FOOD & DRINK: A choice of indulgences

At Christmas, a box of chocolates is a near universal gift. Michael Bateman and his panel sank their teeth into a selection in pursuit of the season's best
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CHOOSING chocolates for presents this year offers a new challenge. It's no longer simply a choice between plain or fancy, cheap or expensive. There are much finer decisions to be made, because the new smart chocolates are far more demanding of the palate - not to mention the pocket. You nibble at them as you might sip, rather than glug, a fine wine.

So choosing the very best chocolates can be an agonising process. And, as our panel of tasters discovered, even the experts are by no means in harmony.

Harmony, now there's a word. Harmony is the current burning issue in the world of chocolate. To harmonise up, or to harmonise down, that is the European question. Chocolate is under scrutiny in Brussels, and they are telling the EC's chocolate manufacturers that for the sake of harmony they will permit an added five per cent vegetable fat in their definition of chocolate.

What does that mean? In Britain, not a lot. Our cheap and cheerful high- street chocolate bars are a mixture of sugar, vege-table fat, milk powder and inferior cocoa solids. We like it that way, or we certainly like the price - for we are the biggest chocolate consumers per capita after Switzerland and Belgium.

The French, with a low consumption of chocolate, are purists. Their conception of chocolate is of a premium-priced product using a high proportion of cocoa-bean solids with their own fat, cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is a remarkable substance because it melts at just below the temperature of the mouth; thus it delivers melt-in-the mouth flavours to devastating effect. Chocolates made with vegetable fats such as coconut oil stick to the roof of the mouth; such fats are used to bring down the price, since cocoa butter is expensive. Indeed, it is a prized ingredient in the cosmetics industry, where it is used to make lipstick.

The argument goes that premium chocolate manufacturers using the more expensive ingredients will be disadvantaged by those bulking their product with vegetable oils. This is not a simple issue, and was the talking point in the Italian town of Perugia last month, at an international chocolate conference for professional and amateur chocoholics alike.

Chocoholics come in many guises. In France there is Le Club des Croqueurs de Chocolate, an imperious and exclusive body of 150. Purists to a man (and the odd woman), they have never tasted white chocolate, for they believe it is a contradiction in terms. Nor do they have an opinion on Mars bars, Hershey bars or Cadbury's Dairy Milk, for the same reason.

Italian chocoholics are even more exclusive. The Confratelli del Cioccolato, in Milan, admits no more than 15 members, including princesses but no plebians. The president's dog, a chocolate mongrel called Cacao, throws up if offered a French chocolate. By contrast, a small Welsh Club, Chocoholics Unanimous, admits anyone.

The most thriving club is also in Britain. The Chocolate Society, founded four years ago, boasts 4,000 members and is growing all the time. Co-founder Chantal Coady, who runs her own Chelsea chocolaterie, Rococo, was an acclaimed delegate in Italy, having just published the first directory of exclusive smart chocolates, The Chocolate Companion (Apple Press pounds 15).

The EC directive on vegetable fat isn't welcome, she feels, but it may help polarise people's perceptions of chocolate at a time when consumers are beginning to grasp the complex issues which define a good product. The public has a growing conviction that the quality of chocolate can be gauged by the percentage of cocoa solids used. Twenty per cent (the level of a high-street milk chocolate bar) would be considered poor, 50- 60 per cent good, anything above very good.

This is partly true, says Ms Coady, but a bit like saying that a curry is better the hotter it is. When the percentage of cocoa solids goes above 80 per cent, it loses all palatability. "There's one chocolate bar in France with 99 per cent cocoa solids. It tastes acrid, nothing like chocolate." The secret of a good chocolate is balancing cocoa's bitterness with the sweetness of sugar.

