Thursday, 1 October 2009

The crafting of chocolate: Paul A Young

Thought you were getting a recipe for sea salted caramel truffles there didn't you?

Or perhaps some tips on decorating truffles?

Marzipan: the way to a Scandi's heart

After an extended hiatus from posting recipes a mea culpa is due: I've hardly baked since the reine de saba featured here last month. But if you're a regular reader you might have spotted I have something of a predilection for all things theobroma cacao. This post is inspired in part by a recent tasting at Paul A Young - virtuoso chocolatier and impassioned defender of orangutans - and by the imminent arrival of Chocolate Week Britain's biggest celebration of real chocolate

I love chocolate so don't expect any high-minded objectivity here. The smell of it renders me giddy and grinning dementedly like a Cheshire cat - who needs opium when you can have chocolate I say. Having written features on tea and chocolate pairing and wine pairings for a chocolate-themed dinner party it's safe to assume I would be happy if every week were a celebration of chocolate and since Paul opened his chocolate shop in 2006 I would occasionally pop in whenever I happened to be in Angel, which sadly wasn't that often. His marmite chocolate truffles are manna from heaven for a marmite fan, and you don't need me telling you his salted butter caramels (pictured above) are so moreish that all you really have to do is close your eyes and purr

My musings on matters theobromine boil down to the profound dichotomy of "yum" and "yuck", hence this is really a cursory introduction to one of the great fermented foodstuffs in existence besides my other favourites gravadlax, sourdough bread, Riesling, anchovies, and of course cheese...

Imagine my excitement when I saw this on display at Paul's tasting two weeks ago:

Chocolate and cheese may sound bonkers, but it's an umami bombshell of a combination, think of Ella Fitzgerald singing a fine romance when you pair chocolate and cheese and you know what I'm on about. Paul isn't the only advocate of unusual pairings with chocolate, food scientist and "curious cook" Harold McGee has a killer recipe for chocolate and cheese truffles Try it, you'd be surprised what a natural affinity good dark chocolate has with Stilton and indeed unpasteurised Stichelton

As a Scandinavian I grew up with good chocolate. It's our vitamin shot during long, dark winters and Norway's biggest chocolate company Freia is still my favourite source of milky chocolate confection that hits a certain blisspoint. Pangs of nostalgia occur whenever I eat a Kvikk-Lunsj, Freia's answer to the Kit-Kat and nothing really says weekends spent Nordic skiing, frolicking in the snow and steamy saunas like a bar of the stuff

So when American Kraft bought Norwegian Freia back in the mid 1990's there was a national outcry. Sound familiar? Kraft of course now have their eye on Cadbury's, that beloved British institution whose source of popularity has always eluded me. Cadbury's isn't real chocolate. They may have highly commendable Quaker ideals and social programs but they produce what should be more accurately called vegelate that masquerades as chocolate, replete with startling amounts of bleached sugar and some vague notion of cocoa. Yuck. Nothing, we discovered, makes Paul quite as hopping mad as people who claim chocolate is fattening. Cheap mass-produced chocolate is full of sugar, and that's what is so addictive, not to mention fatal to one's waistline

The heady aroma of real chocolate suffuses Paul's shop when you enter, and this is deliberate. He wants chocolate to be a sensory experience, and since all his chocolate is hand-crafted on site there is no other escape for the intoxicating aromas unleashed by tempering chocolate and freshly baked brownies. Automation is strictly verboten. Instead marble slabs are used downstairs in the kitchen for tempering, and there is no outsourcing at any stage in the chocolate production

Paul and his business partner James Cronin's enthusiasm for teaching us about real chocolate is clear as soon as we arrive. A tasting programme is planned for the evening in which we methodically work our way from bean to bar. Everything from malty Valrhona milk chocolate to silky 75% Amedei 9 and fiendishly tart and bitter 100% Valrhona manjari pate is sampled, the latter resolutely my favourite. Akin to a wine tasting, we diligently take notes and compare thoughts on what each chocolate evinces in terms of nuance, texture and aroma. Ultimately whether we like it or not is to some extent irrelevant. Real chocolate is an education in taste, not an exercise in expressing opinions of "yum" or "yuck' as I normally do

James Cronin talking to us about the business of chocolate

True chocolate lovers will already know the three main cocoa beans are Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero, Criollo being the elite bean and Forastero being the banal bean used in Cadbury's, Nestle, Kraft, et al. or as part of a blend. Being a fermentation nerd with an acidic palate I was intrigued to learn fermentation determines the acidity of cocoa beans, and if done properly releases all the inherent aromas of the bean. As Paul told us, it can be tricky discerning which bean is used for which chocolate with the Big Three Amadei, Valrhona and Michel Cluizel diverging in the way they reveal the bean's provenance, or what blend of beans they use

