Sunday, September 23, 2007

It's nice when people say nice things about chocolate tours

How lovely. A friend of mine complimented me on this article this evening, so I went to look it up.

It's a shame they spelt ecstacy wrong. So many people do... A bigger shame I hadn't registered the incorrect address which it links to! I thought I had. Darn. Other than the spelling and linkage error I don't think I could have asked for nicer things to be said. It's made my day. Yesterday my day was made by seeing Clare's (of Milk and Honey) fabulous stall at Kings Road market. She's there every Saturday now. I was thrilled to finally try her other delicacies, already being a raving fan of her brownies which everyone who comes on the tour gets in their goodie bag. She also makes chocolate banoffee biscuits. Yum. She even sells the cookie dough so you can bake your own. She was educating me in the science of making crisp versus soft biscuits (oven temperature + cooking time) and so today I made my own dough and experimented. Bizarrely the lower tempature (160C) came out more crisp - so crisp they just kind of disintegrated. I think I left them in a little too long (14mins). I also should have added a bit more butter. I was also experimenting with the recipe too. I did use the same dough for each temperature test though and the 2nd hotter (190C, 9 mins) batch were still pretty good, though also a teensy bit dry. The kind of cookies you need to have with a glass of milk. Except we don't have any milk in the house, because no one drinks it here. It's bought occasionally for cake making, or guests. The cookies made me nostaligic for the super-dark double-choc cookies I used to make during sleepover weekends in high school. I can't wait to see my girlfriends again later this year.

There were also some people at the market who made amazing soup, and incredible icecream that used agave syrup instead of sugar. If you didn't know, agave syrup has a low GI, but sweetens like sugar. In layman's terms: you shouldn't get a sugar rush. I'm sorry I can't remember the name but I'm going back next weekend so I'll write it down and even take a picture and let you know then! Or just go along and check it out for yourself.

Monday, September 17, 2007

What I saw in Warsaw.

Greek fish:

This was part of the Italian/Polish wedding feast. We also ate pierogi (Polish dumplings), traditional smoked and grilled cheese, sour soup, red cabbage, cold meats and salads, bread and many desserts.

That was an awful title, I know. I am my father's daugher. This, because I make bad attempts at plays on language. I also know this because it's what my mother refers to me as if she's ever annoyed with me. Interestingly, when my father is frustrated or amused by me I am my mother's daughter. Nice, hey?

Back to Poland: the brief trip this weekend for the wedding. I didn't see much of Warsaw in Warsaw (not even the couple kissing!) but I was priveleged to attend this union of Polish and Italian friends of ours. The ceremony and reception was a blend of traditions from each, and not having attended either an Italian or a Polish wedding I'm not too certain what came from where but it was all very entertaining. Much singing and dancing. Thankfully neither country has a wedding speech tradition because versions in three languages would have made it quite a lengthy session! The bride and groom briefly thanked us all for coming, in Polish, Italian and English, and after that we got on with six courses of food, Italian wines and Polish vodka shots, in between random cheers and songs. Well, they seemed random but given the languages were foreign I couldn't tell you this with certainty.

The wedding cake... (White chocolate curls on a chocolate cake with an alcholic cream middle that was thicker than either layer of cake sandwiching it.)

A poignant point. I love passion for food and drink.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I love the people in the Chocolate world

Another indulgent weekend that began with a chocolate tour on Saturday morning (my favourite way to start the weekend, this tour special as a final goodbye to one manager leaving, and a hello to a new manager starting in different store). Then I travelled onto a garden party in the West Country, complete with brass band and full-size skittles runway, and finishing at the London Food Show at the Islington Business Design Centre. I just realised I was wearing my high-heel boots for 18hours straight, with the exception of two hours in the car on the way down when I was a passenger. No wonder my calves hurt still.

It's a shame that the Food Festival wasn't advertised better, at least, it didn't seem like it was. The trouble with going at the end of a three-day show is that the exhibitors are just keen to get home, and many of them have already left, including one of the chocolate exhibitors I really wanted to see.

It was great to see the couple from Gorvett and Stone again. Not only do they create delicious chocolates but they are just lovely as well. Their dark chocolate bar with strawberry and black pepper is perfect. I pinched this picture from their website because mine didn't quite do it justice.

I went by to visit Paul of Paul A. Young Fine Chocolates afterwards and was delighted to find him in the shop - and with exciting news too! He is opening another shop in the Royal Exchange in Bank in just a few weeks. So business is obviously good. And with good reason: divine chocolates with no expense spared on the ingredients. His Autumn range is slowly coming into the stores (how sad to be acknowledging we really aren't getting a summer). Paul also had a strawberry and black pepper chocolate, his was a milk truffle and perhaps even more perfect, as a truffle at least. I never seem to buy enough of his chocolates when I'm there. He's now mastered how to make stilton chocolate truffles that last more than one day - add port! Brilliant. Bizarre, but good.

