For a country that invented both the chocolate bar and the Easter egg, Britain has always been at the forefront of the cocoa revolution. And, not least in this day and age, when chocolate is enjoying a more artisan and boutique reputation, and where provenance, creativity and quality are key. Emma Johnson indulges.
Since the late 1880s, chocolate has been a staple part of the world of British luxury. Respected for its creativity in leveraging the chocolate manufacturing process from the Industrial Revolution, early British chocolate brands blazed a trail that led the world. Today, our chocolate industry remains one of the most diverse and creative, with everyone from Hotel Chocolat, Charbonnel et Walker and Prestat to the niche likes of Amelia Rope, Duffy’s, William Curley and Aneesh Poppat making British chocolate a worldwide phenomenon.
And yet, there have been challenging times too. From the mid-1900s, the impact of two world wars, various takeovers, worldwide trends and influences, plus a tendency to increase the sugar, rather than the cocoa content, as well as adding vegetable oil to the ingredients, meant British chocolate hit a considerable low point. “That’s certainly not the view now,” says Teresa Peck, category manager at luxury chocolate boutique Hotel Chocolat. “Britain is at the forefront of the highly competitive super premium chocolate market, with the Belgians, French and Swiss appearing to be behind the beat.”
Powering this renaissance has been a relentless focus on authenticity and creativity. Ingredients are now sourced from the world over, long forgotten recipes have resurfaced, seasonality, natural, organic and ethical produce is king. “We have come a long way,” agrees Rococo founder Chantal Coady, who was recently credited with ‘Changing the way People Think About Chocolate’ by the Academy of Chocolate. “At its best, British chocolate has a chef or chocolatier led approach, using fresh seasonal ingredients – and a lot of imagination and quirkiness.”
The Art of Artisan
Today, the best chocolate brands don’t boast large scale production, or tours of their mega-factories, the focus is on attention-to-detail, hand-crafting skills, specialist skills and expert flavour blenders. “We’re an artisan chocolaterie,” says award-winning Paul A. Young, who pioneered the resurgence of small, niche chocolate boutiques. “We make everything by hand and in small batches. Every one of our chocolates is made with the finest and freshest ingredients so they have a short but sweet, shelf life. You won’t find any artificial ingredients in our chocolates or tempering machines in our kitchens,” he adds.
This approach can be found increasingly in the world of luxury British chocolate today, and it’s something customers are even starting to insist on. “I think there is a growing interest in traditional crafts, which has been well-reflected in British food producers overall,” says Nick Crean, co-owner of Prestat, one of the world’s oldest chocolate businesses, established in London’s West End in 1902, and saved from administration by Crean and his half-brother Bill Keeling in 1998. “People are fascinated in the way that chocolates are made. There is something magical about cauldrons of the finest molten white, milk and dark chocolate – the smell, the consistency and the almost limitless possibilities of all the wonderful things they can be used to create.”
In addition, as consumers become more interested in the provenance of the food they eat, there has been a huge interest in what is known as ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate. Rococo for instance, have developed a brand identity centred around the concept of Pleasure and Provenance, something which is emblazoned on every single bar they produce.
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Chantal Coady says: “It’s a global trend to be more connected with makers and ingredients. We have our own small cocoa farm and work directly with the Grenada Chocolate Company. The customer should have a magical, indulgent time in our shops, while knowing that we are connected back to the roots of our cocoa farmers and working to improve their lives in Grenada.” Elsewhere, Hotel Chocolat also prides itself on authenticity and ethics. It grows much of the cocoa it uses and often makes chocolate fresh from the bean for some of its ranges. “It is important to us to reconnect our love of chocolate with its roots. Cocoa farmers worldwide deserve respect and a fair deal. And that’s what we offer, from Saint Lucia to Ghana, through our Engaged Ethics programme. We’ve been raising the bar for cocoa growing since 2002,” says Teresa Peck.
Paying such attention to provenance, and supporting and working with specific cocoa estates, has seen an incredible rise in ‘single estate’ chocolate – using beans harvested annually from a specific plantation, and selected because of its specific aroma and flavour. Much like coffee and wine, chocolate is becoming a real connoisseur item whose provenance says as much about its taste and quality, as its flavour. Often produced in limited quantities, they are usually accompanied by an associated price tag, while the history and unique qualities of the climate, terroir and growing techniques all add to the quality of the chocolate. The fact that they are produced in limited quantities, and sometimes vintages, makes them all the more precious.
