As a food blogger, even one as insignificant as me, PR firms are always lining up to give you something free in exchange for publicity.
More often than not what I get offered is crap. Only a few weeks ago I said “no thank you” to representatives of a well-known, cheap food brand, whose most popular product I blame for a spectacular bout of food poisoning suffered last year.
Perhaps they misunderstood where I was coming from with Foods To Try Before You Die, read it as some sort of cuisine-themed suicide note. “We’ve made him violently ill before so he’ll love this!”
At the very least I’m certain they hadn’t bothered to read any of my posts. I know not every item on The List fits into the luxury category but the lack of budget ready meals really should’ve been a clue. Economy supermarket is not the undiscovered niche I’m looking for.
So I must say it was refreshing to be asked to review a hamper by the folks at gourmet food retailer Forman and Field, a company much more in-keeping with the quality focus of my blog. I hadn’t tried any of their wares before but I had been on their website and liked what I saw. Indeed, in the early days of The List, when it was basically just an offline Word document with pictures, porchetta was listed as an item solely off the back of seeing it on Forman and Field’s site. I thought it looked awesome so on there it went.*
Thus when I was asked to review one of the company’s hampers my answer was a bit of a no-brainer. “Why yes. Yes I would.”
I was a little surprised by the quality of everything as I rummaged through the picnic basket. I’d expected luxury but I hadn’t expected the very best. Cheese (Stichelton, Innes Log, Berkswell and Ardrahan) was from Neal’s Yard, a supplier of Michelin-starred restaurants up and down the country. Smoked salmon was from H. Forman & Son**, a century-old pioneering producer, as reputable as you can find. The pork pie was Mrs King’s, arguably the finest Melton Mowbray in existence.
I couldn’t wait to dig in.
The banana bread was the first to go, scoffed down with a mug of tea. Moist and flavourful with a faultless crumb, it was a WI award winner if ever there was one. A similarly good chocolate brownie, the greatest pork pie I’ve ever had and some cheese in immaculate condition followed. It was a strong start.
The next day I tried Paul Wayne Gregory’s tea-infused chocolates and they were what you’d expect from an award-winning chocolatier: texturally perfect. The lapsang souchong wasn’t really to my tastes and the Earl Grey flavour was perhaps too subtle but the jasmine in the middle was “just right”. My wife made the obvious Goldilocks joke.
Potted lobster was enjoyable on rye bread toast though, if I’m honest, I expected a little more from it. They weren’t stingy with the lobster and there was nothing wrong with the cooking but I spent the entire time wishing it was potted shrimp instead. Given my favourite shellfish-based spread is much cheaper, I don’t see why anyone would bother buying this.
Regardless, I’d say the Alderton ham was perhaps the only bit that was sub-par. It was very nice ham, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be confident I could take a 20-minute walk down the road and find something better. I genuinely couldn’t say that about anything else – certainly not the smoked salmon. The London cure was up there with the best I’ve tasted; the wild vastly superior. I took to Twitter to say I’d never eaten anything better in my own home, and I wasn’t lying. It was divine.
Afterwards I had the lemon curd, which was never going to compete, but was excellent nonetheless. I made it into a little tart with a base of crushed digestive biscuits and later vowed that I should eat lemon curd more often. It was delicious.
Here’s what was in the box, with pictures.
Genuine Wild and London Cure Smoked Scottish Salmon (H. Forman & Son)
Potted Lobster (Forman & Field)
Chocolate Brownie and Banana Bread (Forman & Field)***
Lemon Curd (Forman & Field)
Hand Carved Ham (Alderton Ham)
Pure Indulgence Chocolates (Paul Wayne Gregory)
Pork Pie (Mrs King’s)
Selection of Dairy Cheeses (Neal’s Yard)
Overall I was very impressed with the hamper sent to me by Forman and Field. The food was all extremely high-end and I think it’d be difficult to find better quality in your local area, even at specialist shops or farmers’ markets. Certainly assembling produce this good on your own would take a lot of time.
One thing that’s put me off buying food online in the past is concern over freshness. How many days before this was posted was it packed? Is it going to be stale or past its best? I’d look on something like Maldon Rock oysters as pure food poisoning bait, and why pay for a stomach bug when there’s a company out there willing to send me one for free?
But I think, based on the evidence of the cheese (the biggest freshness test), I would trust Forman and Field to send me just about anything. Apparently cut on the same day the hamper was posted, it was in better condition than any cheese I’ve had outside a Michelin star restaurant.
