An oeuf is an oeuf - or is it? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Bateman gleans a few tips from Britain's perfectionist patisserie chefs
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The Independent Culture
MY FIRST chocolate class goes with a bang. With a loud bang, actually, and a puff of smoke. Mr John Huber, Professor of Gastronomy and Patisserie, is demonstrating new techniques in making chocolate. The bang is provided by a piece of equipment not in every chocolatier's armoury - a Bosch PHG 490 paint stripper.

More chocolates are sold at Easter than at any other time of the year (Christmas included) and shops are bracing themselves for a rush on Cadbury's Creme Eggs at 32p each (Cadbury's sold pounds 50m worth last Easter, a third of their total Easter chocolate sales). At the top end of the market there are self-indulgent specialities ranging from Selfridges Champagne Truffle Egg (pounds 18.99) to a luxury egg with chocolates in it from Rococo in London's King's Road at pounds 90.

Time was when children were content to run around the garden seeking out hidden hard-boiled eggs, patiently dyed by their parents with green spinach juice, yellowbroom flowers, brown onion skins. Now it's not just the children who must be given eggs, but boyfriends and girlfriends must splash out. Might it be cheaper, more fun, even a splendid gesture, to make your own? But how? And who can show me?

Chocolate-making is a craft not much practised by the British. Most of our chocolate-makers are from the Continent. An important exception is William Pain, who started making chocolates for Fortnum and Mason in the 1920s and still, in his nineties, makes their rose and violet fondants from his small factory in Hove, Sussex. Our most praised chocolatier, Gerard Ronay, trained in Paris (a painful apprenticeship; "They kept all their secrets from me").

If anyone has learnt chocolate-making in the UK then it is a pretty sure bet that they will have acquired some of their skills from Mr Huber (a case in point is Sara Jayne-Stanes, famous for her Venus Nipples).

So this is why I have made my way to Slough, site of the catering department of Thames Valley University, to meet the master of the genre. I'm gazing through the haze of smoke at a small, white-haired Swiss Professor, asking if he's all right. Yes, fine, it's just that the wires on the cable have touched together to spark off this dramatic pyrotechnic effect.

John Huber is 63, one of the old school - and the Swiss old school is a very correct old school indeed. You need good educational qualifications to start a diploma course in patisserie in Switzerland, and you need some considerable skill to pass the third-year diploma exams.

The course includes instruction in accountancy and business, and nobody can open a patisserie in Switzerland without a diploma. No such demands are made of students here, says Mr Huber. Indeed, our educational expectations are the least demanding in Europe; we are the only country in which students are not required to take a practical test. To show if they know how to make pastries, confections and chocolates, they simply fill in multiple- choice papers, ticking appropriate boxes.

This isn't the case at Slough, Huber hastens to explain, where he can use their university

status to ensure the highest qualifications (a BSc in Chocolate Blow- drying, for example?).

So, to the lesson. What else do you need to make chocolate? (The paint stripper is used to warm up bowls of chocolate which cool too quickly). The most astounding tool turns out to be an industrial paint gun powered by a 2ft-high Kestrel Delta compressor. This he uses to create a matt finish on his set-piece chocolate sculptures. Mr. Huber is the only teacher in the country who has introduced this unusual technique, one invented by a Senor Escriban in Barcelona 40 years ago.

The more traditional tools of the chocolatier's trade are plastic bowls, spatulas, polycarbonate moulds, piping bags, a scalpel (more precise than a sharp knife) and a digital thermometer. Temperature is the key to this craft.

Chocolate-making isn't cooking (Mr Huber didn't see a kitchen in the first three years of his diploma course in Switzerland, he says). While many educated home cooks in France, Switzerland and Austria, for example, can turn their hand to making fanciful chocolate confections, in Britain it's rare to see these skills outside hotels, says Mr Huber. This is for the very good reason that we don't have easy access to the appropriate raw material: chocolate.

