’s needed for that job. The rest of the fruit is usually left to ferment before being turned into alcohol—a great idea.
As the cocoa fruit ferments it gets hot, just like garden compost. Alcohol created in this process quickly turns to vinegar/acetic acid. This stays in the beans and needs to be conched out (a sort of barrel ageing which has the benefit of softening the tannins and acidity).
Inside the pod you’ve got a mixture of different beans, which go from a deep purple all the way through to a bright white,” says Sam. “The rarest, most sought after beans are called porcelana, because they look like porcelain.”
The fermenting process causes the beans to germinate, which releases lactic acid. “Lactic acid is what gives chocolate its acidity, but different beans release different amounts of acidity.”
The beans are dried and then roasted. “The roasting process varies between different producers,” says Sam, and usually takes less than an hour. But similar to coffee, if you over-roast the beans you end up with this really bitter taste. Many people talk about bitterness when they talk about dark chocolate. But dark chocolate should never taste bitter.”
The roasted beans are winnowed to remove the husk, crunched down into cocoa nibs and pressed to release the white cocoa butter from the cocoa solid. The cocoa butter is what gives chocolate its creaminess and, though lacking in flavour, is the most expensive ingredient, explaining why so many commercial brands opt instead for palm oil and hydrogenated fats. “Like with olive oil, you need a lot of beans to get a very small amount of cocoa butter,” says Sam.
The next stage is conching, during which the cocoa solid and cocoa butter are heated to a constant temperature, slowly bringing the chocolate back together. Other ingredients such as extra cocoa butter and cane sugar are now added. Depending on the particular bar the conching can take anything from 20 to 70 hours.
And finally comes the tempering. You will understand the importance of this if you have ever melted down a bar of chocolate. When the chocolate resets it has a greyish sheen, unlike the beautiful shiny bar you started with. “That’s because the crystals have melted, separated. When they solidify they don’t go back together,” explains Sam. “Traditionally done on a marble slab, with tempering you are basically working the chocolate to realign those crystals. It’s what makes a good quality bar.”
And now for some actual tasting, which requires all the senses. You can even tell the quality of chocolate by its sound—the snap. “A good snap means it’s been tempered properly,” says Sam. He picks up a piece of chocolate and breaks it in half. A gunshot resonates. Myself and countless truffles take cover. “That’s a really good snap,” beams Sam. “If your chocolate can’t even be bothered to make a decent noise, don’t eat it.”
First up in front of my beak is the Cardamom White. “White chocolate is not technically chocolate, because chocolate uses cocoa mass and cocoa butter,” explains Sam. “White chocolate uses just the cocoa butter.” Happy to forgive its misnomer, I pop the white chocolate into my mouth. “When you’re tasting, think how it actually feels in your mouth, how it melts and what kind of flavour comes through,” instructs Sam. My taste buds inform me that the sweetness of the chocolate is balanced by the spicy notes of the cardamom.
After drinking water to cleanse our palates, we turn our attention to the Sea Salt, Rococo’s best selling bar, made from 37% milk chocolate and Anglesey sea salt. The percentage denotes the total amount of ‘dark’ cocoa matter and cocoa butter that goes into the bar, including any extra cocoa butter that has been added.
The chocolate itself is simply stunning. “When you get sweet and salty at the same time your taste buds are basically knocking each other out,” says Sam. “This means you get the flavour of the chocolate coming through a lot more.” So that little bit of salt actually brings out much more of a caramel note—really subtle, almost like butterscotch.”
Next we move over to the dark side, the highlight of which is the 64% Madagascan. I instantly—and unexpectedly—discover the tartness of raspberries. Madagascar has red fruit growing in abundance around its cocoa trees, and these flavours are absorbed through the roots and up into the actual beans. “Similarly if there are lots of flowers growing around you’ll get soft floral flavours or if you’ve got a really rich, deep soil and a lot of nut growth you’ll get some of those nutty flavours.”
When it comes to trying the 70% Guanaja, I automatically expect this chocolate, made from a blend of fine beans, to pack a heavy punch, but the flavour is surprisingly light. I turn to Sam, happy yet baffled. “People presume that the 64% is going to taste so much lighter than the 70%, because it’s a lower percentage, but in fact the 70% Guanaja is almost a perfect introduction to someone who says they don’t like dark chocolate.”
Next stop is the 82% Grenada, produced by The Grenada Chocolate Company. Rococo has forged a close relationship with this unique tree-to-bar chocolate maker, which manufactures chocolate right there at its source, so when a small cocoa farm came up for sale in 2007, the two companies formed a joint venture. The farm, named Grococo, is part of the Grenada Organic Cocoa Farmers’ Cooperative. The trinitario cocoa goes up the hill to a small solar powered factory where it is made into the chocolate that Rococo uses in many of its own-brand products.
The 82% Grenada is single origin, single region, and singularly delicious. Firstly the efforts of my fingers are rewarded with a triumphant snap, immediately followed by a subtle perfume aroma. The flavour is light at first, but becomes gradually deeper as it melts. Warming to my theme I do declare that this chocolate has fruity, floral and finally nutty notes coming through—a complex little fellow indeed.
And so, after trying a surprisingly delicate 100% Grenada, made from nothing but cocoa solid and cocoa butter, we move onto our final chocolate—the 66% Gru Grococo, a 2012 vintage bar made exclusively from beans from the Grococo farm. Moments after this chocolate lands on my tongue my knees go. This chocolate is officially drop-dead gorgeous. Sam knows exactly where I’m coming from. “This chocolate is just rude-noise good,” he says. “You can’t help but make some kind of moan of pleasure.”
Sam allows me to try four of Rococo’s fresh chocolates before I leave. Each has won gold at the Academy of Chocolate Awards—so Sam, as befits such precious treasure, dons a pair of white gloves before serving. The Madagascan House Truffle only narrowly misses out to the Salted Toffee Crunch Praline Dark Truffle in my now expert opinion.
For Sam, working in the business of fine chocolate is a far cry from his former life as an actor. “I did theatre at Warwick University, a little bit of teaching, then moved to the big city and waited for Hollywood to call,” he says. “It didn’t quite happen.” Instead he ended up doing the usual actorly thing of working first in a pub then in a bakery, but soon went looking for a more senior role. “I happened to see a sign in a chocolate shop window advertising for a manager.
I walked inside knowing nothing about chocolate apart from the fact I really liked it, and that I was passionate about food and being able to pass that onto other people.” Sam started working for Paul A Young Fine Chocolate three years ago before joining Rococo Chocolates earlier this year, just in time for the Easter rush—a baptism of fire.
The reason he manages to stay slim while eating chocolate every day is because fine chocolate is much better for the waistline than commercial rubbish. It contains less sugar, no hydrogenated fats and a flavour that lingers far longer on the tongue—so a little goes a very long way.
Chocolate has benefits beyond mere taste. “It relaxes you, calms you down, actually lowers your heart rate. It’s very good for stress. It also releases a chemical, particularly within women, that makes you feel happier.”
There’s something else that chocolate is famously good for. The aphrodisiac qualities of chocolate have long been mooted. “It has its roots in the Aztecs and the Emperor Montezuma,” says Sam. “There’s a great story of how he always had to have his hot chocolate before bed. Hot chocolate then was not what we’re used to in this country. It was deep, rich and full of spices, a really invigorating drink, almost like having a strong, amazing cup of coffee with this really deep cocoa intensity. But the reason he needed all that energy was he then had to go to bed with his seven wives.” It’s a tough life being an emperor.