A chocolate adventure
I’ve never really liked chocolate. Crisps have always been my unhealthy snack of choice if I’m feeling peckish. Sweets are what I go for if I want something, well, sweet. Even with biscuits, I’ll choose plain Hobnobs and Digestives over their chocolate-covered counterparts.
In restaurants I avoid chocolate-heavy desserts like the plague. When people bake cakes for charity at work, I tend not to buy one if there’s chocolate in it. In fact, it’s incredibly rare I buy chocolate at all.
Occasionally I’ll get a Kit-Kat Chunky or a Twix to fill a hole while I’m waiting for my train to arrive at the station, but I don’t particularly enjoy them. I buy simply because chocolate is an acceptable food to eat while you’re hungry, and people give me funny looks when I eat slices of Warburtons Toastie straight from the packet.
I feel no different about chocolates. Sure, I eat them when offered or when my allergic wife gets given a box or two at work, but they never register higher than a ‘meh’ on the pleasure meter. I sometimes wonder why I bother eating them at all.
‘Good’ chocolate hasn’t done much for me either, although admittedly I’ve not had much of it. I tried a few of William Harcourt-Cooze’s bars, which were nice but forgettable. My parents brought me back a fantastic little box of chocolates from Belgium a few years back, but it didn’t exactly have me rushing out for more.
Even this fabulous pudding at Northcote Manor two years ago left me wishing I’d had something else instead:
“Tiny Chocolate Desserts” Liquid Chocolate, Chocolate Brúlee, Jelly, Sorbet, Malt and Smoke
Bouteille Call, Bonny Doom, Santa Cruz, California
My list of Foods to Try Before I Die tells the story as good as any. There are just two chocolate-based items on there: Valrhona chocolate, supposedly the best chocolate in the world, and Le Louis XV’s famous chocolate croustillant, supposedly the best dessert in the world. The word ‘best’ is the only reason they’re included – the thought of eating them doesn’t exactly fill me with excitement.*
Chocolate has always been, quite simply, not for me and it was never going to be for me. At least until one day when, out of nowhere and almost by accident, a man named William Curley entered my life.
I think he might’ve begun to change my mind.
Harrods Food Hall – or rather, series of halls – is one of the best places to visit in London. Each room is beautiful in its own right, but packed to the gills with the very finest ingredients, carefully displayed, they become a sort of culinary cathedral; a place where foodies go to worship.
I defy even the most indifferent of eaters not to be amazed by some of the produce on show. At the very least, some of the prices should make you go weak at the knees. From the hampers and the fish hall to the patisseries and the bread, it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of gastronomic delights.
Had I purchased everything I desired as I walked through the rooms, I think I would’ve gone bankrupt within five minutes. Instead, in what I consider quite a remarkable feat of restraint, I managed to restrict myself to just two things: a sandwich** and a box of chocolates.
Perhaps chief among the wonders of Harrods Food Hall is the chocolate room. Even I, utterly apathetic about the brown sugary stuff, had to marvel at it. Artisan chocolates are everywhere you look, with stand after stand featuring shelf after shelf of world class confectionary. The stalls are grouped by country, so you get to tour the globe as you do your circuit. The Italians are there, the Swiss, the Belgians, the French, the Brits… all looking positively splendid. I wouldn’t like to choose which was most attractive.
A very nice young woman collared me as I entered this temple of cocoa. “Would you like to try a free sample of our Apricot and Wasabi chocolates?” she asked. “Probably not, but it’s free and I’m greedy,” was my unspoken response. A few seconds later, the free sample was heading down for a fiery bath in gastric acid and for the first time in my chocolate-eating life, my tastebuds had started up a chant of “We want more! We want more!”
The flavour was almost beyond description. It was like discovering a new colour. An epiphany where you realise everything you thought there was to know about different flavours is just the tip of a very large iceberg.
It shouldn’t have worked at all, yet it was breathtaking.
“I think I’ll buy a box,” I told the woman.
It was only as I walked away from the till that I realised the name of the chocolatier was William Curley. I’d heard of him before, usually alongside words such as ‘alchemy’ and ‘genius’ and ‘best chocolates in Britain’. I could definitely see where he got his reputation from.
A box of nine chocolates cost me £12. I picked them myself and selected Rosemary and Olive Oil, Blackcurrant and Juniper Berry, Raspberry and Toscano, Thyme and Scottish Heather Honey, Sea Salted Caramel, Japanese Black Vinegar, Szechuan Pepper, Yuzu, and Apricot and Wasabi.***
It took me around three days to eat the lot because I wanted to savour every one. Without exception they were flawless; each a game changer in its own right. The flavours were powerful but perfectly balanced; unique from each other and completely different to anything else I’d ever tasted before. At £1.33 a pop, they were a bargain.
And as I mentioned, they might’ve begun to change my mind.
I’m still not totally sold on chocolate. This experience makes no difference to my opinion on all the types I’ve tried before. But it has made me realise that there’s stuff out there that can capture my interest and offer sensations just as good as the very best that other foods have to offer.****
Tentatively, I want to start exploring this world and see what else is out there. Paris next year is probably as good an opportunity as any, but I want to go further into the British scene as well. I’m desperate to try William Curley’s chocolates again and every single other thing he produces while I’m at it. Then I want to try the work of contemporaries like Paul A Young and Gerard Coleman. After that, well, we’ll see. The choices are wide and varied.
From a state of ennui, I’m suddenly about to embark on an adventure.
*OK, that’s a little bit of a lie about the croustillant, although it’s not the dish itself that excites me. More the idea of eating anything at the world’s best restaurant.
**If you’re keen to purchase something from Harrods, but like most people you’re not a millionaire, a sandwich is probably your best bet. The fresh turkey and cranberry one I purchased was superb and cost £4.30. When you think of the crap you’ll get for £3 at a supermarket, the price is good.
***I’m not stupid. If the rest had been horrible, at least I’d have one great one to cling on to. You can see the full range of flavours here.
**** I should probably mention that a few days after the Harrods trip, I had some truly masterful chocolates made by Jacques Genin, who supplies Alain Ducasse’s restaurants (including the one at The Dorchester where I was eating). I was told by a waiter that the kitchen produces all of its petit fours apart from the chocolates, as “Mr Ducasse does not wish to compete with the best chocolatier in the world”.
They weren’t quite as good as William Curley’s…
Posted on September 25, 2011, in Foods To Try Before You Die, Gourmet Breaks and tagged Alain Ducasse, chocolate, food, Foods To Try Before You Die, Harrods, Jacques Genin, The Dorchester, william curley. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.