Tuesday, 28 October 2008

I should cocoa.... a workshop at Rococo

rococo bag

OK, OK, I hear you. I've been meaning to post about this since the day itself, but have been stupidly busy with work. Anyway, here - finally - goes... Oh, and sorry, but there are very few photos - simply didn't have the opportunity. Busy making chocolates, believe it or not.

First, the shop. What a beautiful place. Located on gorgeous Motcomb Street in poshest London (Belgravia, for the uninitiated), and opposite another fabulous foodie destination, Ottolenghi, Rococo is an oasis of all things chocolate and... well, Rococo. It was warm, inviting, visually appealing in every way, and wonderfully spacious. A real browser’s delight.

And it doesn’t just sell chocolates. It sells a range of teas, coffees, and hot chocolate (well, of course) – all with the option of truffles in accompaniment. Mmmmm.....

The workshop itself was divided in half: one half devoted to actually making the ganache, and the other half an introduction to chocolate and a tutored tasting by Chantal Coady, the woman who started Rococo back in the eighties, straight out of art school. Talk about having vision.

I opted to start in the group making the ganache – a fortunate decision, as it turned out, as we overran... So we got the benefit of even more time with the chocolatier, the lovely Laurent, than planned.

Not a moment of that time was wasted. Laurent was an excellent tutor – engaging, amusing, but absolutely dedicated to the process of making perfect chocolates. This wasn’t just a ‘play’ session – this was for real. Gulp.

We learnt about the chemistry of making the perfect ganache, and then learnt how to look for the signs of it all going right or wrong at every stage. And it requires a fine and experienced eye. The tiniest amount of graininess (imperceptible to all of us except for beady-eyed Laurent) to the chocolate/cream/butter mixture indicates trouble – with the patience of a saint on a very generous retainer, Laurent showed us how to use a hand blender and the microwave to rescue it.

Finally, after much beating and cajoling, the mixture turns from being slick and shiny to something more ‘fulsome’, for want of a better word, and with more of a sheen than a shine. And this is the perfect ganache – not a stodgy mix of the ingredients, like the truffles I’ve made before using a Nigel Slater ‘recipe’, but a smoother-than-smooth liquid emulsion. A perfect blend of fat and water. Genuine magic. Alchemy, even.

We each then poured our glossy ganaches into plastic cartons for chilling in the fridge (so that the ganache could firm up) before going back upstairs to the shop for the second part of the afternoon.

chocolate ganache

in that there container is a minor fortune's worth of ganache. The couverture alone that went into it was about seven quids' worth. And yes, I am going to eat it all. And no, I don't need any help.

Chantal gave us a fascinating talk and slide show of chocolate production using her slides taken at the Grenada Chocolate Company – in which Rococo has considerable investment. All an eye-opening experience for me, as a self-confessed novice in all things cocoa. I didn’t know, for example (the shame, the shame), that cocoa pods grew straight out of the tree branches/trunks. Or that the raw cocoa bean has a colour and texture much like lychee. Perhaps most amazing, though, was learning that the whole harvest-to-bar process at the GCC is undertaken by hand, with the help of a few tinpot (usually secondhand, from the US) machines. It really is a cottage enterprise, and it’s little wonder that Chantal is so passionate about it. It’s also no surprise that the resulting chocolate bars aren’t cheap at £4.95 a (100g) throw.

And then, the tasting. For Chantal, it’s all about ‘character’. Invariably, she said, she thinks of different types of bars as having their own distinct personality, and this is how she remembers them. The case in point here was Rococo’s Manjari bar, a feisty, lively ‘lady in red’ (her words, not mine) head-turning bar – the Penelope Cruz of chocolate bars. And so it was. We tried about 4 others in addition, including a typical English ‘gent’ bar (I wish I could remember which that was – her point was that it was quite traditional in taste, like a good claret, but without a particular punch or spiciness), as well as the GCC’s own bar – a delicious, very ‘pure’ tasting bar.

And then she proved to us that darker isn't always better – something that many people believe, apparently – by having us taste an 85% cocoa dark chocolate. Perhaps we would have believed anything she said, being in the presence of someone so knowledgeable and impressive, but I don’t think so. The chocolate lacked ‘roundness’: it was very blunt in its taste, and the taste didn’t really develop in the mouth on melting. At the same time, the texture was less smooth than others we tried, being almost muddy.

