October 13, 2009
Those following the threads might have seen my mention of the Manchester Chocolate Festival held on Saturday, 2 October. Needless to say, I went down: here's my impressions.
Such events often have a "usual-suspects" flavour to them - with certain well-known producers showing up. Such proved to be the case here. Unsurprisingly, as the organisers of the event, the Chocolate Cafe had a particularly strong presence. While I give them credit for the effort, and while getting such things off the ground is always difficult, perhaps they could have been more proactive in finding prospective participants? A bit more promotion would surely have helped - local mention was decidedly scarce in press or interactive media. Furthermore, when Duffy from Red Star only finds out about it through my mention here in this very forum, you know promotion hasn't exactly been high on the agenda. Maybe it's a money or organisational thing, though. The Chocolate Cafe has their own business to run, and they're not exactly a huge company with fleets of staff either...
One aspect that was distinctly irksome was the "fairground"-style admission: even though the event was free, they had people cordoning off the area and limiting the number of people in at any one time. Even more bizarrely, some stands didn't have this restriction: there was one side open to all just to wander in. From the point of view of the rest that can't have seemed fair, since those in the favoured position of not forcing you to wait even to see what was on offer enjoyed a tremendous advantage. That said, however, the best and highest-quality people, by and large, were those selected for these positions. L'Artisan du Chocolate had a very visible such place, and it must have been manifestly obvious to all in attendance that this was clearly the best chocolate there - by a huge margin. That kind of self-evident visibility ought to do a lot for the chocolate scene in Manchester: the presence of even one really first-rate chocolatier makes clear what can be had, and once people know, they start to demand more.
In that context I have to comment on the Chocolate Cafe themselves. They must be commended for making the effort to establish fine chocolate in the Manchester area (based themselves in Ramsbottom a little further north), but quite frankly, the chocolate isn't up to snuff. One of their primary lines is their chocolate drinks, which really need serious improvement. A quick trip to Caffe Rivoire in Florence is what is needed - to understand what can be done. As it is, even their most-intense version simply tastes like a "normal" hot chocolate. They also have a somewhat uninspiring line of pastries and confections - nothing here to excite, really. Mostly, they seemed here to focus on their bars, which appear to be simply remoulded couverture. Again, it's when one compares them against someone truly high-end like L'Artisan that the difference becomes clear. I think they want to improve, and volume/cost considerations I don't think here are playing a major factor, but some experience here seems to be desperately needed. Hopefully some of their staff tried the adjacent stand...
Another chocolatier I have also commented on, Cocoa Emporium, seems to be trying much harder. Their chocolates - as in the confections - are actually fairly good, if, again, it must be said, not at the level of L'Artisan or typical London shops. Adding Cluizel chocolates to their line really helps to improve the interest level. They also do pastries and cakes. I finally got a chance to try the "Don't Get Chippy" - which is their version of the basic chocolate cupcake. Rather like others I've tried, the cake is quite good, but the icing does need some work. I think either an Italian buttercream or possibly a ganache would be a lot better. I also tried a chocolate cookie from them, which was really much too sweet. I think I know what they were trying to achieve: a soft yet robust texture that can be handled without instantly crumbling. (To Cocoa Emporium: the trick here is more water - yes, water, added directly to the flour so that it promotes gluten formation and hence better resilience). Possibly, however, they were aiming for a brownie-like experience, to which these are much closer.
The Chocolate Cafe carries Zotter - a nice addition which adds a chocolate not easy to find - and Zotter had a nice stand of their own. Staff there were earnest, if not perhaps as knowledgeable as they might have been, but the chocolate speaks for itself. See some of the reviews already up for more detail on this.
Most of the rest was a somewhat random collection of shops with a chocolate connection. I personally would have preferred a more tightly-focussed series of chocolate specialists, preferably full-line, but then again I recognise that the Chocolate Cafe probably had to work with what they got. In a way, the timing was off - a week later and it could have been part of Chocolate Week 2010, which seems like an obvious fit, and under that scenario the Manchester festival could be rather like a "Northern Section" of Chocolate Unwrapped. I think here there is a long way to go in organisation, quality, and promotion, but the event was still worthwhile going to , and even if there are only a few real standouts, that's all you need to start generating some momentum.