It takes me a moment to register when I wake up why I’m so perky, then I remember: today I’m going to chocolate school! Not just any old chocolate school, either, I’m going to be spending the afternoon learning from an award-winning chocolatier whose creations have won multiple golds at the Academy of Chocolate and International Chocolate awards, and who has just led the UK team to victory at the European Pastry Cup.
It’s early March, and after weeks of terrible storms it’s an unusually warm day so I walk to Belgravia through Hyde Park, stopping to watch swans on the Serpentine. Rococo’s Motcomb Street branch is tucked away just off Belgrave Square and behind Sloane Street, a short stroll from Hyde Park and close to both Sloane Square and Knightsbridge.
I meet Barry, Rococo’s Principal Chocolatier, and my classmates, enthusiastic amateurs like me. One makes chocolates already and wants to set up her own chocolaterie in Wales, while the other is a foodie who wants to improve her skills.
All of Rococo’s classes start in the cafe with an introduction to chocolate, and we get to see and feel dried cocoa pods and beans at various stages of the process. He shows us pictures of cocoa pods from Rococo’s own farm in Grenada of cocoa. They look like rugby balls and open to reveal the fruit inside, arranged in rows like sweetcorn kernels. The cocoa bean is actually a large pip inside the sharp-sweet fruit, and he talks us through the bean’s journey as it becomes the chocolate we all know.
We taste a variety of different chocolates, discussing the impact on flavour that each stage of the chocolate-making process has, right from the terrain it’s grown in to conching and roasting times. There’s a tendency to think of dark chocolate as a homogenous mass, different brands and varieties virtually indistinguishable, but when we taste them side-by-side the differences are astonishing. We start to identify different flavour notes, and the whole process is surprisingly similar to wine tasting.
Now it’s time to get kitted out with aprons and start making. Being in an actual chocolate kitchen is a bit of a dream come true, and this used to be Rococo’s main ganache production kitchen until demand outstripped the space. It’s now used for classes and parties, and there’s a glass window in the ceiling so that customers in the cafe can watch what’s happening below. It’s fortunate that I’ve come prepared with a woolly cardigan, because chocolate is very sensitive to temperature and the kitchen is cool.
The apocryphal origin story of chocolate ganache is that a junior chef tripped one day and spilled hot cream into a bowl of chocolate. The head chef shouted ‘ganache!’ (supposedly a French slang word meaning idiot), and the resulting cream-and-chocolate concoction acquired that name. They became known as truffles because of the traditional round shape’s resemblance to the mushrooms.
Barry demonstrates before letting us loose, and explains the two main methods for making ganache. One involves pouring scalded cream onto chopped chocolate, but the more foolproof method that Rococo uses involves heating both chocolate and cream to make sure that the mixture stays at the optimum temperature – too cool and the fat in the chocolate will start to crystallise too soon, affecting the texture. Because ganache is a fragile emulsion of fat and water, Barry adds the cream in stages and stirs slowly, like making mayonnaise.
We’re working with Valrhona’s Macae chocolate today, a 62% dark chocolate from Brazil. Valrhona’s chocolate comes with tasting notes and flavour profile graphs on the back, which tells us it has notes of apricot and black tea. It’s a clean-tasting, gently fruity chocolate, but I think my palate needs a bit more training before I could pick out apricots. We all love it though, and Barry points out that people’s tastebuds are different so it’s not surprising that we can’t pick out every flavour.
We talk about which methods are best for adding different flavours and which stage they should be added at, then Barry takes us through the best ingredients for different purposes and the specific tools and techniques he uses. He also talks about how to rescue split ganache and makes the clever suggestion of using abandoned ganache for hot chocolate. Yes please.
Now it’s our turn. We each take a station at the marble slabs and heat our cream and glucose mixture before carefully adding it to the melted chocolate. Half way through my mixture looks like curdled cake batter, but I stir patiently and trust the process, and like magic I end up with glossy, smooth ganache that holds together and almost slides off the walls of the bowl. It smells incredible and feels so easy; I’ve had ganache disasters before, so this feels like a bit of a lightbulb moment. After using a stick blender, my ganache looks just like Barry’s and I’m feeling rather pleased with myself.
We pour this ganache into tubs, covering it in cling film and poking it to feel the texture, which is surprisingly soft and yielding, like poking blancmange. The ganache needs to set before being piped or cut, so we’re going to practice piping and decorating truffles with a pre-prepared batch. Barry talks us through the basics of piping and shows us how to make baton-shaped truffles, round truffles, truffles with jaunty peaks, and we each take a turn. I’ve never been good at piping but under Barry’s watchful eye I make a decent attempt, finally mastering the curl-and-flick motion that makes chocolates with a minimal peak.
We work as a team to dip our creations into tempered chocolate then cocoa powder, allowing them to set briefly before plucking one each out of the sieve and sinking our teeth through delicate chocolate shells into the silky ganache underneath.
We round off our session with a tasting of Barry’s award-winning fresh ganaches: delicious salted caramel ganache covered in cocoa powder, a zingy Kalamansi lime caramel, a spiced pecan praline that completely converts my cinnamon-hating fellow student and one with a completely addictive layer of mango and passion fruit jelly on an orange ganache. By the end of it my head is whirring with flavour combinations I can try at home.
Before we leave, Barry signs copies of Chantal’s new book Mastering the Art of Chocolate, which he worked closely with her on, and we have the chance to explore the treasure-trove shop upstairs. We leave, happy and full of chocolate, carrying goodie bags laden with a Rococo apron, recipe cards and Valrhona chocolate to practise with. As well as all of this we take the tubs of ganache we made and the truffles we’ve just decorated, now packed away in sweetly-ribboned Rococo boxes.
Back at home, the chocolates have the desired effect as everybody who tastes them swoons. It’s incredibly satisfying coating the rest of the chocolates (which I decide to cut into cubes to make chocolate dice) and having a set of to-die-for truffles that I’ve made entirely by myself.
A couple of weeks later I make a chocolate pudding for a dinner party and use Barry’s method. Normally there would be a knife-edge moment of stress where the mixture could split, but this time it takes minutes to produce a perfect ganache dessert that people are still talking about now, and I’m amazed at how much easier being taught by a pro has made everything.