Fresh from a trip with Barry Callebaut to Ghana, where she discovered the first stages of the cocoa-to-product process, Lisa Jenkins talks to some of the UK's best chocolate manufacturers, pastry chefs and chocolatiers about upcoming flavours and trends for 2015
By the time Switzerland-based producer Barry Callebaut has mixed up the languid ribbons of the silky liquid we might recognise as chocolate, it's already over five years into a global journey that will result in exquisite chocolates, cakes and pâtisserie being created worldwide.
Since being harvested from the cocoa trees of Ghana, having taken between three to five years to grow as beans in cocoa pods, this opulent chocolate liquor has travelled 4,000 miles and been through at least eight labour-intensive steps in a farm-based process that includes handpicking, fermentation, drying and bagging.
Following quality checks and sizing, it then returns to Barry Callebaut and is transformed into a chocolate liquor for transportation, before being shipped around the world to be made into the solid product we all know today.
But should we all be better informed about the chocolate process and pay more for our chocolate products in the UK? It's important to consider that world chocolate yields continue to fall and consumption continues to increase, particularly in China and India.
Thomas Leatherbarrow, who won one of two places to visit Cacao Barry in Ghana in Callebaut UK's ‘For The Love Of Chocolate' challenge, thinks so.
"Seeing the cocoa plantations, schools and villages in Ghana completely exceeded my expectations and has raised my respect for chocolate as a raw product," he says.
Leatherbarrow entered the competition to create an imaginative twist on one of the nation's top-five chocolate desserts: brownie, cheesecake, cake, pudding or ice-cream. His take on a chocolate brownie, which consisted of Callebaut dark chocolate (70%) and Callebaut white chocolate (28%) with smoked sea salt and whole pistachios served with vanilla cream and candied kumquats, reflects a growing nostalgia trend in all sectors of hospitality.
Leatherbarrow has worked as a pastry sous chef at Tom's Kitchen in Canary Wharf and Pollen Street Social, London. He's also recently set up his own company, Pastry Development, where he is head development chef.
"Visiting Ghana has definitely influenced my plating style and broadened my outlook on chocolate. It's such a labour-intense ingredient," adds Leatherbarrow.
Ed Loftus, head of food development at Jamie Oliver's Restaurant Group, won the second place on the trip with his Ultimate Chocolate Ice-Cream Sandwich, which featured two layers of chocolate-chip cookie tuile, sandwiching layers of white chocolate parfait, roasted cocoa nib jelly, Arriba chocolate, burnt caramel parfait and a molten Gianduja centre. This is then half-dipped in chocolate before the edges are rolled in toasted, nibbed hazelnuts.
"I love nostalgic desserts that remind us of growing up," says Loftus. "Chocolate is a big deal and we all need to make a conscious effort to understand and communicate the effort involved in manufacturing it."
Sarah Barber, former head pastry chef at ME London and now executive pastry chef at the Corinthia London, says chocolate is a key ingredient in the hotel's kitchen and is used in many forms: from plated desserts to moulded pralines; entremets to petit gateaux; and afternoon teas to showpiece work.
A dessert by Sarah Barber
"For me, being a pastry chef is all about creativity, and working with chocolate allows me to develop a huge range of products."
Barber believes it is important that the dessert should taste of the main components. "The most important factors when creating a new product are taste and texture, but
the dessert should also be cleansing and light to the palate," she adds.
Barber's team uses a variety of chocolate brands, including Valrhona, Amedei, Cacao Barry and Felchlin, and they are taught to understand how blends and brands of chocolate can change the whole composition and balance of a dish. "It's important to understand chocolate and respect it," she says.
Alistair Birt, 2013 Acorn Award winner and head chocolatier at pâtisserie William Curley, is also the current UK Chocolate Master.
"At William Curley we strive to deliver value to our customers by using the highest-quality ingredients and workmanship," says Birt. "In terms of flavours, we have recently created a floral range including lavender, lemon verbena and jasmine by simply infusing the flower or leaf for a pure flavour, with no need for oils or additives."
Dunfermline-based Stuart & Swan Chocolatiers, which produces bespoke commissions for the corporate sector and specialise in creating chocolates that tie in with specific themes, also take inspiration from nature. The Walk, a bespoke collection of chocolates created and specially packaged for Gleneagles hotel in Auchterarder in Scotland, represents a hike through the Scottish countryside near the hotel. The flavours are taken from Scottish breakfast marmalade, the cherries and raspberries picked along the walk, and from relaxing by the fire at the end of the day.
Lily O'Brien's Chocolates, located in County Kildare in Ireland, produces close to 220 varieties of chocolates, as well as a wide selection of gourmet desserts designed specifically for the travel and foodservice sectors.
James Duff, national account manager, foodservice, for Lily O'Brien's, says the team continuously develop new recipes based on the latest trends and their own insights as well as working with customers to develop product ranges.
"We have an amazing product development team who travel the globe seeking out the latest trends in flavours and recipes," says Duff "We also look outside of the food industry for inspiration. Whether it is fashion, technology or popular culture, all of those elements can have an effect on how our product may look and, more importantly, taste," he adds.
According to Duff, with consumer confidence noticeably improving and spending becoming more evident, there is a need for the foodservice industry to return to adding value to the customer experience as a point of differentiation. "There is an opportunity to elevate your customer's experience beyond the ordinary through offering a memorable moment of indulgence. Chocolate is the universal solution, although it needs to be an exceptional chocolate."
Ruth Hinks is the current UK World Chocolate Master and, along with her husband David Hinks, runs the Cocoa Black pâtisserie in Peebles near Edinburgh.
Following her success at the 2013 World Chocolate Masters, Hinks is now officially recognised as one of the world's top five chocolatiers. Her expertise has been showcased on national television and she is frequently asked to demonstrate at international culinary exhibitions and corporate events.
