eating in: Choc till you drop

Few of us need any encouragement to indulge our love of chocolate but, for some unusual treats, you shouldn't miss the International Festival of Chocolate, writes Michael Bateman

IN RURAL Carmarthen, an hour and a half out of Swansea, is the country's only chocolate farm. The Welsh Chocolate Farm, as it styles itself. This summer no fewer than 90,000 people made a pilgrimage to this unlikely temple, an otherwise ordinary farm of some 140 acres. It boasts neither cacao plantations nor any living farm animals at all, but its owner, chocolatier Elizabeth Jones, can parade a feast of edible chocolate animals, pigs, lambs, horses, rabbits, cats, dogs and elephants in front of her visitors.

If you can't get to Wales to experience the phenomenon, there is a chance to see it in London next month when the farm will be represented at the second International Festival of Chocolate, held at the Royal Horticultural Hall in Victoria.

The main chocolate companies - Thorntons, Lindt, Neuhaus and Green & Black, the pioneers of organic chocolate, will of course be among the 40-odd exhibitors. But there are plently of less predictable stalls, including that of Picnic Fayre from Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk (of all places), who sell a searingly-hot chilli and chocolate spice paste devised by chef Steven Wheeler. To make it, bitter chocolate is combined with hot dried chillies, toasted nuts, fresh vanilla, garlic and a blend of many other spices. It is an essential ingredient for Mexican moles (chicken and turkey stews).

Another company, Choccywoccydoodah from Brighton, will be displaying fanciful chocolate cakes big enough to serve several hundred ("baroque Cherubic fantasies and decadent Gothic gargoyles"), and Patty Wood & Co are exhibiting their chocolate worms, maggots, spiders and Monty Python range which includes Lumberjack Fudge and Dead Parrots.

Even more off-the-wall has to be the stall of Youngs, the Wandsworth, South London, brewers, with their double chocolate stout, a combination of chocolate malt, real dark chocolate and a full-flavoured dark beer.

In this context the Welsh Chocolate Farm sounds positively normal, and indeed offers one of the widest selections of chocolates in the country. There are over 190 different handmade lines: truffles, fondant chocolates with citrus and strawberry flavours, milk chocolate bars, sugar-free chocolates, organic chocolates, as well as shameless tourist bric-a-brac such as moulded Welsh pointy hats.

Elizabeth Jones's decision to create a chocolate farm came about purely by chance. Ten years ago, when she and her husband Alan were working at Central Television in Birmingham, they felt a longing to find a country retreat. Elizabeth, who had taken a six-month course in chocolate-making in Belgium, was sure they could make a go of setting up a business, even if the site of their prospective new home was remote. Initially she would simply make chocolates. But then they realised that the very activity arouses interest and excitement (think of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and the idea of a chocolate farm was born.

Farm buildings were converted into factory premises and a tea room was built. At the height of the tourist season they have a team of 10 servicing the farm, mostly Welsh-speaking locals. They give classes in chocolate- making and invite children to join in. The annual list of visitors feeds an already large mail order database. "We specialise in satisfying individual requests. None of the big firms will do that."

The remote location hasn't proved a disadvantage. "The one snag is that a lot of people say it is difficult to find us. So I've had a special map made. In chocolate."

That the British are a nation of chocoholics has never been in doubt. We are, per capita, the world's major consumers (along with the Americans), but purists still argue that Cadbury's Dairy Milk is not real chocolate.

Real chocolate contains up to 70 per cent cocoa solids, and cocoa butter (the name given to the oil of the tropical cacao "bean"). Cocoa butter is unique in that its melting point is the same as our body temperature, which is why it remains firm until placed on the tongue, when it melts and delivers its exquisite palate of flavours.

In a milk chocolate bar, cheap vegetable oil is substituted for the cocoa butter and the main ingredients, milk powder and sugar, are simply flavoured with low-grade cocoa. The difference between a milk bar and gourmet chocolate is comparable to that between plonk and a vintage claret.

The International Festival addresses itself in the main part to Real Chocolate. Our leading chocolate truffle-maker, Sara Jayne-Stanes (who will be demonstrating her craft in the Festival kitchen) has just written an outstanding book, published this week, in which she spells out the difference between the popular milk chocolate bar and the delicious food of the gods (the Latin name of chocolate is Theobromus - literally "god of food').

To complete the history of chocolate she journeyed to Mexico to meet growers who were to be found in the heart of Chiapas, guerrilla country.

Her book is an invaluable bible of chocolate with its table of terms, tasting vocabulary, directory of chocolate sources and, above all, a workable collection of 150 tried and tested recipes for confectionery, cakes, biscuits, puddings, sauces, frostings and decorations (from which we choose these recipes). To obtain a copy at a special price, see below.

`Chocolate, The Definitive Guide' by Sara Jayne-Stanes (Grub Street pounds 20) is available to IoS readers for pounds 16.99 incl p&p from Grub Street, 0171 738 1008.

International Festival of Chocolate, Royal Horticultural Halls, Greycoat Street, London SW1, Friday 3 Dec to Sunday 5 Dec. Entry pounds 7.50 on the door, pounds 6.50 in advance. 24 Hour Ticket Hotline 0870 901 0020.

The Welsh Chocolate Farm, Llanboidy, Carmarthenshire, SA34 OEX is open from 9-5.30pm. Tel 01994 448768.

CHOCOLATE NEMESIS

This recipe is an adaptation of one of the River Cafe's most famous recipes. The River Cafe (for those who don't know) is one of London's most fabled eateries run by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. I tried the original at the restaurant and it is divine. It is very, very rich and all the better for it, deserving its reputation as one of the world's greatest chocolate puddings.

