Monday, December 21, 2009

Chocolate for Charity

One of the best things about running my own business is that I can help out charities by offering something of value for auctions and raffles.

And one of the nicest things about using Twitter is feeling the sense of community and charity that exists amongst the other food enthusiasts: bloggers, journalists, small business owners, restaurants and PR people. So many big-hearted people who have donated their time and the fruits of their labour to help other people over the last few months (and more, I'm sure). The world is a better place because of these people.

A few weeks ago I attended the amazing Blaggers' Banquet organised by Niamh, Kavey, Sig and many, many others. Having organised and managed events in a former life I was impressed when the first meeting for this event was just 2 1/2 weeks ahead of the actual date. There were so many people at that first meeting all ready to volunteer that we realised not everyone would actually be able to help on the night, or we wouldn't be able to fit the punters! I was convinced the night would sell out and as well as volunteering to help I bought the first pair of tickets, thinking I was absolutely going to make sure I was there, somehow, and if I was needed to help I'd sell or give the tickets to someone else. As it happened I couldn't find anyone free on the evening and we already had one server for every six people, plus an abundance of other helpers so I was privileged to be able to dine at the Banquet. It was inspiring how everyone pulled together to make an incredible evening that raised thousands of pounds for Action Against Hunger on the night and through the ebay auction that is still going on here.

It was a wonderful evening held at Hawksmoor London who kindly donated the space. You can read more about it on @Tehbus's blog and Fiona Beckett's blog and Wahaca's blog. The food was incredible, the company interesting and entertaining and @TimHayward's auctioneering skills were superb.

Since then, two weeks ago I was alerted to Menu for Hope, another food blogger organised mission to raise money to help relieve world hunger via World Food Program, headed by David Lebovitz in Paris and Chez Pim in San Francisco. Menu for Hope is now in its fourth year and both this and Blaggers' Banquet take a huge amount of totally voluntary time from wonderful people and so I wanted to give something more special than just a pair of tickets for a Chocolate Ecstasy Tour. At the Blaggers' Banquet Craig Linton won a private Chelsea chocolate tour and you have the chance to do the same via Menu for Hope. It's valid until the end of September 2010 and I will be the guide for you and three friends. All the money raised goes to World Food Program. There are tons of other amazing prizes and they have already raised more than $12,000! Dig deep, people.

More exciting for me on a personal level, I had a wonderful meeting last week with Sense, a charity that supports Deaf & Blind people. Not long after I first arrived in the UK I was accosted by one of the charity people on the street. In these early days in London I didn't realise the done thing was to smile and walk past quickly. When I heard what the charity was for it touched a nerve and despite the fact that I didn;t have a job yet I decided to sign up to give £6 a month. I read Helen Keller's book when I was really small and, for me, it was incredibly inspirational. A tale that can't help but make you overwhelmingly grateful for everything you have. Her most-repeated quote is one that drives most of my decisions: "Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

I digress. When Celia from Sense contacted me, instead of just asking for a donation as so many charities do, she proposed we collaborate to raise money and awareness. So much more powerful. I am so excited from our meeting. We brainstormed a plan for a blindfolded chocolate tasting in May 2010. I'll be donating my time and I hope some chocolatiers will donate chocolates for the event and everything we raise from selling tickets and auctioning chocolates will go towards support for deaf and blind people in the UK. What a great way to raise money and also increase empathy. Watch this space!

I'll leave you with two other quotes from Helen Keller I found that I think are pretty poignant and relevant:

"It is hard to interest those who have everything in those who have nothing."

and one, more hopeful, that epitomises everything all of the wonderful blogger and Twitter community have been doing:

"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."

In case I don't get a chance to update this again in the next few days: Merry Christmas, everyone. xx

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Whirlwind Chocolate & Pastry Adventure in Barcelona

Pintxo. Look out for this guy to find the best stall for tapas in La Boqueria

I rather ambitiously thought I could see all that was good in food in Barcelona in one night and one day. Ha.

Not surprisingly due to the amount of sugar I ate in my five-dessert dinner the previous night, I woke up pretty early for my chocolate and patisserie adventure so I went for a quick run (not even remotely enough to offset all the sweet stuff, but hey, I tried).

