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One thing I can't help but notice with all of Hotel Chocolat products is the attention to detail of the finish. Every chocolate looks as good as the next, implying their quality control team is doing a grand job.
But inevitably that must lead to a lot of waste of products that aren't picture-perfect yet are still perfectly edible. And in a world where we are ever-more concerned about sustainability and the environment, this inevitable truth must jar with the Hotel Chocolat brand ethos.
But that's where the Ugly But Good bags come in. I've not seen these in regular stores so they were a happy discovery waiting for me in a shiny new clearance outlet store in Bridgend's Designer Outlet.
What's an Ugly But Good bag?
In a nutshell, each bag is filled to the brim with an assortment of chocolates that didn't quite make the grade. Perfectly edible, perfectly tasty, just not pretty enough.
So rather than ditch these creations (or give them to staff or local charities as I'd like to think Hotel Chocolat does), these ugly ducklings have made their way into 300-gram paper bags ready for my delectation.
In my eyes, the plus sides of buying these bags are:
- I can feast upon a range of Hotel Chocolat products at a fraction of the price of buying Selectors or Selection Boxes.
- I can feel content I've traded in a purchase of multiple products in black plastic trays each bound in plastic film for more widely recyclable paper bags.
- Best of all is the mystery of not knowing what is inside the bag.
So, what are the trade-offs in this lucky dip bag?
- The chocolates are bundled into the same bag together with no way to protect them, so they get very cosy. There's a real risk that the less dominant flavours taint, and that the more delicate products become damaged.
- Those that hate specific types of chocolate or specific flavours may well be disappointed. Similarly, those with allergies might need to avoid these bags.
- My biggest bugbear is that there's no menu card, so you've no idea what you are munching upon. I like to know what the chocolatiers had in mind when creating their treats, so I can compare my tastes with their intentions (that said, the lack of menu cards is one of my biggest pet peeves as a chocolate blogger).
What's inside an Ugly But Good bag?
I opted to buy two 300-gram bags. While the paper bags have a small plastic window to give a glimpse as to what is contained within, I went off my own senses and tried to pick the heaviest - challenge accepted! And it turns out I have a fall-back career as a set of human scales. Both bags contained a bonus 20 grams of chocolate - result!
Both bags were identical in the type of chocolate included, although the quantities were slightly different in each. Here's what I found in mine.
Imprinted with "Chocolate Tasting", I'm confident these 'ugly' beauties were destined for Hotel Chocolat's monthly subscription club°. I detected rich fruity aromas with a hint of creaminess, as well as an earthy quality I couldn't quite place. It certainly wasn't chocolate but was a familiar fragrance that originated from another source.
A firm but clean snap revealed little more of its secret. Beneath the glossy shine is a solid block of chocolate, which had a slightly roughened texture. It didn't feel like pure dark chocolate but I lacked further clues as to what that mystery scent was.
Biting into the chocolate and it was abundantly clear: coffee. And suddenly it all made sense! The coffee used in these batons had been finely ground, so texture-wise, there was a very slight biscuit-style crunch to the chocolate. In terms of flavour, the coffee overwhelms. As soon as I bit into the baton, the rich coffee aromas dominated, to the point at which I was left questioning whether I just ate a piece of chocolate or slurped on an espresso. But then a smoothness and creaminess in the chocolate peeked through, helping to round off the finish. The coffee flavours took the lead in the aftertaste, with a slight bitterness from the chocolate bringing up the rear.
Personally, as someone who adores all coffee-chocolate combinations, I found these batons simply divine. I would quite happily buy oodles of these to have on standby in the cupboard. If you are not a fan of coffee then you will have been disappointed by the inclusion of these in both mystery bags, especially as they formed a sizeable chunk of each bag.
- Why is it 'ugly'? - Each of the bars was scuffed, which may well be more a result of being packaged in a mixed bag, than a factory line flaw.