The River Cafe original uses a great deal of chocolate and the 30 cm/12 in cake tin in a bain marie takes up more than most normal domestic ovens can spare; it also serves about 20 people, so I have adjusted the recipe.

Serves about 10 people

6 whole eggs

300g/101/2 oz caster sugar

350g/12 oz bitter chocolate

225g/8 oz unsalted butter, softened

Preheat oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3. Line 20x5cm (8x2in) cake tin (not with a loose bottom) with greaseproof paper, grease and flour it. Before you start make sure that you have a large roasting tin that will take the cake tin and enough water to reach the top of the sides. Boil the kettle.

Beat the eggs with a third of the sugar for at least six minutes, with an electric mixer until the volume quadruples.

Slowly melt the remaining sugar in a small pan with 115 ml (4 fl oz) water which will take a few minutes. Bring to the boil to about 121 degrees centigrade. This will give you a sugar syrup.

Put the chocolate and butter in a relatively large pan (large enough to hold all the recipe's ingredients which have to be mixed in at the next stage) and add the sugar syrup. Over a low heat melt all together and stir to thoroughly amalgamate. Leave to cool a little. Add the eggs to the chocolate and butter and beat gently until all combined, about 20 seconds no more.

Pour into the cake tin and place in hot bain marie; it is essential if the cake is to cook evenly, that the water in the bain marie (a large roasting tin) comes up to the rim of the tin. The safest way to do this is to place the filled cake tin in an empty roasting tin, set it on the oven shelf and then pour in the boiling water. Slide the roasting tin gently into place in the oven. Bake for 1-11/4 hours. Test with a skewer. It should still be creamy as the cake will continue to firm up and cook as it cools.

Allow to cool completely before turning out. Serve dusted with cocoa powder and a dollop of creme fraiche or just a simple almond biscuit.

Note: If you have problems with the bain marie you can try cooking without. The difference is that it will form a thin crunchy crust and cook firmly on the outside, will be soft towards the middle and the centre will be creamy - almost liquid. Delicious. My husband said that this was, at the time of testing, one of the best recipes so far - but then he thrives on richness at which others' knees would buckle.

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SARA JAYNE'S TRUFFE GATEAU

Once mastered, this is relatively simple and quick to make. However, you need a bit of practice and to follow a few basic rules (see below). Using smaller quantities doesn't really work but it keeps for at least seven days in the fridge (some people like it more "mature") and if you have any left over, it freezes like a dream. It can be served with all sorts of fruit, custards and ice creams. Serves about 15 people

450g/1lb dark chocolate, the better the quality the better the result

500ml/16 floz whipping cream, use at room temperature

3 tablespoons rum (optional)

icing sugar or cocoa powder or cinnamon to dust

Line a 25.5cm/10in flan ring or an oblong container measuring about 21x7.5x10cm (812x3x4in).

Melt the chocolate in a bain marie, making sure you don't let the water temperature rise above 20C. While you are waiting for the chocolate to melt, lightly whip the cream and rum (if using) in a large bowl. Stop when the whisk leaves a trail. Pour about half the chocolate into the cream and fold in. Then fold in the rest of the chocolate until completely amalgamated. Pour the mixture into the container, smoothing the top. Refrigerate for at least three hours, or longer for a really firm finish. Turn out and dust with cocoa powder or icing sugar or a touch of cinnamon (go easy on this or it will overpower. You can use a mixture of cinnamon and cocoa or icing sugar).

VITAL POINTS TO REMEMBER

The cream must be at room temperature. If it is too cold the the chocolate will set as soon as they make contact and the mixture will go grainy. If the cream is too hot it doesn't set properly.

The chocolate must be about 30C (within a margin of a degree or two). Again if it is too cold it won't amalgamate with the cream properly and if it is too hot, it won't set.

Do not overwhip the cream, however tempting this may seem. It does not make a good truffe. Conversely it does not work to under-whip either. The consistency is correct the moment the whisk leaves a soft trail.

TARTE AU CHOCOLAT AUX POIRES

Serves 8

For the pastry

170g/6oz plain flour

55g/2oz butter, finely diced

55g/2oz caster sugar

55g/2oz ground pistachios

1 egg, lightly beaten

For the chocolate cream filling

85g/3oz butter, softened

85g/3oz caster sugar

1 egg, lightly beaten

30g/1oz flour, sifted

85g/3oz dark chocolate, melted

2 large ripe pears, peeled and quartered, preferably Comice, but Williams or Conference will work well too.

To make the pastry: preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.

Place the flour and butter in a food processor and whizz until the mixture begins to resemble breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and nuts and whizz again briefly to incorporate. Add the egg and whizz again lightly until the mixture just comes together. (This can also be done by hand by rubbing in the butter first.) Form into a ball and leave to rest in the fridge for at least two hours or overnight.

Roll out the pastry to about 3mm/18in on a floured surface and line a 23cm/9in flan tin. Trim any excess pastry.

To make the chocolate and pear filling: whisk butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.

Beat in the egg, mix well, then add the flour, followed by the melted chocolate. Spread the mixture evenly in the pastry case. Cut the quartered pears lengthways into slices and arrange them in fans over the chocolate cream. Cook in the middle of the oven for 40-50 minutes until the centre is firm.

Serve with whipped cream. This is also good cold.

HOT FUDGE SAUCE

Fabulous with vanilla or white chocolate ice cream

Serves 4

115g/4oz bitter chocolate

115g/4oz oz butter

170g/6oz sugar

55ml/2fl oz water

1 tablespoon liquid glucose or golden syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence or the seeds from a whole vanilla pod

Combine all the ingredients (except the vanilla) in a heavy saucepan and over a low heat stir until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat and as son as the sauce begins to boil, lower the heat and continue to boil gently for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Keeps for several days in the fridge. Re-heat before use.

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