The view from my perch at Pintxo. I loved this stall owner (and you can see the Xuixos just behind him!).

First stop when I left the hotel properly was Barcelona's food market La Boqueria. Spotting a spare stool at the bar Pintxo which was recommended by Brett of In Praise of Sardines I jumped on it, even though it was 11am and perhaps too early to eat the recommended squid in cuttlefish ink. Never! This was truly one of the best dishes I ate in 2009. The squid was so tender and the salty ink so flavoursome. Eaten with just a broken half-baguette handed to me by the jovial stall owner I devoured the whole lot and mopped my plate with the last mouthful of bread.

My dish of squid and beans at Pintxo in La Boqueria. Ugly, but so good!

During my brunch ecstasy I observed many locals purchase the pastries from the pile in front of me. I had to follow the pack. I barely stepped away from the market before I reached into the bag and tore off a chunk of this doughnut which oozed custard. Oh...... More ecstasy. It was greasy and sugary, but in such a good way, unlike the others I picked up later in the day. Like the squid, this was damn good. It brought back memories of a similar pastry (I think they're called Xuixos) that I encountered in a patisserie on my last day of a six week trip around Spain during university. It's fortunate it was my last day otherwise I might have put on even more than the 11kg I did! (I did try to locate the same patisserie but had no luck.)

My xuixo after the first bite. Nom.

I felt so prepared with my map and list of everywhere worth in eating in Barcelona and it started out so well. My first stop after La Boqueria was Escriba. One of the oldest patisseries in Barcelona and apparently Ferran Adria's favourite. I should have got the croissant because I was underwhelmed by the choices I did make: more grease than flavour.

Escriba on Las Ramblas
Sweet pastry with pine nuts from Escriba (not so special)
More pastries from Escriba (I didn't try - sorry!)

First chocolate stop: Cacao Sampaka

Chocolates from Cacao Sampaka

I got told off for taking pictures in here so this is a photo I took later at home. There are a few Cacao Sampakas around Barcelona. The one I went into was large and included a small cafe at the back. If I was capable at this point of eating anymore I might have stopped. But I wasn't, so I just got chocolate to take away.

The shop assistant I spoke to was insistent they made their own chocolate in Barcelona. They did stock a range of origin bars and some flavoured bars, as well as chocolate in every other form, so it's possible this was true. I bought a box of 16 truffles and 2 origin bars and a flavoured bar. I haven't tried the origin ones yet but I wasn't overly impressed by the chocolate truffles, or the blackberry flavoured bar. The chocolates are fine but have a slightly gluey texture that gives away the sugar syrup used to extend their shelf-life and the taste just didn't quite cut it for me. When I finally try the origin bars I'll report back!

Unfortunately by the time I got to my second chocolate shop on my carefully planned route, Enric Rovira, I realised my failure in not checking opening times. As I arrived the lights were switched off and the shutter was being lowered. Nooo...! It was only 2pm! The shop assistant was not interested in my pleas. Hmph.

The lid of the box of Oriol Balageurs chocolate truffles. Isn't it brilliant? It's like it was made for me.

Not far from Enric Rovira's boutique was the smaller of Oriol Balaguer's shops, really just a store room off the main kitchen. The girl who helped me there was one of the chocolatiers, dressed in her chef's whites. I got a sneak look at the kitchen but unfortunately they weren't making anything. It transpired that this wasn't the real shop, and though she could sell me things from there, there was more to see at the real boutique. So I kept walking (surely must have burnt off the calories at this point). Oriol's actual boutique is small, but gorgeous and filled with deliciousness. Like Pierre Herme in Paris, I discovered Oriol Balageur makes great chocolate but excellent pastries. His biscuits with raspberries were possibly the nicest chocolate item I tasted all year and I wish I had tried them in the shop and realised this, because it isn't possible to order them online. And his little petit fours were just so good. The shell chocolates are great, but I wouldn't travel to Spain for them. The shells are unnecessarily thick for my taste.

Oriol Balaguer truffles, as seen under their protective plastic coating. They look like fossils reading for filing!

Oriol Balaguer window display of petits fours. He makes larger cakes too. How I wished I had somewhere to go to take one. Or that it would survive the journey back to London for my birthday lunch the next day.

