Those who are familiar with SeventyPercent will know me – reviewer, commenter, fanatic on all things chocolate. No surprise, therefore, that Chocolate Week UK would be a must-attend. But, being in Manchester, I had to consolidate things a bit. So I decided to pack everything into the first weekend and Monday. This involved multiple train trips back and forth; quite an exhausting schedule! But the results proved worth the effort.
In upcoming months I’ll be creating a new serial blog “In Search of the Ideal” detailing my quests for the ideal chocolate items in a variety of categories (with possibly some non-chocolate digressions), and you’ll see more comments on the whole Chocolate Week experience and my personal chocolate ideology in there. But for now, I’ll stay with my impressions of the Week itself.
So we start with Day 1: Saturday, 10 October. The big thing of course is the new major event; “Chocolate Unwrapped”. But I got in some other chocolate activities as well. I decided to go to Demarquette first thing off the train. They’ve got some new bars to pick up (even though they’re really only remoulded couverture from companies like Felchlin and Cluizel) and it was about time for me to refresh my impressions of their confections.
Demarquette is big on not using liquid sugars but rather honey. It does give a subtle additional flavour – does this interfere with the pure sensation? Not to the extent that it’s problematic, but you can certainly tell it’s there. The plain truffle I had had something of a bizarre, gelatinous texture to it; you get this occasionally in truffles and now I suspect it comes from the honey. The flavour, though, was very nice, nutty and tobacco. It could perhaps have used a bit more intensity, but Demarquette’s firm ganache style already has a higher chocolate ratio than the more typical (and in my view less desirable) very fluid ganaches you find in others, and this high ratio means the intensity is still vastly better than most truffles.
I also got a coffee, a lemon, a plain ganache square, and a Tunisian Bharat. The last is a rose/cinnamon combination: as you can see perhaps Demarquette has a slightly Arab slant to his chocolates. Of these the winner is the lemon; a brilliant, very fresh lemony flavour coming straight from zest. The lemon zest in the chocolate itself meant the texture was a bit bitty but otherwise fine. The rest were nice, but other than the good firm texture nothing really to effuse over.
On to Chocolate Unwrapped. Once you found the salon in the warrenlike maze of rooms underneath the May Fair hotel, there was quite a lot to see. It’s nice also to see plenty of chocolate newcomers, people who either must just have wandered in or who got excited by the press. On the other hand, some of the chocolatiers there weren’t exactly prepared; 2 were unable to provide samples of certain products they had on sale. In my opinion you can’t just offer selected items for sampling; the overall effect of one chocolate doesn’t necessarily reflect what you’ll get with a different one. Another more universal problem was that few of the chocolatiers seemed set up to offer piece selection; most things were pre-boxed assortments. That may be fine if you’re completely new to good chocolate but it’s frustrating if you know what you’re looking for and/or have particular likes and dislikes. Admittedly this is logistically difficult to do for the chocolatiers but my feeling is that it could have been thought out a bit better.
Chococo had a good idea: a molasses truffle. The molasses flavour really stood out, although perhaps overpowered the chocolate a bit. I might use an Ecuador chocolate for this pairing; if I remember correctly they were using a Sao Tome. Still, an inspired idea. Why can’t more chocolatiers find classic, basic truffle flavours like this?
Then there were the 2 talks in my “session”: Paul Young and Warren Laine-Naida. I’ll talk about Paul Young first. High energy; you could see he was excited and in particular really chuffed with his new book which had just been released. Most of the talk, though, was on 2 simple messages: Do it all by hand, and don’t be afraid to experiment. They do all their chocolates without machinery; an amazing (labour-intensive!) achievement in this age of mechanisation even in small-scale production. It might not be the most pragmatic approach for a commercial chocolatier, but it does mean he probably has more valuable advice to offer the home experimenter, who must typically do without expensive gadgets. I’m not convinced, however, that his claim that anything can be made to work with chocolate; what about, for example, onions? Or saffron? In the end, however, the most convincing demonstration was an absolutely stunning Los Ancones truffle that he sampled to all: water based, and with an intensity that even Michel Cluizel himself might envy. I personally found the texture to be a bit too fluid but you can’t argue with a flavour like that.
Warren Laine-Naida talked to a conspicuously emptier room that Paul Young’s packed talk. Lack of samples probably has a lot to do with that. However, as much a factor might be his own comment that people looking at his work tended to comment that it was ugly. Not, perhaps, the most ringing endorsement for an artist! In spite of that, however, he gave us a thoroughly enlightening examination of the development of chocolate as art. Perhaps his central point; that chocolate art should challenge one’s preconceptions as well as excite interest is well taken, but it’s not exactly original, is it? However, ideas such as “what is the message of a chocolate gun?” are thought-provoking. It also seems clear that his philosophy is that art should represent a repudiation of cultural norms. I’ll come out and reveal my own position: I can’t agree with that assessment. Rejecting common beliefs very quickly becomes making art only for yourself; a narcissistic exercise that conveys little. Not that I’m even remotely implying he’s narcissitic as such, but my view is that art should rather try to find and bring to our attention human universals that find expression in the cultural milieu we inhabit.
I also think that art should embody the intrinsic qualities of the media it uses. Thus, for example, a painting “exists” to be seen. Therefore something of visual beauty and intelligibility should emerge; I can’t find much either beautiful or intelligible in, e.g. Jackson Pollock. Chocolate, again, “exists” to be eaten. Thus a chocolate work that cannot and must not be eaten sort of defeats the purpose of its existence. In like manner another artistic medium typically in my view often poorly interpreted is computer art. Computers, again, “exist” to compute; this is a dynamic process and so a static computer image doesn’t capture the potential of the computer, which could be “multimedia”, interactive, a constantly changing experience. I’m not saying that artistic vision must always emphasize the intrinsic qualities of the media but I do think too often artists working in modern media limit themselves subconsciously to paradigms of “classical” media: Warren Laine-Naida I think may be thinking too much in terms of sculpture rather than chocolate as art itself. It’s clear from his talk, though, that there are other artists who aren’t limiting themselves with chocolate.
Tomorrow: more talks, more philosophies. Lots more chocolate.