Spare a thought for our hard-working chocolatiers, with their work calendar dominated by key dates – Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter - all of which require them to produce chocolates created especially for these occasions.
The relentless schedule can be “daunting,” laughs Marc Demarquette of Demarquette Fine Chocolates, “because you have to come up with something new to demonstrate your skill, your craft.” On the other hand, Marc confesses that he would be “bored” if he didn’t have to innovate. For Marc the key events in the chocolate calendar require meticulous planning well ahead. For Christmas he plans what he will make a year ahead, the reason being “the packaging. We plan in advance so we can be sure whatever packaging we have will reflect the content.”
For Valentine’s Day 2015, Marc has stuck with the traditional heart shape. “Without being too deep here, it’s like people, it’s what’s inside that counts!” For the hearts Marc has gone down the caramel route, producing two flavours. “I enjoy working with caramel. I think we’ve got around 35 different flavours in our collection. Because it’s Valentine’s Day, I think having caramel is accessible and fun.” One heart is filled with a “delicate, creamy” strawberry caramel (“which goes well with champagne,” point out Marc) while the other has a passion fruit caramel, “more tangy, more adventurous, a bit acidic.” For Marc, however, the chocolate is important; “Chocolate is always king for me. I don’t want it to be simply the packaging.” For his Valentine’s Day hearts, he uses his house blend of milk chocolate. “It’s made from 4 different origins to get the flavour. What I don’t want is the traditional milk chocolate, which tends to be quite claggy. I want a quick, lovely, melt in the mouth, without that stickiness, so it is milk chocolate but with a strong chocolate flavour.” British ingredients are used at Demarquette’s where possible: “British strawberries, British butter, British cream and British sugar,” he says emphatically “which I want to shout from the rooftops! We use British beet sugar when we make nougats and caramels, so I hope in my little way I am securing British jobs.”
Chocolate Caramel Hearts - Available from Demarquette
For chocolatier Paul A. Young, famous for his cutting-edge chocolate creativity, “the hard part about Valentine’s Day or Easter is making it innovative. You can’t change Valentine’s hearts, you can’t change Easter eggs.” Ambitiously, however, for Valentine’s Day 2015, Paul has produced a range of 11 new truffles, inspired by the cosmopolitan theme of “the most romantic, get-away cities”. He had the idea last autumn, and worked on the chocolate development early this year. Having chosen a broad range of interesting destinations, from Marrakesh to New York, Paul enjoyed creating flavours to evoke them. “Memories of weekend breaks or lovely holidays are often food-related,” he points out. The Lisbon truffle is inspired by Portuguese pasteis de nata (custard tarts) “one of my favourite things. The tarts are very simple so the chocolates are too. Inside is a very custardy, vanilla-ry white chocolate ganache, with caramelised milk chocolate on the outside, to mimic the caramelised pastry, and a wafer flake for crunch.” The Istanbul truffle, topped with bright green pistachio contains honey caramel and figs, paired with 67% Michel Cluizel Saint Dominique. “I didn’t want anything too sweet, because of the caramel, and deep but not overly bitter as the flavour of the honey and fig is delicate. It’s about getting the balance right.” London is evoked with a gin and tonic truffle (Sacred Spirit gin and Bermondsey tonic water) with a little touch of lime, Paris by an absinthe ganache with “crunchy” lump sugar and Venice by mascarpone, basil and limoncello (“tastes like summer”). For Dublin, Paul has made a Guinness truffle with soda bread. “Beer is not my favourite tipple,” he tells me, “but put it with chocolate and it works really well. You get the same bitter-sweet, fermented notes in both, so pairing similar flavours together, while the soda bread gives texture and a nuttiness and toasted flavour from the bottom of the bread.” Coming up with such an extensive range has obviously been a huge amount of work, but Paul feels that his customers expect him to innovate – “they keep us on our toes,” he laughs. The whole range is available to buy separately at the Paul A Young shops, allowing customers scope to pick destinations with special meaning for them, so perfect for a Valentine’s gift.