Chocolate, yes. British and Continental definitions of chocolate are so very different. In Britain, to our credit, we pioneered cheap chocolate in the 19th century and gave it to the people (thanks to the reforming Quaker families, the Rowntrees, the Frys and the Cadburys). But in truth, says Mr Huber, what we call chocolate in the UK is a substance made from sugar, fractionised vegetable fat, and some chocolate flavouring.

Most of the baking chocolate sold here is nothing more than this, known as chocolate coating. "It's easy to use," says Mr Huber. "Melt it at 45C, use it at 35-40C. It will set into a mould. But it doesn't last long and will collapse. It has no heart, no snap. The taste is dreadful. You can't compare it with real chocolate."

Then, on the professional bakery market there is product called American compound, a more substantial moulding chocolate with 28 per cent cocoa solids. "It is harder, but it tastes bitter." And finally, there is real chocolate, called Couverture, which Mr Huber is going to demonstrate. It contains from 45-72 per cent cocoa solids, including fat, so-called cocoa butter. This fat is actually unstable, containing many different crystal structures, so a certain amount of expertise is required to bring it under control. This is known as tempering.

Mr Huber takes a plastic bowl of chocolate from a heated cabinet where he keeps chocolate melted at around 50C. If the crystal structure of cocoa butter is complex, his method of dealing with it is not. He pours two- thirds from the bowl on to a marble slab, and works it with a palette knife till it cools to a smooth paste (at about 24-25C, when the crystal structure is established). He returns it to the rest of the chocolate, stirring evenly for two minutes.

Another way of establishing the fat structure is to add grated dry chocolate (a third of the volume)to the hot liquid chocolate, thus "seeding" it with established crystals.

The vocabulary is unfamiliar, but the process is very simple, as Mr Huber shows. Great care must be taken while heating chocolate, he adds. To warm the chocolate in a bain-marie (or a basin over hot water) is OK if you don't let the water boil, thus raising the temperature rapidly above 55C. This is the point above which some of the chocolate hardens, never to melt again.

Mr Huber will sometimes use a microwave to heat the chocolate, though being careful to give it only short blasts of 10-15 seconds, checking the temperature between each blast.

So there are three key temperatures. Melt the chocolate to 45-50C. Cool some to 24-26C to temper it. Warm it through to 32C to work with it, pour it into moulds and so on.

Evidently a thermometer is essential, though Mr Huber confesses chocolatiers hardly use them. Real chocolate melts at body temperature, 36C. So until the EC sent in its inspectors, chocolatiers tested if chocolate was above or below 36C by dabbing some against the underside of their lower lip. Is it cool? It's below 36C. Is it warm? It's above 36C. "There are other parts of the anatomy you could use," says Mr Huber, thoughtfully, "but not as convenient."

Chocolate starts to cool while you're working with it so, at home (if you don't want to fiddle about with microwaves or paint stripper), sit your bowl of melted chocolate in a larger one (or a box) lined with crumpled newspaper for insulation. This will keep it at working temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.

If the idea of playing with chocolate appeals, you can buy bunny, chicken and egg moulds at sugarcraft sections in supermarkets. The professional, though, uses polycarbon moulds.

You can only work with real chocolate. The top brands are Cacao Barry and Valrhona, and are mostly sold to confectioners and caterers in bulk (25-50kg). But it's just becoming possible to order it by the kilo from certain outlets. The Chocolate Society (01423 322 230) sells it by mail order for pounds l4-pounds 18 a kilo. Another leading supplier is Rococo at 321 Kings Road, Chelsea, London SW3 (0171 352 5857).

Real chocolate isn't cheap, but a little goes a long way. Soon you'll be buying books on making chocolate truffles (chocolate and butter) and ganaches (chocolate and cream) to give away as presents. The Roux brothers' book Patisserie (Little Brown pounds 18.99) is some help, at no more cost than a kilo of chocolate. A chocolate-maker's mail order catalogue is available from Continental Chef Supplies (0191 526 4107). And by the way, is a 30g/1oz Chocolate Creme Egg so very cheap at 32p? That's about pounds 10 for a kilo of sugar, vegetable oil, and flavouring. The Professor rests his case. !