The little box of petits fours I bought from Oriol Balageur and had hoped might survive to share at lunch. Unfortunately they were completely smushed before I even got on the plane, so only one friend got to try any.

My final chocolate stop was Xocoa. More novelty than real chocolate shop it still sold an interesting range. I'm afraid I still haven't tried the Wasabi and Raspberry bars I bought from here. The chocolate biscuit cake and two muffins I bought (actually, one was given to me by the lovely store assistant, but don't tell her boss) were tasty enough, if a little over-sweet.

Looking into Xocoa from outside.

Some of the Xocoa bars.

OB's patissier who I spoke to recommended me to another shop, called Dolc (Sweet, in Catalan), that is a 20minute train journey from Barcelona. Unfortunately not enough time for me to get there and back in time for my flight back to London. I will have to return and visit there and Enric Rovira. Hopefully I'll also make it to the two tapas bars that I schlepped to only to find them BOTH not serving and have a proper look around the Chocolate Museum. *sigh* The things we have to do in the name of research...

So, who's up for coming with me next time?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Espai Sucre - Dessert restaurant in Barcelona

Since I first heard about this dessert only restaurant in Barcelona I have been dying to visit, or the one in New York. That's right, folks, DESSERT ONLY!! So when a work trip to Spain finished on a Friday I decided to extend my stay by 24 hours and fly to Barcelona to eat at this mythical restaurant where your tasting menu keeps serving up dishes that are sweet. I was also pretty keen to get to Oriol Balaguer and some of the other hot chocolatiers of Barcelona.

I emailed Espai Sucre the day of my arrival and was delighted with their prompt reply that yes, they could offer me a table for one.

When I arrived I could see why it was so easy to get a booking. There was only one other table occupied in the room, with an English couple. Hmmm, ok. Fair enough, dessert only restaurants aren't going to be EVERYONE'S cup of tea. (I suppose...)

The Maitre'd was very pleasant and had perfect English (and Spanish, French and Portuguese). There are tasting menus with savoury courses as well but I took the view that olives and beetroot featuring in the ingredients counted as my veg and I should just go for the BIG dessert menu (5 courses). The Maitre'd even let me switch one of the desserts for another one. Disappointingly, the restaurant appears to be sponsored by Cocoa Barry and, while I don't dislike Cocoa Barry chocolate it's not spectacular so I also steered clear of the Chocolate Menu. The one chocolate dessert that appeared later made me glad I did.

The first course had me so excited; interesting combinations with intense, fresh, fruit flavours with great contrast in textures. That's a liquorice foam you see below, the combination of apple, liquorice and salty yoghurt were superb.

“Marialuisa” cold soup with green apple and spicy yoghurt ice cream

Sadly, this dish was the exception to an otherwise ordinary “meal” as the courses got progressively more weird.

Red wine "baba",pear and saffron

This red wine sponge tasted like soggy, slightly bitter bread. The cubes were pear jelly and fried parmesan; the latter, sadly, were over-crisped and mostly just tasted burnt. The red wine sorbet was nice, as were the cubes of pear, but couldn't lift the sogginess of the centre piece.

"Idiazábal" cake with cherry + beet and black beer
This dish had one good component: the crumbled dry chocolate cookie, though it was full of cacao nibs so I didn't finish (so I might have a hope of sleeping later). The cherry layer underneath was pretty nice too, but lost with the white oblong that was a smoked cheese cake. Ick. Equally ick was the quenelle of beetroot sorbet, tasting of, surprise, surprise, frozen beetroot juice. Why would you? The black beer foam also was just as described, but again did nothing for the dish. Where was the thought behind this? A selection of bizarre components that together became worse than their individual parts.

Extra virgin olive oil cake, white peach, green olive and “San Simón”
Another failure of soggy cake. The peach jelly cube and peach sorbet were sublime though. Why the chef thought a green olive caramel crisp, green olive slick of sauce and goats cheese cream would add to this, I have no idea.

Empyreumatic 2
This dish was a feature of coffee, tea and chocolate. The earl grey granita tasted like old tea that had stewed for too long, the crisp was burnt and the milk chocolate mousse just highlighted that they should have opted for a better quality chocolate than Cocoa Barry. Sigh. I remember liking the jelly parts but I can't remember if they were coffee or liquorice. There was just way too much going on.