Paul A. Young 2015 Valentine's Collection - Available from Paul A. Young
At Rococo, Principal chocolatier Barry Johnson feels that “it’s good to have these times of year such as Valentine’s Day or Easter where we can do something different. Our customers appreciate the fact that we come up with something new each year.” Ever since it opened, Rococo has been known and appreciated for its elegant packaging, as well as its elegant chocolates, and they do a roaring trade in their heart-shaped boxes and solid chocolate hearts, decorated with patterns. “This year,” explains Barry, “we’re doing heart-shaped chocolate cases, which our customers can fill and also have their own message written on to personalise them. Last year someone actually asked us to put their engagement ring in one!” Barry is also bringing out four couture flavours for Valentine’s Day, which will be sold loose in the shops. All the flavours have a fruit element, since, Barry feels “at this time of year it’s nice to have something fresh.” The flavours will be strawberry and marc de champagne, lemon and violet, raspberry and rose caramel (“with a liquid caramel”) and a passionfruit and mango caramel mou, which has a thicker texture.
Heart-shaped chocolate boxes - Available at Rococo
Based in Scotland, Iain Burnett of The Highland Chocolatier, acknowledges the ‘framework’ of events such as Christmas but cheerfully admits “that’s not how it works for me!” His new products for Valentine’s Day 2015 trace their origins back to his long-term work with truffles. Iain is known for his trademark velvet truffle, which, he explains, has been a labour of love to create. “ What I wanted to make was something that was just the pure truffle, no layer. It took three years and around 150 variations to get the recipe and method. It takes about 2-3 days to make them, as it’s very painstaking, but you do get this lovely texture.” Such is the allure of Iain’s velvet truffles that he supplies them to famous restaurants including the acclaimed three Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea. As they were highly perishable, until recently, he only supplied the restaurant trade with these. A technical breakthrough in keeping them – an oxygen absorbing sachet inside the packaging which extends their shelf-life – means that the general public can now buy them too.
Velvet Truffle Classic Gold - Available from The Highland Chocolatier
For this Valentine’s Day, Iain is bringing out two new flavours in his velvet truffle range. One is Strawberry and Star Anise truffle “crushed strawberries with a star anise infusion, the two flavours really assist each other, and it’s dusted with dried strawberry powder, so very pretty.” In contrast, the other is a Dark Velvet truffle, made from Sao Tome chocolate, high in 100% dark chocolate and fresh cream from a local dairy . “The Sao Tome cocoa has red fruit notes and the current harvest also has black pepper notes – you really taste those notes. The other sweet notes are from cocoa and from the cream. The cream from this dairy tastes has a lovely natural sweetness. So you taste the cream from this great herd of cows and you taste the cocoa.”
In Dorset, Claire Burnet co-founder of Chococo explains that while she and her team come up with ideas for Valentine before Christmas, “we’re fresh chocolatiers, so we’re only now making our Valentine’s range. Even our chocolate hearts, which have no cream or other short shelf-life ingredient, are freshly made as we passionately believe that our customers deserve that.”
Chocolate hearts - Available from Chococo
Creativity at Chococo is a team effort; “we have an ethos of the team coming up with ideas. We have big mood boards on the wall and everyone puts up ideas, flavours they think might work or new food producers locally. We try and work with local food producers as much as possible.” Meeting local food producers at food fairs and other events often sparks new flavours, so a black garlic truffle made after meeting Mark of the South West Garlic Farm. Customer suggestions, too, are another source of inspiration. “We launched one for our Winchester shop with locally-made Twisted Nose gin and watercress which was a customer suggestion.”
Among the offerings for this Valentine’s Day is a champagne and kalamansi truffle. “We do a pure champagne but thought it would be fun to jazz it up a bit.” Chocolate hearts are a popular offering. “We have new hearts this year: half milk chocolate, half white chocolate with strawberries on, new ones with smoked sea salt and chocolate covered cocoa nibs.” For Claire, having two shops as an outlet offers a chance to get customer feedback. “We make a small test batch, listen to our customers and tweak it. It’s very dynamic process; we listen to our customers.” As with the other chocolatiers, Claire’s feeling is that while having to come up with new creations can be logistically challenging, it’s also rewarding. “ It’s fun to create something new” she says simply. And great fun for chocolate-lovers to sample our talented UK chocolatiers’ new creations.