And finally, a shock. She gave us one more chocolate bar to taste, and asked us what we thought it tasted of. For me, it tasted just like a bar (the producer of which shall remain nameless) I'd tasted a couple of weeks ago or so – mouldy. And that’s what it was. Apparently, lesser producers are will use even mouldy cocoa beans in their production, and then hope to mask the taste with cranking up the proportion of other ingredients such as vanilla, or worse, vanillin. This tasting – and the one I did earlier - was proof that it’s a strategy that doesn’t work. One mouldy bean, said Chantal, wrecks the whole batch of chocolate, and should never be allowed to past muster. Evidently, not all chocolatiers are as scrupulous as she is.

The day finished with a go at making truffles from our ganache – by scooping them out with a melon baller (harder than it looks - the scooping is fine, but it's the getting them off the baller that's the tricky part) and then rolling them in cocoa or tiny flakes of chocolate.

my rococo truffles

my truffles. Which sadly didn't survive the journey home too well.

And our reward at the end of it all? A carton of our handmade ganache (80-100 truffles’ worth, according to Laurent) to take home, plus a glass of champagne and a tasting of our freshly rolled creations. A great way to finish the day. I couldn’t resist buying a GCC bar plus a Penelope Cruz bar to take home, too, as appropriate reminders of the experience.

rococo chocolate bars

the best chocolate bars in town

The whole event was more inspiring and interesting than I’d even imagined. I’m not sure what I expected, to be honest, but it was everything and more than I was after. I went in as a complete beginner, and emerged a chocophile with a modicum of knowledge. I definitely want to make my own chocolates now, and the sooner the better. And, of course, I certainly want to return to Rococo again. Very soon.

But now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off for a mouthful of Penelope Cruz...

Saturday, 18 October 2008

where I'm going today...

rococo letter

I think we're going to be too busy to take photos, but I promise I'll tell you all about it.

Oh, and for the avoidance of doubt, I didn't sign up for this course because of the champagne at the end. At all. Not me. Definitely not.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

things I saw in Cork...

Cafe Paradiso exterior

I think you've probably gathered by now that Cafe Paradiso featured largely

Cafe Paradiso orange tree

inside Cafe Paradiso... pretty, innit?

tripe and drisheen

heh. Not so pretty. Tripe, and drisheen - the eviller version of black pudding

buttered eggs

like it says - buttered eggs. Never seen these before. Apparently, they're eggs dipped in butter (no, really?) straight after they've been laid. They then keep for about 6 months, and give the eggs a rich, buttery taste. Sadly, I didn't get to try any. I'd be interested to know if this is just a Cork thing, or an Irish-wide thing - anyone?

crubeens and pigs head

corned crubeens. Cork-speak for trotters, obviously.


fabulous local oysters

samphire and fish

fabulous local samphire and fish....

O'Connell's fish stall

... all from O'Connell's huge fish stall in the covered market...

covered market view

... which looks like this.

mango and coconut cake at Joup

if you don't like fish, you can have cake. This was superb - moist and tangy and luscious. From the Joup stall, should you ever be wandering through

Fishy Fishy Cafe exterior

But back to the fish. Fishy Fishy Cafe, in nearby Kinsale.

al fresco dining Fishy Fishy Cafe

al fresco dining at Fishy Fishy. These guys are hard. It wasn't warm. It wasn't even sunny.

Fishy Fishy oysters

Fishy Fishy oysters. Cr*p photo due to low light. Sorry. But they were the best oysters I've ever eaten. And I've had a few. Oysters, that is.

Fishy Fishy clams

Fishy Fishy oh-s0-delicious clams in ginger, lemongrass, and chilli. Same excuse for poor photo.

Fishy Fishy pannacotta with plums

The Other Diner made it through to dessert. Not fish pannacotta, but vanilla pannacotta with plums.

victualler, Kinsale

I can't ever remember seeing a 'victualler's' shop before. Wonderful.

Kinsale cat

The hardest cat in Kinsale. Do not mess with him. He may only have one eye, but he's a born killer.

Kinsale cappuccino

in Kinsale, it was impossible to walk more than ten yards without coming across more yummy things. And eating/drinking them.* (*delete as appropriate)

Kinsale harbour

the views weren't bad, either...

Kinsale view

see what I mean?

Kinsale street

they don't worry about colour co-ordination in Kinsale. Strangely, though, it 'works'

Cork old and new

back in Cork. Old and new - St Finbar's cathedral behind the River Lee, and Jury's Hotel

University College Cork entrance

the entrance to University College, Cork. How pretty is that?

wedding University College Cork

a wedding in the grounds of University College

University College Cork grounds

serene statue in University College grounds.