We’ve experimented with new flavour combinations for years in our Artisan Bars and fresh ganaches, and in recent years we’ve extended this, combining chocolate with everything from rum to cheese and even bacon. Our newest shop at Moxon Street shop in Marylebone has a tasting room in the basement, and since they opened just over a year ago Manager Sam has been enthusiastic to say the least in exploring the opportunities for pairing chocolate with, well, just about anything.
Having enjoyed a coffee and chocolate pairing recently, I was curious to find out how Sam knows which chocolates will match which other flavours, and caught up with him for a chat.
Sam, we know from talking to you before that you love chocolate pairings, and that you particularly enjoy getting people into new combinations like chocolate and beer, but what’s your favourite session?
I really enjoy single malt whisky tastings. Obviously I love whisky, and it’s another one of those things that people don’t expect will go with chocolate. Actually though, whiskies have a huge variety of flavour notes and it’s easy to do with the right spirits and chocolate. It’s all about playing and seeing what happens when the flavours combine. Cheese and chocolate is great fun too, seeing the expressions on people’s faces. Everyone starts off looking at me as if to say ‘what are you doing,’ but by the end they’re completely convinced.
The beer tasting sessions felt like a bit of a leap for customers when we started them, but really it’s just pushing things a step further from the chocolate and cheese tastings Chantal was already running, and beer’s great fun to play with, and I’m always thinking about pushing further still. I’m starting to think about multiple combinations, so if you put our white cardamom chocolate with a creamy lancashire cheese that’s almost a little bit fudgy and Gentlemans’ Wit from Camden Town Brewery, which is brewed with lemon and bergamot, suddenly you’ve got something that’s like eating a baked New York cheesecake. It’s extraordinary.
Can you tell us what combinations you’ve got coming up?
We’ve got coffee, beer, whisky, cider and gin all lined up over summer, but new ones will be coming through all the time.
I know you’ve served chocolate-dipped bacon as canapés at events like the Moxon Street launch party, and I had a lovely bacon brownie recently. Any plans to run a chocolate and bacon pairing?
Bacon and chocolate is brilliant, isn’t it? It sounds awful but if you think about how deliciously salty bacon is and how well sweet and salt combine, it starts to make sense. The Ginger Pig’s streaky bacon is amazing with a fruity dark chocolate or with Valrhona’s Caramelia – it’s almost like dipping it in salted caramel. I’m working on more meat and chocolate combinations at the moment, but it’s a slow process and it needs a lot of thought. Being on Moxon Street in the heart of London’s foodie district where it’s so inventive is really inspiring though and I’ve got great people to work with, so watch this space.
How do you actually come up with and create a tasting session?
The ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere, things we read, staff or customer suggestions, recipes that involve flavours we use in our chocolates, cocktails, anything. I generally try to work with foods and drinks I know a little about though. Once I have the initial idea I’ll try to find something good locally, often an independent company or artisan maker, or I’ll look up the best companies; there’s no point in taking amazing chocolates and pairing them with something that’s not great quality, is there? I like working with independent experts too.
I ask if there’s anything the expert would like to showcase, then I do a bit of research and try their products, look at which flavour notes I find and try to get some ideas for options. The next stage is the fun bit, where I sit down with the person I’ll be running the session with and a big bag of chocolate. It’s good to have two opinions because of course taste is personal too and not everybody will like the same things as me, and we taste everything with everything. Obviously I have some ideas about what will work, but sometimes combinations blow you away unexpectedly and you have to really experiment to find the magic combinations.
And what it is you’re trying to achieve with the pairings?
Well the aim is to bring out the best in both. We’ll often pair the food or drink with two chocolates though, and we might choose one chocolate because it pushes a flavour note forward in one or the other that you hardly notice normally and one that just balances the flavours perfectly. For every pairing there will always be one or two combinations that just do something heavenly together, but of course which one is heavenly is different for every person. We encourage people to try the partner, then the chocolate, one before the other, both together, to just play and find out how they interact together.
The Marylebone Journal said that you have one of London’s finest palates. How do you feel about that?
That’s incredibly sweet of them, and I did blush quite a lot when I saw that. I don’t think of it like that, lots of people could have the knowledge I do, but I’ve tasted an awful lot of things and I pay attention. It’s about finding the flavour notes and thinking about how you can highlight or bring out something you already know is there. You need to investigate, be completely open to things that sound unlikely, to continuously experiment and to have a little bit of imagination.
I think of myself as being almost like a chocolate sommelier, my job is to find and pick out the flavours and work out which flavours match, to create new experiences from putting things together. It’s fun to pair chocolate with pretty much anything.
In fact, my wife jokes about my constant experimentation and says she’s going to run a champagne and Twiglets tasting session. It sounds, er, interesting… I don’t think it’s quite what I’d put together, but actually it started me off thinking about what I’d dip Twiglets in. They’re yeasty, so maybe something earthy like a Dominican Republic chocolate, or a fruity Madagascan with a little salt. I’ve not really explored the possibilities of crisps with chocolate yet, maybe that’s what I should do next….