The fragrance of sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and caramel lingers in the air: you are in an artisan chocolate shop and your hungry eyes are darting from Gianduja almonds to tea flavoured artisan chocolate bars, ginger wafers, crystallised rose petals, pistachio thins and rows upon rows of dark, ganache truffles. The assistants carry trays of newly made delights from the workshop at the back to tempt you.
The growth in the number of bespoke chocolate shops across Britain has led to a remarkable renaissance in real chocolate, sourced ethically from sustainably managed cocoa bean plantations and handmade skilfully using time-honoured traditions and knowledge.
Passion and originality are the two main driving forces you will find in the nation’s new and exciting chocolate shops. Kitchen dressers piled with bowls of freshly made truffles, colourful displays of bars wrapped in hand-printed papers and cosy seating areas where you can dark flavoured hot chocolate are just some of the ways in which this new breed of chocolatier makes the experience warm and inviting.
In some cases there will be courses on offer on chocolate tempering and truffle making, where you can go round the back, into the workshop, and spend a day with the experts.
One such is Rococo, founded in 1983 by self-taught chocolatier Chantal Coady. Her kingdom is decorated with pretty boxes of fresh, handmade chocolates and chocolate bars, beautifully printed papers and a kaleidoscope of ribbons, bunting and comfortable corners. We asked her to share a little of her insight,just to be sure that we are making the best choices for our Christmas lists.
Why is it important to shop in a specialist, artisan chocolate shop?
You can learn so much from trained staff, they can really guide you through the flavours. You’ll also be able to get a much wider range of fresher chocolate, often made on the premises. Fresh truffles, for example, contain cream, so they must be made and kept at exactly the right temperature.
The range is bewildering. How can I choose?
It sounds obvious but it’s really important that you buy what you like: if you love milk chocolate, then don’t let anyone try to sell you dark. At Rococo we always try to draw people out of themselves to help them choose. Our assistants will ask you lots of questions to define your tastes: are you after dark or milk chocolate, what sort of flavours usually attract you – floral, nutty, spicy or salty? From questions like this a chocolatier will be able to guide your choice.
Can you taste before you buy?
I’m wedded to the idea that a customer should taste before buying, and I think that all artisan chocolatiers are also very keen that customers should taste.
How can I tell if I’m looking at good chocolate?
Making good-quality chocolate is a highly complex art, and so many different factors playa part and affect the final flavour. The cocoa beans are left to ferment naturally so that their chocolate flavour develops and they are then roasted at a high temperature, which brings out the intensity. The chocolate is milled through metal rollers and refined so that the particles are very small. Because of all the processes required, price is a good indicator as it reflects the work that has gone into creating it. But the only real way to tell is to taste it!
Tell us about some of the amazing taste combintations that are added to chocolate?
Chocolate is in some ways like music: you can hear a piece of music arranged and played in endless variations. I’ve come across chocolatiers using some quite unusual flavour combinations such as wasabi, marmite and even goats cheese, as well as more seasonal ingredients. Our most successful flavour combinations are the classics: Rose Otto, Persian Lime & Basil, Violet and Halen Mon Sea Salt.