British is best these days, it seems - at least in the world of top-quality chocolate. Joanna Wood talks to three of the UK's finest chocolatiers.
British, innovative, chocolatier. The words haven't always belonged together. But times are changing and London, above all, now has a generation of artisan chocolate makers. Their success is a measure of the public's growing interest in eating fine, dark chocolate with a high cocoa solid content - an interest that is part of a wider concern with sourcing and traceability of ingredients.
The fact that Channel 4 is running a four-part series on the exploits of maverick chocolate producer-entrepreneur Willie Harcourt-Cooze underlines the growing profile of top-end chocolate, both in the retail and restaurant worlds. It's a fair bet that the broadcaster wouldn't have deemed the subject worth a prime-time Sunday night slot five years ago.
We thought we'd take a look at three of the exciting new wave of British passport carrying pastry chefs/chocolatiers carving a niche for themselves in London: William Curley, Damian Allsop and Paul Wayne Gregory.
Who? Since he launched his first shop in Richmond, Surrey, in 2004 with wife Suzue (also a pastry chef), William Curley hasn't looked back. Their chocolates have won numerous gold, silver and bronze medals from the Academy of Chocolate in its annual gong-fests (nine gold, nine silver, six bronze in 2008) and last year the couple took over the Chocolate Society's shop in London's Shepherd's Market in the capital's exclusive Mayfair district, turning it in to London's first combined dessert bar and chocolaterie.
As if that wasn't enough, William Curley chocolates have also gained another London foothold - in the new John Lewis food hall on Oxford Street. And, these days, if a chocolatier is wanted on TV, Curley invariably gets the call: from a vignette in the current Channel 4 Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory to a chocolate seduction moment on BBC1's The One Show with journalist and historian Dan Snow, who was left oohing and ahhing in ecstasy after sampling one of Curley's truffles. "I was on for 10 minutes at the beginning of the second Willie Harcourt-Cooze programme and the next day everything went mad in the shops - we were inundated," Curley recalls. That's the power of television for you.
Curley's training is in classical, top-end pâtisserie: stints at the Savoy, with Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc in England, and with Marc Meneau in France and Pierre Romeyer in Belgium, mean his CV is second to none. Japanese-born Suzue, too, has a classical background (the Savoy and Claridge's) but she has also brought a knowledge of her native cuisine to bear in the development of the chocolate range that the couple make. "Her influence is huge," he says.
What? Curley's output includes both truffles and couture chocolates. The number on offer varies, but hovers around 10 types of truffle and 25 different couture chocolates. They are dairy-based, ultra-smooth, and deliver a lingering, complex chocolate kick in the mouth, layered with, in many cases, interesting flavours inspired by Japanese ingredients. Despite the dairy content, they are surprisingly light and the use of infusions is a trademark.
Signature chocolates include those flavoured with a citrus kick of yuzu or sudachi, Japanese plum (more perfumed than its English cousin), Hokkaido sea salt, matcha (a green tea powder), Japanese golden chestnut (bolder flavoured than European varieties), red bean paste, Japanese black vinegar and even a wasabi-flavoured truffle - developed out of a more obvious (to chocolatiers, anyway) chilli truffle. "I couldn't quite get the chilli consistency right, so thought I'd see how wasabi worked," Curley says.
Philosphy: "I want to use the absolute best couvertures and ingredients that I can - you should never compromise - and couverture-wise that means, in my opinion, Amedei, Michel Cluizel and Valrhona. I try to think ‘let's not do exactly what everybody else is doing' without going down the route of using a flavouring just for effect to be noticed."
www.williamcurley.co.uk 020 8332 3002
Who? "Zero to hero" is a phrase that could be applied very easily to Damian Allsop's chocolate business. Launched just over a year ago with a £110,000 investment and based in a 2,000sq ft production unit in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, it has already garnered a strong customer base within the restaurant world. The D&D restaurant group and top-flight London restaurants the Square and Hibiscus are among its clients. Outside London, Nottingham's Restaurant Sat Bains, Marlow's Danesfield House and Cornwall's Hotel Tresanton have signed up for a piece of Allsop's chocolatier skills.
Allsop's credentials are impressive. Early classic training in the UK was followed by spells working with Gordon Ramsay (in his Aubergine days) and, later, a career-changing five years in Spain in the late 1990s, just as the El Bulli effect was beginning to roll out across the world. Allsop also worked with Jordi Rocca in Barcelona. "It was an eye-opener," he says.
Returning to the UK in 2003, he was on the opening team at Locanda Locatelli, before moving out of the kitchen to join specialist supplier Wild Harvest. He then got his own business off the ground with the help of girlfriend Anna Hernandez Piserrer. They met in Spain - incongruously, in an Irish pub - and under his tutelage she transformed herself from an art expert in to a skilled pastry chef - "one of the best I've ever come across," Allsop says.