And I can’t praise it much higher than that.
*As you can see, I eventually took porchetta off The List when I decided to make it exclusively about food that I’d genuinely be disappointed not to try in my lifetime, rather than just stuff that I liked the look of. But I would still like to try it.
**H. Forman & Son is linked to Forman and Field, so I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by that one.
***I forgot to take a picture of the chocolate brownie. Sorry.
Click here to read Part 1 of this Valrhona chocolate post.
There were no fat old ladies this time around; no suspicious shop assistants either. There was no long deliberation process by a scruffy man.
As I walked back into the Harvey Nichols food section I knew precisely which chocolate bar I wanted and I’d had my hair cut. That’s 200 words of preamble saved through research and an £8 trip to the barbers.
I’d been tempted by the El Pedregal 2011 Vintage, 64% on my first visit; held it up against the other Valrhona bars and mmmd and ahhhd. The packaging was good, the blurb was great. It looked so much better than the chocolate I actually bought and the price suggested it was too, approx £6.50 for 75g versus £3.99 for 70g.
I swooned at the idea of a ‘vintage’. Of course it’s a gimmick but like any good one it still appeals once you’ve seen right through it. There are few meaningless words capable of stirring up such irrational feelings of lust.
El Pedregal was left on the shelf on the first Valrhona buying trip simply because I was being cheap and wanted to try three different bars instead of two. Having read a couple of decent reviews of it online, there was no question of that happening again. Valrhona’s champion had been chosen and it was time to put it to the test.
The El Pedregal 2011 Vintage was a much more conventional-looking bar than the others I’d tried previously, and classily dressed. Appearances matter with ‘luxury’ items and between the smart exterior and golden foil wrapper, it all looked reassuringly expensive.
Chocolate lovers bang on about snap and smell, and to my novice ears and nose there were no letdowns here either. The aroma was strong and spicy; attractive in a way that makes you want to actually eat the bar rather than keep sniffing it.* The audible thunk it gave when I broke off a piece was as rich and assured as that of a car door.**
And the taste was complex and interesting. With every chew came a different wave of flavours – dried fruits, coffee and liquorice, to name a few – all complemented by a wonderful melting texture, far superior to that of any other bar I’ve had.
The different flavours kept coming for several seconds after I’d swallowed. It wasn’t a Dom Pérignon-level epic finish, but impressive nonetheless for a bar of chocolate. I certainly didn’t expect it to linger so well.
Yet, for all the intriguing things going on with the El Pedregal as the taste continued to develop in my mouth, I found myself waiting for one crucial component that never arrived. The key element I needed before I could declare Valrhona chocolate a winner:
It’s difficult, but the best way I can think to describe it is to imagine you work in a highly specialised industry where it’s important to keep up to date with the latest trends. Something big happens, so you set aside some time and read all about it. It’s interesting in a professional sense – you lap it up because change is always exciting relative to the general mundanity of your job.
But outside of work you don’t read about it, you don’t talk about it, you carry on as if nothing has happened. And you do this because there’s no enjoyment to be had. Without the context of your employment, it’s too boring to mention.
And that’s just how the Valrhona El Pedregal 2011 Vintage was for me. It’s undoubtedly a very fine bar of chocolate and it was fun to try in the sense of ticking an item of my Foods To Try Before You Die list. But in the sense of everything else, it was really, really dull. If I didn’t know I was going to write about it, I’d probably have forgotten the details along with those of the lesser Valrhona bars.
It’s sad but I think that’s probably it now for me and straight chocolate. I’m still open to ‘chocolates’ (as in ‘a box of’) but I definitely can’t imagine spending good money on a high-end bar again – Valrhona or otherwise. I just don’t seem to get them, and can’t seem to take any enjoyment from eating them, so what’s the point in buying them at all?
It’s possible I may come back to this in years’ time, as my palate develops and different flavours become more appealing to my tastebuds. But right now, you can forget about foods to try before I die – chocolate is a food I could quite happily never try again.
Verdict: No recommendation
NEXT UP: Victorian mince pie
*This is unlike a lot of brandies, and also Tic Tacs, where the aroma rather than the taste comes across as the main event.
**A slightly groan-inducing image, perhaps, but one that I can’t seem to shake. I find it amazing how much effort goes into ensuring a car door makes the right sort of sound when it closes. Left to their own devices, you’d get quite a tinny noise when slamming a metal door shut, which isn’t something people associate with safety and security. So they engineer the doors specially to make a more robust sound which people are more comfortable with.