She is passionate about passing on her skills to culinary enthusiasts and the next generation of chocolatiers and pastry chefs at the Chocolate & Pastry School close to the Cocoa Black shop. The husband and wife team has created an environment where students of all abilities (from beginner to competition chefs) can learn and practice the skills and recipes relevant to their professional journey.
"The school has become a pastry chef hangout," says Hinks, "where like-minded professionals can gather for a few days to learn new skills.
"It's not just about the chocolate either. For me, the real pleasure is found in the places I travel, the people I meet and the discussions we have. My chocolate journey has taken me around the world and allowed me to witness first-hand every stage; from the harvesting of the crop to the enjoyment of the final product."
Birt, who attended the World Chocolate Masters final in 2013 and witnessed Hinks' success, is now preparing to compete himself, and says: "I can't go into the specifics of my designs, but I think we will see a lot of foraged wild foods, which will be trickier to use than our friendlier, savoury ingredients. We will also see lots of natural colours and flavours."
As we head towards the festive season, Birt predicts the trend for vibrant colours and patterns will continue as well as a massive influx of traditional éclairs and modern chocolate moulds with natural elements like flowers.
Nostalgia plays an even bigger role in our choice of sweet things at Christmas, adds Birt. "It's what the season is all about. You can't hide from cinnamon in December!"
The Chocolate Show
The Chocolate Show offers an opportunity to meet like-minded chocolate nerds and experts when it returns to London from 16-18 October. Up to 15,000 visitors are expected to attend to enjoy indulgent treats, celebrity demonstrations, free tastings and unique chocolate fashion show in Olympia's National Hall.
Chocolatier, writer and pâtisserie owner Paul A Young, chefs Chris and Jeff Galvin and self-taught chocolatier Aneesh Popat will be demonstrating their skills at the show.
From cherelles to chocolate
Cocoa can only grow in regions that are within 20 degrees north or south of the equator. West Africa has emerged as the dominant player in cocoa production, with approximately 73% of the market share in 2012.
Cocoa trees take between three to five years to reach maturity and bear fruit, at which time only a total of 20 pods might be ready for harvest. On average, 10 pods produce just under 1kg of cocoa, so the average tree can produce only a little over 1.8kg of cocoa.
Once the beans have been dried and fermented, an average sealed 64kg bag of cocoa would fetch a local Ghanaian purchasing company the sum of 350 cedis, which is equivalent to approximately £59 (with only 50%-65% of the price going to the farmer).
The pods are picked by hand, fermented, and then turned in simple wooden devices. The beans are then laid out to dry and picked by hand. Once bagged and checked for moisture, the bags are sent off to a government association (in Ghana it is the Cocoa Board) for quality checks and sizing.
Lily O'Brien's consumer trends
With an increasingly sophisticated consumer audience, manufacturers are being challenged to elevate the everyday food experience to a higher level and push beyond the "traditional and expected".
While salty-sweet and chilli are two established flavour trends, chilli is being used more in combination with other contrasting flavours, such as lime, mango or peach.
Manufacturers are also taking flavour inspiration from the wider food and drink space, with tea being one emerging flavour that is rising in popularity.
Comfort and nostalgia By providing reassurance about provenance, brands are able to build trust, grow loyalty and affirm premium credentials. Consumers like to hear authentic brand stories that provide a sense of security and trust.
Citrus fruits offer refreshing health benefits like vitamins and zero fat, making them a great replacement for high-sodium salts and seasonings.
We are all becoming more aware of the positive health benefits associated with coffee, including the fact that it's one of the world's greatest sources of antioxidants,
and coffee flavours are coming through in a huge range of new products across all categories in 2015.
These little seeds not only provide texture and bite, they also deliver an earthiness and a nutty flavour, as well as providing health benefits through their high levels of calcium and zinc.
2015 World Chocolate Masters
The 2015 World Chocolate Masters will be held at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris from 28-30 October 2015. Formerly exclusively reserved for professionals in the food and chocolate industry, this year the Salon du Chocolat is open to the public.
The 19 finalists, including the 2015 UK Chocolate Master Alistair Birt, will compete over three days in Hall 5 of the Porte de Versailles in Paris.
Cacao Barry hosts the final in which chocolatiers, pastry chefs and other culinary professionals compete for the title of 2015 World Chocolate Master. The competition requires each contestant to create various pieces, including a chocolate showpiece, a sweet snack on the go, a moulded praline, and a pÁ¢tisserie of the day.
The jury will make their decisions based on presentation, taste and technical skills. All 19 candidates will go head to head with each other during day one and day two of the competition final, with the top 10 finalists announced at the end of the second day.
This year's theme - 'Inspiration from nature' - challenges the competitors to consider sensorial inspiration, whether that is in colours or flavours, the sounds of
the ocean or the change of the seasons.
Hasslacher's has introduced 1.5kg catering packs of its 100% Colombian cacao drinking chocolate discs, supplying foodservice via Ritter Courivaud.
Willie's Cacao has launched an impulse range in Caffè Nero stores nationwide. The 26g single-estate chocolate bars are available in three varieties; Venezuelan Gold Las Trincheras 72% dark chocolate, Milk of the Gods Rio Caribe 44% milk chocolate and El Blanco white chocolate.
The Gru Grococo 2014 vintage single-estate bars from chocolatier Rococo Chocolates are made from beans grown on the company's own cocoa farm in Grenada and are available alongside a range of 2015 Academy of Chocolate award-winning 'Best Filled Chocolate - Plain category' items, including gold for the Single
Origin Peru Ganache, Single Origin Dominican Republic Ganache, and Mandarin and Tonka Bean Caramel.