- Where can I find this? - I cannot find any batons that feature coffee on the Hotel Chocolate website°, so can only assume either this was either a test batch of products or a run for the Monthly Subscription boxes.
- Hit or miss? - It's a resounding hit from me. I really wish this was available as a Selector pack.
White Chocolate Raisins
A generous helping of white chocolate covered raisins filled both bags, presumably as these easily filled the nooks and crannies formed by the bulkier chocolates. The speckling on these nuggets suggested that there was a spice contained within the recipe, a fact confirmed by the aroma. Best described as the smell of Christmas, the scent was quite difficult to pinpoint. Dominated by a milky, creamy aroma, there was a subtle spike of a spicy, nutty note. My gut feeling was that the spice in question was nutmeg.
Tasting the raisins made me none the wiser. The aroma translated identically to my palate, and continued into the aftertaste. It was an enjoyable, if indistinguishable, flavour that invoked thoughts of Christmas. However, I was not keen on the raisins as these were more crunchy than juicy, turning into an unpleasant gritty texture in the mouth.
- Why is it 'ugly'? - The coverage of the white chocolate was not even, and was speckled with flecks of milk chocolate which may have come from other items in the bag.
- Where can I find this? - I believe these are the White Chocolate Covered Raisins°, which are raisins dipped in white chocolate infused with nutmeg and almonds (which would explain the nutty quality and the Christmas taste).
- Hit or miss? - It's a miss from me but only because of the texture of the raisins. I love the Christmassy flavour of the white chocolate though.
Milk Chocolate Nuts
The overriding fragrance from these chocolates is a blunt nuttiness, with a spicy fruitiness clawing away in the background, fighting to be noticed. I wasn't a fan of this aroma though as it bordered on being harsh and acrid.
Now I'm a lover of anything covered in chocolate, but sadly the taste of these nuts was just as bad as the aroma. The almond dominated as it obviously ought too, but was let down by the flat, bitter tasting chocolate that sucked every drop of moisture from my mouth. Given almonds have a similar characteristic, I would have preferred to see a rich and creamy chocolate used to balance out the flavour.
The chocolate also seemed to exhibit a spicy quality that was remarkably similar to the white chocolate raisins, so either there was nutmeg in the recipe (which I doubt) or the chocolate has absorbed some of the flavours following an intimate mingling with the raisins in the bag.
- Why is it 'ugly'? - The almonds didn't have much in the way of a sheen but I think they were rejected as there were slight etches in each of them.
- Where can I find this? - I can find several chocolate-covered almonds on the Hotel Chocolat website° but I'm not sure any of them quite fit the flavour profile I detected. That said, I am fairly confident the chocolate had taken on the flavours from the raisins in the bag, which may have skewed my tasting profile.
- Hit or miss? - It's a firm miss from me. The flavours of the chocolate did not pair well with the almonds in this instance.
Hazelnut and Golden Raisin Mini Slabs
I love Hotel Chocolat's slabs, and they have become so much of a hit for the company that they have been imitated elsewhere. And what's not to love? A slab of chocolate topped with a variety of exciting ingredients. They've got giant slabs and Selector slabs, and in this 'ugly' pack I've got my paws on the cute Nano Slabs. These mini wonders are perfect as a cheeky guilt-free treat.
The initial nutty aroma overwhelmed the fruity and earthy tones from the chocolate. I detected a very slight sweetness but the musky qualities dominated.
The snap was clean and crisp, and I could easily portion this into two or four segments.
The chocolate itself had a very earthy and bitter quality that developed more so in the aftertaste. It had a musky quality to it, that almost drew in nutty tones. I would hazard a guess that the whole hazelnuts might have imparted some of its flavour into the chocolate.
Upon tasting, it was not all deep and dark notes. There was a smokey sweetness that developed towards the end, which lead to a balanced aftertaste. The bitter notes dualled with the sweetness to leave a pleasant flavour that lingered for a minute or so.