Other lovely finds at the fair were CurrySlim jars of sauce and FleurDelicia chutneys and marmalades (NOTE: second website isn't there yet). Now, normally I won't touch any products with the word "slim" in the title. Not because I'm not conscious of my diet, but because in my experience tags like "slim" and "lite" tend to imply a whole host of additives, artificial sugars and fillers. As always I scanned the ingredients on the labels and not only is their virtually no fat there is also no sugar. The only sweetener I could spot is pineapple juice, and all the other ingredients are normal things you might find easily in many people's cupboards. I met Fleur as well and was impressed by her insistence on only buying fresh fruit and vegetables and not compromising on ingredients. Her spicy tomato and hot aubergine chutneys are great, they're being picked up by Asda (please don't let that put you off!). Fleur, like a lot of other gourmet food producers these days, left a city job to have a go at making her talent into a business. She's doing pretty well so far, it seems. Good luck to her!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

John Scharffenberger - an American pioneer of chocolate

Last night I was invited to a talk by one of the co-founders of Scharffen Berger, the US chocolate company, Mr Scharfenberger himself. Cloistered in a basement room in a Mayfair members' club a group of around ten chocolate obsessives listened as John gave us a history of his own career and Scharffen Berger chocolates, and the complete biography of cacao. Rather than being a patisserie chef, as most of the people who start their own chocolate shops are, Scharffenberger was an agricultural historian, and then a successful sparkling wine maker (Scharffenberger cellars is now owned by Maisons Marques & Domaines).

We tried the "candy bar" brands, the ones sold in most supermarkets. Still real chocolate, but the 70% was a bit rough and woody, according to John this was because there were too many Ghana beans in the mix, and not enough Venezualan. In Venezuela right now the political situation is such that no one can get cacao beans from there except Domori. Sadly, political unrest and poverty affects so many countries that grow cacao. John also brought along a few of the artisan bars for us to sample, including a delicious bar solely from Trinidad and Tobago that had a hint of black cherry to it. In Trinidad and Tobago the reverse is true, where people are choosing not to farm cacao because industry is so great there they can get paid better in other jobs. Scharffen Berger have been making efforts to make it more worthwhile for them, so we get to keep eating chocolate made from their delicious beans.

One of the most interesting bars he brought along was a virtually unconched bar. It was very grainy, sugar crystals and bits of cacao nibs, crunchy and fun like a "candy bar" as I would refer to them - chocolate with extra bits. Keeping the ingredients in more of their natural form means added antioxidant benefits for all of us.

The guests were rather a who's who of the chocolate world in London, which makes sense because it was hosted by the Academy of Chocolate, whose mission is to support and encourage the creation and consumption of fine chocolate. There were obviously many missing, the chocolate world is expanding fast here in London, it's fun to get together with its constituents and discuss (and eat) the good stuff from time to time. Damien Allsop brought along some of his divine ganaches. His USP is that he makes his ganaches without cream. They are water based, though one he brought along was from a fine vintage olive oil, "plant to press in 8 hours". He topped the enrobing on one side with a pinch of maldon sea salt and indented the 2nd bite to hold a small drop of balsamic vinegar. These ones are sold in three restaurants in the UK, the waiter joins you at the table to pour the balsamic, quite an experience. I enjoyed the fuss of this one, though my two favourites of those he brought along were a milk anise with a pear jelly layer, and the pure ganache he made from Bill McCarrick's couverture created here in the UK. Bill, of Sir Hans Sloane Chocolates, is one of only two UK companies to make their own couverture from "scratch". I've been invited to go and visit his studio in a few weeks time - I can't wait!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

September already?

Time is flying and I am rarely blogging. Instead I have been working and socialising and, lately, baking a lot. It's been a bit crazy trying to work around living in one room of what was already a crowded flat while we waited for the bedroom to dry and now we wait for the new plastering and new carpet.

I registered at the gym two weeks ago and was told I have an athlete's level of body fat. Ahem. Now, I am slim, but I was pretty sure that couldn't be right. But who's to argue? I took them at their word and their word as free license to eat whatever I liked. Bad move. Polishing off entire batches of cookies and muffins is not good for anyone. It stops today. Who knew one could gain weight so quickly? Please be heartened that my current extra kilos are just from excessive eating, rather than chocolate. I was pretty excited to be living proof that you can be eating around 100g of chocolate a day and still be not just slim and healthy but also have low levels of body fat. Unfortunately you can't have 100g of chocolate and six cookies and other big meals. Oh well, lesson learnt! Back to the regular eating routine now.

It's quite sad to realise that the northern summer is officially over and the UK has had barely ten days above 25 degrees. If that? Cest la vie. We will at least have three weeks of warmth when we head to Australia later in the year.

I wish I had had my camera at my friend's 30th last night. She had the most beautiful cake with a design on the top that perfectly matched her funky 1920s invitation. I do, however, finally have pictures of some of the cakes from the four weddings we've been to in the last few months. One of them, much to the man's delight, was made entirely from cheese.

There was yummy chocolate cake under this pretty icing.

The cake of cheese (thank you Paxton and Whitfield, and the newlyweds, of course).

Notice another wedding cake cut with a sword? Fruitcake made by the groom. Delicious, even if there wasn't any chocolate during the entire day, the couple are real foodies and everything was delicious and so well thought out.