I’m sure Valrhona don’t spend millions on this like the car industry does, but the sound the chocolate makes when it breaks is clearly an important consideration when they go through the tempering process.
“What is he doing?” the fat old lady probably thought as she past the scruffy bearded bloke for the third time. He’d been stood in the same spot in the confectionary aisle for well over ten minutes, forcing her to turn sideways and squeeze her ample frame through as she waddled around the shop filling her basket.
She wasn’t alone in noticing – or scowling at – the man, who kept picking things up, staring at them, then putting them back again. The Harvey Nichols staff were peering over too, undoubtedly trying to make sure that nothing fishy was going on, and wondering whether he was ever going to buy anything.
After a while one of them decided enough was enough; let’s see what this fella’s up to, said the steely look in her eye.
“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?”
“No, I’m fine thank you,” was the reply. “I’m just really struggling to make up my mind!”
Satisfied that he was neither loony nor thief, the assistant went back to her till and the scruff’s gaze returned to the rows and rows of Valrhona chocolate that had him so entranced.
It was another five minutes before a decision was made.
Founded in 1922 in a district to the south of Lyon, Valrhona’s generally considered to be one of the best chocolate manufacturers on the planet. Its products are used in some of the finest restaurants in the world to create some of the finest puddings in the world, including the legendary chocolate croustillant at Le Louis XV in Monaco.
Plenty of Michelin-starred places wield the Valrhona name as if it’s the ultimate in quality. Make a dessert using chocolate from another manufacturer and it will simply appear on the menu as a ‘chocolate dessert’; make it with Valrhona and all of a sudden it becomes a ‘Valrhona chocolate dessert’.
More than any other, it seems, Valrhona’s a brand that chefs are proud to show off.*
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the biggest chocolate fan, but given the widespread veneration for Valrhona, I couldn’t help but place it on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. Annoyingly, what I hadn’t really thought about until I stood there agonising over a shelf in Harvey Nichols was whether a standard chocolate bar could be a true representation of what’s so good about this company’s products.** And, if it could be, which one should I choose?
I eventually decided the best I could do was just buy a range of bars and rate the lot.
I’ve had a couple of underwhelming experiences as I’ve worked my way through The List over the last year or so, but the Guanaja, 70% really dropped the bar to a new low. It looked and smelled the part, even had a texture that wouldn’t be amiss in chocolate of real quality. But the flavour was virtually non-existent; in depth terms, flatter than a witch’s tit. All I could make out amid the dry, nothing taste of cardboard was a single bitter tone – cheap and unpleasant.
“Don’t worry, you’re not missing anything,” I told my dairy sensitive wife, who’d been very jealous about me conducting a taste test in which she couldn’t partake. “Fucking Bournville’s better than this.”
With a sense of dread starting to set in, I moved on to the Manjari, 64% – a significant improvement in the taste department, although still remarkably unimpressive. If it was Taste the Difference, you’d think Sainsbury’s had lowered their standards – that’s about the level we’re talking here.
Finally I turned to the Albinao, 85%, praying that it’d be the chocolate bar to make all that agonising worth it; to make the £12 or so I’d spent worth it. This was even better still – about as good as a bog standard bar from Green and Black’s.
Oh god what a waste of time. What a waste of money! How little I’m describing each bar is testament to their quality. They were just immensely bland and forgettable; overpriced and an embarrassment to the supposedly prestigious Valrhona name.
I started writing up a blog post to lament the experience; to express my disappointment at Valrhona’s rubbish offering. I got about half way through my vitriolic rant before deciding something wasn’t quite right.
I figured that even if chocolate bars aren’t their main strength, a company as well-regarded as Valrhona can’t be all crap. Perhaps I just got unlucky with the bars I chose? Maybe my palate just wasn’t in the mood that week?
After some thought, I decided I’d give Valrhona chocolate one last chance at redemption. I’d go back to Harvey Nichols, buy another bar and see if it couldn’t change my mind.
The El Pedregal 2011 Vintage, 64% was picked as the company’s final champion.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Click here to read Part 2 of this Valrhona chocolate post.
*I had to laugh when a few days after writing this paragraph I received the menu for a friend’s wedding which listed this as a dessert option:
Deluxe chocolate dessert with brownie, Valrhona chocolate mousse, vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate coated strawberry.
I picked a fresh berry pudding instead.
**I have very loose rules about trying to be fair which you can read in my FAQ.
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…