The phrase ‘Belgian chocolate’ is widely used as a marketing term in Britain nowadays. While originally used as a stamp of quality, it is now just as likely to conjure up a mental image of mass-produced, over-sweet Belgian truffles. It was to combat this preconception that London-dwelling Belgian Michele Fajtmann, of creative event company From My City, brought over artisan Belgian chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud to London. “Chocolate has always been part of the Belgian culture,” she explains, “but Belgian chocolate has become a generic term and is sold under many supermarket brands as a kind of label of quality, which is not always the case. Also, it is the big Belgian brands owned by the biggest chocolate companies in the world which can usually be found in the shops. Most of them are very traditional, some of good quality but it does not reflect at all the new trends and creativity which exists at a more artisanal level in Belgium.”
At once amiable, humorous and stimulating to talk to, Laurent Gerbaud talks with articulate conviction of his own personal approach to chocolate. Despite coming from a family of pastry chefs, Laurent did not immediately work with food, studying first law, then medieval history. His adventurous, exploring spirit saw him, as a young man, go to live in China for two years, where he set up a chocolate business – “I was ahead of the time”, he says ruefully. While living in China, he was struck by the lack of sugar in the cuisine. When he returned to Belgium to set up his own chocolate business, he began making chocolates without sugar, alcohol or preservatives. “People were surprised at first,” he laughs, “but then when they tasted my chocolates, they realise that they tasted good.”
Brussels-based, working from his own workshop-cum-shop, Laurent, very much follows his own tastes in making chocolate. His house-style is simple, almost austere, yet elegant and sophisticated– with the emphasis both on the quality of the chocolate (sourced from Italy from Domori) and the ingredients he uses to combine with chocolate – dried fruits, nuts and spices. “I love finding the ingredients,” he confided. “That’s the fun part of my work!” He accepts philosophically that using good quality chocolate and ingredients will cost more. “It’s what you accept in terms of ingredients. When you start working with Trinitario or Criollo you will have to pay much more than if you work with Forestero.” Rather than rich, creamy ganaches, Laurent’s approach focuses on chocolate, using it to coat fruit and nuts in or flavouring with spices such as pepper. The dark chocolate he works with is fruity and acidic, rather than bitter, with all his chocolates very easy indeed to eat.
Laurent’s open-minded approach to flavours and his personal passion for travelling bears fruit in the distinctly cosmopolitan range of ingredients he combines with chocolates, so yuzu, the highly-prized Japanese citrus fruit, is paired with 75% dark chocolate to create an intriguingly fragrant, tangy bar, which lingers on the palate. “When I travel, I always go to the street markets, the food markets. I was in Bangkok in May – great street food, great ingredients– I’m always open. At Slow Food’s Tierra Madre I visited all the booths.” His Belgian roots do manifest themselves in his use of speculoos, the popular spiced Belgian biscuit, which he sources from renowned maker Dandoy and uses to flavour chocolate.
Laurent’s boxed assortment ‘Un Peu de Tout’ (“an expression usually used for cheese which means a little bit of everything”) offers a range of chocolate-coated dried fruits and nuts, all carefully sourced, from Piedmontese hazelnuts to tangy Iranian barberries and apricots, a personal favourite of his because of the way the acidity of the apricots works with the chocolate. There is a straightforward quality to his approach. “I’m not interested in bringing out seasonal collections as marketing tool,” he declares. “That creates too much pressure to be novel – so then you get things like chocolate with oysters, chocolate with cheese. It’s not my style, too much marketing-led.” Laurent’s open-mindness, however, also sees him embarking on creative collaborations with enthusiasm. “Last year I worked with a completely insane, brilliant Belgian artist,” he declares with relish. “I asked him to write text for me which could be broken into pieces and made the text from chocolate.”
Laurent’s bars and his Un Peu de Tout gift box are on sale in the UK at Alexeeva and Jones, an elegant chocolate shop in Notting Hill which showcases talented chocolatiers from around the world. “He’s a great representative for the next generation of great Belgian chocolatiers but doesn’t conform to the big, blowsy styles that so many consumers have come to expect from the larger Belgian companies,” explains Alexeeva and Jones’ General Manager Helen Heslop. “His light approach to flavour balance within each of his flavoured bars and coated fruits leads to a very sophisticated product which appeals to those clients who enjoy a delicate and subtle chocolate, a quality that is surprisingly difficult to achieve without verging towards dullness.”
It was Laurent’s passion for quality combined with his creative spirit, which appealed to Michele Fajtmann of From My City and prompted her to bring him over to London to hold a series of workshops and tastings. “I am particularly interested in the creativity and passion that can be found in the new generation of chocolate makers,” she explains. “Laurent's chocolates are very special and original and in line with some trends that you can see in gastronomy in the UK. I really wanted people to experience them. What I love about Laurent's chocolates is that they are simple, very pure, and not too sweet. He is interested in the development and creation of recipes using new ingredients. And Laurent can talk about his chocolates in a marvellous way - which is important for a good tasting.”