Inspiration and Flavour
Of course, flavour is still crucial. Some brands are so proud of their cocoa-sourcing that they produce a number of chocolates with differing strengths and provenances, creating an entirely new spectrum of chocolate far more complex and exciting than the simplicity of dark, milk and white. Crucially, though, what perhaps today separates British artisan producers from many of their more commercial counterparts, is that cocoa, rather than sugar, forms the core of their ingredients, even in milk and white chocolate. Turn over a box of more mainstream chocolate from anywhere in the world and you’ll see that sugar comes before cocoa on the ingredients list. Not here though. Hotel Chocolat, for instance, recently created ‘Supermilk’, a creamy, decadent treat, made with 65 per cent of pure cocoa, a splash of milk and much less sugar than a dark chocolate bar. “It’s a truly premium milk chocolate with the all-important creamy cocoa hit, just with much less sugar,” explains Peck. And, just as they did over a century ago, chocolate brands are now pioneering new approaches to chocolate-making and flavouring. “The British are very good at providing a rather eccentric blend of traditional flavours,” says Nick Crean of Prestat, whose flavours include the likes of Rose and Violet Crèmes, Red Velvet, Yuzu Sake and London Gin. As somewhat of a melting pot of different nationalities, British inspiration for flavour has always been brave and innovative. “Britain is a combination of tradition and new cultures, which is definitely being reflected in the industry,” says Paul A Young, who prides himself on creating unique and intriguing flavours – and is always looking to challenge the palate. His Marmite chocolate, for instance, was created on a dare from then Sunday Times journalist Lydia Slater, but remains one of his bestsellers to this day. “I’m not afraid to try something controversial in the quest to find the next creative innovation. We’re also seeing more and more savoury flavours featured, like miso, soy and bacon, all of which add an umami note.” And Young isn’t afraid to look across the sea for inspiration either. “My chocolate box for Valentines Day was inspired by some of the world’s most iconic destinations,” he recalls. “I used ingredients which echo the smells, textures, colour and tastes of famous getaway cities. It was a roaring success, with consumers able to reminisce over their favourite places while tasting my chocolates.” At Rococo, Chantal Coady, also finds flavour inspiration from all around her – her bestselling sea salt flavour was discovered during a walk along a beach in Cornwall, enjoying an ice-cream and licking salt crystals from her lips at the same time, while Persian lime is inspired by her childhood in Persia and her mother’s cooking using local limes. “We love our exotic flavours combinations such as sea salt, rose, lavender, violet and basil,” she says.
With such a wealth of flavours and types of chocolate around now, it can be a little overwhelming to know where to start once faced with tray after tray of delights in a chocolaterie. If you care about provenance, then start with finding this out, and then, get to know your chocolatier. Try to find out where the cocoa is from, as well as who made the chocolates and how fresh they are. “Ask lots of questions and don’t be “green-washed” – above all it’s about great flavour,” advises Chantal Coady, who opened her beautiful Kings Road boutique after being inspired by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and wanting to create her own magical emporium of luxury chocolate.
She envisaged Rococo to be a chocolate paradise, and you’ll find it emblazoned with floral motifs, cherubs, clouds chandeliers, gilded mirrors and candelabras. This year, after 31 years in the business Coady was awarded an O.B.E. in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Paul A. Young says that knowing your own favourites is an important factor in buying chocolate, so the more chocolate you taste, the more you will know what suits you. “Understand your palate and find out where the ingredients have come from, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Knowledge is power,” he advises. “With all the work we put into every flavour, we’re only too happy to explain the thought process behind them when somebody asks!” At his three chocolateries in London, including a flagship store on Wardour Street in Soho, you’ll find a relaxed, quirky vibe, where the classic heritage of chocolate, blends effortlessly with his modern approach.
And don’t forget the quality of the way the chocolate looks too. “Make sure the chocolate is well tempered,” says Prestat’s Nick Crean. “It should be shiny and smooth on the palette. Use all your senses, even hearing, as you would with any food purchase. A really good chocolate bar should produce a clear snap when you break it.” From humble beginings with one shop in Picadilly, today there are Prestat commissions everywhere from Harrods to Bloomingdales, while the original shop in Picadilly is a riot of colour and drama, the artwork by Kitty Arden reflected in the walls and designs on every beautiful box. At Hotel Chocolat boutiques, you’ll find a very clean, modern approach, smart monochrome branding and staff who intricately know their flavours and can advise and guide you with gifts. Don’t leave without some of their Raspberry Supermilk or the Mint Royale. Elsewhere in London and the UK, other exciting and classic chocolate brands all add their unique qualities to world of British chocolate. Founded in 1875, Charbonnel et Walker’s approach pays homage to their heritage roots and the golden age of the British chocolate industry, and their commitment to both flavour and quality means some of the best chocolates you’ll ever taste. Their sea salt caramels are a winner with everyone and their boutique in The Royal Arcade on Old Bond Street is an essential London stop-off.
William Curley, five-time winner of Britain’s Best Chocolatier award, has a beautiful flagship boutique in Belgravia, with a wonderland of bars in every flavour imaginable, and a Dessert Bar which allows you to eat five sweet courses in one go. Bliss. Across town in the East End, the Mast Brothers are less about heritage and more about hip. They specialise in single estate or origin bars, and are renowned for their fantastically cool packaging. Elsewhere, don’t miss the Asian-inspired cardamom-infused dark chocolate coffee beans of Aneesh Popat or the award-winning velvet truffles from Iain Burnett. Head for Duffy’s for her amazing single origin Honduras Indio Rojo and make sure to get a bite of Amelia Rope’s Pale Rose chocolate and Marc Demarquette’s Imperial China Masterpiece box.
It’s pretty clear that times have changed a lot since a purple box of Milk Tray was the height of cocoa luxury. Now the power is firmly in the brands who are pioneering the niche, bespoke, boutique approach. The world of British chocolate has never been more full-flavoured and remarkable. “It’s a really exciting time to be a chocolatier in London, with so many fantastic shops opening up,” says Paul A. Young. “It comes down to a new generation of highly creative chocolatiers who are innovating their products consistently. The trajectory of the industry is only going upwards.”
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