What? Allsop's specialities are his unique water-based ganaches, which give a completely different mouthfeel to his chocolates. Obviously, there's none of the coating of the palate associated with traditional chocolate emulsions. Instead there's a very direct, pure hit of chocolate that gives way to successive layers of flavour complexity which linger in the mouth. Being water-based, Allsop's chocolates also have great marketing potential in our health-conscious age: you get the luxury element of chocolate and its beneficial qualities (associated with cocoa's polyphenol content) without the artery-clogging cream and they're perfect for people who are lactose intolerant.
Initially concentrating on accessible chocolate flavourings, Allsop soon began experimenting with bespoke ranges for key clients. Best-selling flavours now include pear and anise, an Academy of Chocolate award-winning salted liquorice using a Valrhona's single-estate Palmira couverture, and pistachio chocolate using the nut in conjunction with white chocolate, yogurt powder - inspired by a Locanda Locatelli dish from his past life.
Among the bespoke chocolates he has created is a range based on beer for Tom Kerridge at Marlow's Hand & Flowers, followed by a line using single-malt whiskies when Kerridge wanted to move on. He's now doing beer chocolates for contract caterer BaxterStorey. "We broke down the beer-making process because we needed to stop the beer getting on top of the taste of the chocolate: basically, I take the malt mix (the wort), make an infusion with hops, then make a chocolate ganache with that - you end up with a balance of malt and chocolate that way," he explains.
Bespoke ranges based on vegetables (for Hibiscus) and herbs (for newly reopened Launceston Place in London) and a series of classic pâtisserie matches such as red wine and pears, rhubarb and cardamom (for Shane Osborn and Marcus Eaves at L'Autre Pied, also London) are current projects.
Philosphy and future: "When I tasted Amedei's Chuao in its raw form it was amazing, but when I put it in to a recipe with cream and eggs it lost its character. That was the catalyst for me to develop the water-based ganaches. Not having cream means that all the voices in a chocolate can be heard, along with any ganache flavourings. I'm very interested in how flavours change in the mouth when you eat a chocolate.
What's next? "We're dipping a toe in retail, at Angela Hartnett's new deli alongside the York and Albany hotel on Regent's Park [opening in June]."
www.damianallsop.com 01628 472476
Paul Wayne Gregory
Who? If you haven't yet heard of Paul Wayne Gregory, you should pay attention now. In just two years he has carved out a niche for himself in the highly competitive restaurant world, winning awards from the Academy of Chocolate along the way. He launched his business from a production unit in Streatham, south London, in February 2006 and, despite having no marketing budget, has garnered an impressive number of high-profile customers, including the Searcy group (for whom makes bespoke chocolates for its Swiss-Re, Barbican and Mansion House London contracts), Rhodes W1 (at London's Cumberland hotel) and Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park in Devon. (And he's just beginning to work with Caines on developing chocolates for the Abode hotel group.) The Queen sampled his chocolates at her 80th birthday dinner in 2006 (part of the BBC's first Great British Menu series) and he also has a strong foothold in the corporate world, devising bespoke chocolate offerings for events such as the launch of Microsoft Live.
Gregory, like Curley and Allsop, has a top-notch pâtisserie background, including spells with French master pâtissier Jean Valentin, and a stint with Spain's wunderkind Oriel Balaguer, himself a graduate of Ferran Adrià's El Bulli restaurant. His career started in the hot kitchen, but a growing fascination with pastry work led to him taking a year out to go back to college and hone his dessert-making skills. It was Valentin who taught him to temper chocolate. "He told me I had a natural flair for chocolate after I picked up tempering in three hours," he recalls.
Gregory also creates bespoke chocolate sculptures - and has represented the UK in the Callebaut-backed World Chocolate Masters competition.
What? Gregory's family hail from Jamaica and he has specialised in developing the flavours of Caribbean in his core chocolate ranges. His ganaches blend chocolate and cream with flavours such as coconut, passion fruit, rum and liquorice. He's currently developing a breadfruit and balsamic vinegar filling. "I know how my heritage flavours should taste. I'm comfortable with them," he says. It makes for a very distinctive chocolate personality.
That said, he also uses classic chocolate partnerships such as coffee (an easy tie-in with Jamaica) and pralines and he's not averse to experimenting with contemporary ingredients such as space dust, either. Gregory also likes to work with single-estate couvertures and is developing recipes to reduce the sugar percentage in his chocolates.
Philosphy and future: "I don't want to copy the chefs I've worked for in the past - and the best thing I ever did was to put away all the recipes I had learnt from other people and come up with my own way of doing things. My focus is on the blending of flavours and chocolate in a modern way but using a classical visual look.
We're just about to move to a new base in Croydon which will mean that I'll be able to employ two other people full-time (there's only me plus part-timers now) and that we'll have the capacity to go up to making 250kg a week in time. We make between 20kg and 50kg at the moment. When I started out it was just me, a ladle , two moulds and a bain marie!"
www.paulwaynegregory.com 020 8679 5503
2008 Chef Conference
Damian Allsop will be holding an interactive masterclass at the 2008 Caterer and Hotelkeeper Chef Conference on 12 May. And you'll be able to sample some of his ground-breaking chocolates during the conference's gala dinner. For more information on this and the rest of the conference's star-studded line-up of culinary masterclasses, go to www.caterersearch.com/chefconference.