If this was a plain chocolate slab, I would not buy it. But, of course, in a slab, the chocolate isn't designed to be eaten alone. And both the whole hazelnuts and golden raisins added texture and sweetness to the overall proposition. That sweetness really transformed the overall flavour profile, as the bar elevated from something that was dark and broody to something much more livelier. The raisins added a chewy zing while the hazelnuts, which had a sweet edge, added crunch and mellow roasted tones to contrast the smokey notes in the chocolate.
- Why is it 'ugly'? - The slabs had scuffs over them but I suspect these were rejected as the distribution of raisins and hazelnuts wasn't quite uniform.
- Where can I find this? - This can be found in the Nano Slab Gallery° along with other mini slabs.
- Hit or miss? - On its own, I'd give the chocolate a miss, but when paired with the raisins and hazelnuts, the overall bar transformed into something that was much more enjoyable. So, it's a gentle thumbs up here.
Cocoa Nib Mini Slabs
Given the deep flavours of the Hazelnut and raisin slabs, I inevitably went into tasting the cocoa nib slab with some preconceptions. After all, the initial smell was remarkably similar to the previous Nano Slabs.
There was a slight fruitiness in the initial aroma but the same musky qualities shined through again. Now, this could be that it had taken on the flavour of the other slabs in the bag, so only a taste test would confirm if this was the case.
Pleasantly, this one exhibited a different tasting profile. It had a clean, firm snap, and on the palate it had an interesting flavour that transformed as it developed. It started off with a familiar smokey quality, but it augmented into a sweeter, fruitier, almost nutty flavour towards the end and into the aftertaste. It had a lingering creamy aftertaste that sat slap bang the middle of sweet-versus-bitter scale.
Find a piece with cocoa nibs on it and the flavour twists further. The nibs added a burst of intense fruity bitterness, sending the aftertaste down a noticeably different path. Aromas of roasted beans playfully jibed with the chocolate. It was quite an interesting combination actually, likely to be even more pronounced on Slabs that have an even distribution of cocoa nibs.
- Why is it 'ugly'? - The slabs had scuffs over them but I suspect these were rejected as the distribution of cocoa nibs wasn't even (or nearly non-existent on one slab).
- Where can I find this? - I can't find this particular slab in Hotel Chocolat's catalogue° so I guess it was another Tasting Club treat.
- Hit or miss? - I really like the qualities in this chocolate, although I'd like to see a better distribution of cocoa nibs to better balance out the flavour. Even so, I like this slab so it's a thumbs up from me.
Should I buy an Ugly But Good bag?
If you're the proud owner of an allergy or two, the lucky dip nature of the bags means you cannot be certain about the ingredients in there. So in this instance, it's best to stick with what you know.
Also, if you're a fussy eater, you might be disappointed by the selection. I know many people hate coffee and chocolate as a flavour combination, and so wouldn't be happy with a sizeable chunk of my bags.
Hotel Chocolat Ugly But Good Bag Review
RRP: £5.00 | Hotel Chocolat | Shop now°
The name says it all. These scuffed, bruised, and battered chocolates are ugly, but they are really good. If you're a fan of Hotel Chocolat products, these simply-packaged lucky dip bags are a great way to help minimise food waste while enjoying familiar flavours.
If, like me, you enjoy tasting a wide range of Hotel Chocolat products, I'd wholeheartedly recommend plumping for a bag or two. It's a lucky dip, so you can't really be sure what you'll get until you open the bag, but the surprise is half the fun. It's also a great value way to sample Hotel Chocolat chocolates on a budget, and you can also sleep soundly knowing you've helped reduce food waste in a format that significantly saves on plastic packaging too.
Tip: If you don't live near a clearance outlet store or you are not fortunate enough to live near Huntingdon° in Cambridgeshire, keep your eyes peeled on the Hotel Chocolate Sale page online° for bags of misshaped items or lucky dip bags like this one.
Would you sacrifice appearance to save a little bit of money, or would you prefer to buy the perfect-looking treats that Hotel Chocolat produces? Answers in the comments below.