At least the petit fours had some highlights. The bayleaf and pineapple slushie was delicious and the black pepper marshmallow was excellent too. I wasn't so keen on the curried biscuit.

Sadly, my excitement for eating in a dessert only restaurant had been punctured by reality. You would think if a restaurant if going to focus on sweets it would have some sensational offerings. My suggestion? Save your money and just order some extra desserts in one of Barcelona’s other fantastic restaurants. Maybe one of the heaving ones I walked past on my way to this barren space. Then you’ll get a better atmosphere as well.

Launch of Thornton's Metropolitan Chocolate Box

I'm waaaay behind with this blog. So busy doing things, no time to write about them! I did catch up on a few words on a recent plane journey, now just need to add some pictures and put them up here. So here goes with the first of these...

A few weeks ago I was invited to the Thornton’s launch of their new Metropolitan box, held, coincidentally, at the Metropolitan Hotel. I’d had a sneak preview of some of the chocolates early in the Summer when I’d been invited with a small selection of other chocolate fiends to taste the products in their development and offer feedback. I was pretty keen to see what the final selection looked like.

Still recovering from food poisoning, I dragged myself from bed to see what they had to say. I couldn’t really eat anything on the night, nor indulge in the free champagne and cocktails, but fortunately (along with the other guests) I was given a box to take home. I should say up front, I’m not a regular Thornton’s customer. When I have such easy access to amazing chocolates, Thornton’s doesn’t really get a look in (though I did buy their toffee-chocs pretty regularly when I first moved back to the UK, and still enjoy them now). I was intrigued when they hired Keith Hurdman, formerly of Melt, and before that many other chocolate companies and schools, to be their head of development. Keith and I had some interesting conversations about the need to stay relevant to your core customers while keeping up with new trends and the change in the market place. I understand it took a while to convince Thornton's to launch a chilli bar, but its success paved the way for more freedom in his designs. Some of his other new bars I was involved in giving bronze awards at the Academy of Chocolate Awards earlier this year (all anonymously in blind tastings).

There are some great chocolates in this box. I understand they have lost some of their magic in the transfer from the development kitchen to the production line, but the literally melt-in-the-mouth Manhattan Melts and Midnight Melts and the praline are both good for a Thornton’s box. (The production line is itself a pretty magical place, it’s like being in Willy Wonka’s factory, but that’s another story for another blog post!)

If you’re a real chocolate aficionado you won’t be blown over by the Metropolitan box, but it is strides ahead of most of their other offerings. And, if you have a grandmother like mine, who still thinks Thornton’s is the ultimate in expensive, quality chocolate you might help to introduce her to the new world of more interesting chocolates through a brand she trusts and understands.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Le Ecole Internationale de Patisserie, Perpignan

I woke up in France, fell asleep in Spain and, betwixt and between, tasted 11 desserts, multiple chocolate and caramels at Le Ecole Internationale de Patisserie, and ate 35 courses at El Bulli, the *best* restaurant in the world, followed by a petit four cabinet of 17 different types of chocolates.

Yes, this was a very happy day.

The El Bulli post is still to come, but first: some pictures taken at Le Ecole Internationale de Patisserie in Perpignan, France. Drool over these, my friends....

My favourite was the chocolate one to the left of the apple. It had a layer of caramelised banana between the chocolate sponge base and chocolate mousse.

Apricot with peanut praline. Ick. This one was not for me.

Saint Honore Possibly my favourite. Pistachio mousse and berries and pastry and oh, just goodness...

Check out the inside of this apple creation!
Apple mousse, raw and cooked apple marmalade, ginger biscuit base.

Coconut and mango with white chocolate and caramel and biscuit. This one was also delicious. zingy and fresh, while deliciously creamy.

And, in the other room - the class my friend wasn't in - the chocolates:

Heaven, people, this was heaven. The best bit? We were allowed to take what we wanted from the chocolate room! I felt like Gretel being given permission to eat the gingerbread house. A childhood fantasy come to life.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chocolate Week 2009

The highlight of the year!

Of course, every week should be Chocolate Week but this is the official one! Click the title to go to details and get yourself along to something!