What struck me about Paul and James is how passionately they believe chocolate is a craft. Craftsmanship is not really part of the noughties' vernacular - we live in an age of instant gratification and mastering a craft requires a singular attention to detail, not to mention years of training, experience and embodied knowledge. Paul told us he had trained under Marco Pierre White, a chef who certainly does not suffer fools lightly. I can only imagine how character-forming it was to work for Marco, and as Paul told us the most salient lesson he learnt from him was that the product is king. To some extent I agree and I appreciate that Paul and James are running a business so the product is key, but the anthropologist in me would of course argue the product is nothing without the people. Cooks, chefs, chocolatiers, cheesemakers, winemakers, brewers all practice a form of craftsmanship, and you can't divest what they make from who they are. I suspect we'll be hearing more about this subject in the coming years as artisanal food producers hit their stride. At any rate, if you're a craft nerd then have a look at Richard Sennett's inspiring book 'The Craftsman' for more profound observations on the matter

Paul and James wrap up the tasting by introducing us to San Francisco-based chocolate brand Tcho, a company channelling the terroir of beans into their chocolate. By breaking down each variety to their flavour profiles of nutty, fruity, chocolatey, earthy, citrus or floral, you have a clear choice depending on your own taste in chocolate. It's a fascinating concept, and certainly the first of its kind amongst the elite chocolate brands. With Paul being the first retailer to stock them in Britain, Tcho are a brand to watch

To complete the evening we're given a tour of the kitchen downstairs, as spotless and spatious as they come. In the photo above is Paul clutching a delicious block of pure cocoa butter, chocolate's most prized ingredient. Remember that. As Paul explained, cocoa butter is the key to real chocolate, and ersatz ingredients such as palm oil are to be avoided at all costs - not merely for fiscal reasons but for conservation ones. The demand for cheap palm oil leads to serious deforestation of rainforests, the natural habitat of both cocoa bean trees and the mighty orangutan. Eat cheap, mass-produced chocolate and not only will you get fat but you'll be contributing to the decline of rainforests and orangutans

If you love proper chocolate, start reading the ingredients on the back of the label. Go to tastings, masterclasses, be a nerd and start swotting up on the subject. There is a Chocolate Unwrapped event in London on the weekend of October 10/11 where you can sample a whole range of brands, beans and varieties of chocolate.

Honestly, if you like eating chocolate it is worth investing a bit of time and effort in learning the whole ecology of chocolate-making from bean to bar, and I can't recommend Paul's tasting highly enough

On that note, I leave you with a word of advice: theobromine is a stimulant so as tempting as it is to make hot chocolate before bedtime you'll find yourself rather more wound-up than wound-down

Doesn't stop me from dreaming about that fiendish Valrhona 100% manjari pate though...

Paul A Young
33 Camden Passage
London N1 8EA

'Adventures with Chocolate' by Paul A Young published by Kyle Cathie 2009


gastrogeek said...

Gorgeous write up Sig - I sadly had to leave the tasting sesh with Paul I went to at the exact moment when he stopped talking and the tasting can imagine how gutted I was! I love the sound of that Stilton-chocolate pairing, an umami bomb indeed....

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

Fantastic post, Sig. Wish I could have been there - but I really was so unwell that day.

Still, I can ALMOST taste and smell those wonderful chocs through your post...

I'm glad Paul is making people aware of the enviromental issues behind cocoa production, too. I loved his Abergavenny rant. If he can make even one person think twice and get them to buy superior chocolate, that's a result.

meemalee said...

Chocolate makes me happy. Nuff said.

Great post, Sig :)

ps Marzipan is evil.

Gastro1 said...

What a wonderful post .

I really want to try Tcho chocolate it seems they are run more like a software company.

I loved Paul's rant too and have a zero tolerance policy for faux Chocolate !

Dan said...

Great write up.
Without a doubt, the chocolate tasting at Paul A Young has been the best event I've attended as a food blogger. Fascinating and informative - I felt that I really learnt something and came away with a whole new appreciation of Paul's products and luxury chocolate in general.

goodshoeday said...

You've hit the nail on the head with his dedication to craftsmanship. It was really evident that he translates his skill and passion into the end product.
It was a hugely informative and delicious evening.

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Signe said...

Thanks for all your comments!

@gastrogeek you are a reprobate leaving in the middle of a tasting ;)

@aforkfulofspaghetti it was a real shame you didn't make it, but there will be plenty more chocolate to feast on with Chocolate Week round the corner. Paul's rant at Abergavenny was brilliant, he's so right to be highlighting the consequences of eating cheap mass-produced chocolate. Our decisions as consumers have profound ecological effects...

@meemalee marzipan is not evil. But I agree with your statement that chocolate makes one happy ;)

@Gastro1 you are a kindred spirit good sir, faux chocolate should be burned!

@Dan completely agree, the tasting was fantastic - so much to learn in such a short period of time. Have been to quite a few chocolate tastings over the years but none as packed with fascinating info and knowledge as this one...

@goodshoeday as you've heard me bang on about, it's all about craftsmanship ;0

@Vincent thanks, that's very kind of you!