I'll be going to The Almeida for a three-course chocolate dinner (can't wait!) but then I'm off to Spain FOR DINNER AT EL BULLI!! (unfortunate week but when the proverbial "they" say that 2 million people apply for 8000 places in a year, you don't say no!). I'm even more excited for this meal (and nervous, having read recent reviews like Chris's here). Finally I'll be back in London for my brother's gets married (I'm a bridesmaid!), then there's my Full Day Chocolate Tour on Saturday. All sorts of deliciousness awaits us there.

So, in conclusion, it's pretty likely I will need to go shopping for new clothes next Sunday...

Chocolate Unwrapped 2009

Some pictures from Chocolate Unwrapped 2009 - to inspire you to go while it's still got one day left! Unfortunately I uploaded the pictures I took, only to discover most of them didn't come out very well, if I hadn't been so distracted by all the delicious chocolate I might have noticed this when I was at the fair. Oops.

Details of the event (finishing today) are at Tickets are £12.50 online or £15 at the door.

That's the fabulous Paul A Young in the picture above, giving a talk (there's lots of talks going on today too). He's a born entertainer and you can see for yourself this Wednesday when he's on This Morning televison show!

Chocolate Unwrapped is like walking into heaven for any chocolate lover (even though, ironically, you descend into the sumptuous room below the Mayfair Hotel in Berkeley Street, W1). The sight of tables and tables burgeoning with some of the finest chocolate creations made by England's skilled chocolatiers... it filled me with indescribable happiness that has overflowed into this Sunday morning (probably also still feeling the buzzing effect of all the chocolate I consumed, which would explain why I'm awake (again) after less than 7 hours sleep!).

It's almost impossible to even sample just one chocolate each from all of the stands at the fair without going into chocolate overdose (even for me). So I stuck (mostly) to the chocolatiers that don't have London shops.

Some personal highlights...

Chococo's White Chocolate with Berries was positively scrumptious. Like strawberries and cream, sweet, creamy chocolate offset by the sharp tang of dehydrated fruit. Moreish, and I'm not even a white chocolate fan unless it's baked into cookies, muffins or cakes.

Lauden Chocolate Particularly their Rose & Lychee and their Passionfruit (superbly made, French-style chocolates).

Askinosie Chocolate

Auberge du Chocolat new range

The Ecuadorian chocolate from Askinosie has strong liquoricey notes, a very unique chocolate, deliciously complex in its flavour. This chocolatier, Shawn Askinosie (read his story, it's very sweet), from Springfield (Missouri, USA), also makes a white chocolate with goat's milk. The goat's milk made it a little too reminiscent of farmyard for me. I had a similar challenge with Auberge du Chocolat's goat's milk caramel although it was a really interesting chocolate and very well made. Especially impressive when I learnt it was created by the 18yo son of this family business. They've just won some Gold Great Taste Awards too, but I didn't get to try those ones on this occasion. I'm sorry, a terrible failure on my part.

Trish Deseine's chocolate cake (and she's giving away the recipe! AND you can buy the chocolate in bulk from her at the show!)

Paul Wayne-Gregory and his merry band (that's Stephen on the right) are delightfully entertaining and force-feeding people who come by their stand. Including another great passionfruit chocolate and a popping-rock praline.

Gorvett & Stone from Henley also do a popping candy chocolate, amongst other delicious truffles, my personal favourite still being the raspberry & black pepper (both in truffles and in bar format). It helps that they use fabulous quality couverture!

Another interesting find, a newcomer to the chocolate fair scene is DeAngelis. Made in Italy, but based in Hartfordshire and run by an Italian-Australian, this chocolate - like Askinosie - has only cacao beans and sugar but it hasn't been conched and refined to get the smooth chocolate that we know, it's crunchy with sugar crystals. Reminds me of the chocolate I bought in Guatemala last November (I really should post the pictures from that!). It was made with very good quality beans, though it is harder to identify this because the sugar doesn't merge into the cocoa in the same way.

Finally, Ooh La La Chocolaterie with her very pretty chocolates. Try the whisky with raisins or the blackcurrant (or any, really).

I'm tempted to return but I must stay home and finalise preparations for next Saturday's sold out Full Day Chocolate Tour! I hope you can make to Chocolate Unwrapped today, and tell them I sent you (it might get you an extra chocolate)!

Happy Chocolating!