At the conference, held in the lovely 18th-century Teatro de Pavone, delegates argued that the consumer needs to be aware that the quality of chocolate depends not on the percentage of cocoa solids, nor even the addition of extra vegetable fat, but on the quality of the cocoa beans and the processed raw chocolate. How many people realise that cocoa beans vary in quality and that the beans from the criollo tree are delicate compared to the crude-flavoured forastero which provides the bulk of the world's chocolate? France's most upmarket producer, Valrhona (so named because it's in the valley of the Rhone), assesses the beans as a winemaker quantifies grapes. Their delegate, Philippe Cornu, explained how they divide beans into grand crus, equal to a single vintage, or cuvees (blends of selected beans.)

But the chocolate world is a broad church, and there's no reason to bend to purists if you hate their favourites. If you go back to its beginnings, cocoa wasn't a particularly lovely product when the Mayans harvested it in the forests of South America. But its alleged properties as a stimulant and aphrodisiac gave it great importance to the Aztecs in Mexico. When the Spanish invader Cortes arrived seeking gold in the 16th-century, he found the emperor Montezuma II drinking endless bowls of chocolatl (bitter water). It was by all accounts a fearful drink, spiced with herbs and chilli. (To this day, Mexicans use a pounded "mole" of powdered chocolate, chilli and herbs in their stews).

The Spaniards didn't find gold, but were astute enough to recognise cocoa as liquid gold and establish plantations around the Caribbean. In Spain they tempered its bitterness with vanilla, cinnamon and cloves.

It wasn't until the 19th century that cocoa's potential as a solid was seized upon. Here in Britain, Quaker confectioners (the Fry, Rowntree and Terry families) promoted it as a healthy alternative to the dreaded "mother's, ruin", Dutch gin, which was wrecking family life.

The British notion of good chocolate was adjusted in the immediate post- war years, when a small number of European chocolatiers started hand-made chocolate businesses in and around London, producing small quantities. Some would surface at Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges. It is only comparatively recently, though, that the big supermarkets have entered the high-priced end of the market, signifying the relentless rise of Belgian- made chocolates.

Well, how do they all shape up? We arranged a tasting of chocolates devised for the Christmas rush - a box of chocolates being probably the most universal Christmas present of all. Our high-powered panel of tasters included the chocolate buyers from the big houses, Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Harvey Nichols (respectively Alexander Evans, Jennifer Cork and Peter Irvine); three chocolatiers - Michael Walters, head of Dorchester (Dorset) Chocolates, Gerard Ronay and Chantal Coady; and two comparative innocents, myself and Ruth Metzstein from the Independent on Sunday. Absent, though invited, were the buyers from Selfridges and Marks & Spencer. M&S's chocolates failed to turn up in time for the tasting. The panel did not have the opportunity either to taste Fauchon's chocolates, which are among the best in France, but they are now available in Selfridges and from certain stockists in this country - for details ring 0181-795 0278.

(I later tried Marks & Spencer's new ranges, pioneered by chocolate buyer Pippa Kirkbride. They represent a marked change of direction from M&S's former rich, oversweet offerings to a lighter style. It would have been interesting to hear our tasting panel's comments on the new Italian and French "collections". While M&S Swiss chocolates are made in Switzerland and their Belgian ones in Belgium, their French and Italian chocs are inventions of their own. )

Back to our tasting panel, where more than 30 selections were sampled, plate by plate. What a wondrous anthology of chocolate-robed violet and rose-scented fondants, flavoured creams spiked with liqueurs, pralines and croquants (crunchy nut mixtures), marzipan pastes, truffles, nougats, caramel, butterscotch and fudge.

Initial impressions suggested that the chocolates fell into four categories: 1) Upmarket, pure but bitter, pricey delicacies for the purists; 2) Unctuous but rich, slightly sickly Belgian chocolates; 3) Traditional British selections with highly-scented violet and rose fondants, and caramel and coffee; 4) Pop chocs with a certain amount of style, such as Black Magic Premiere. A fifth category may be the new M&S range which, if we had all tasted them, would surely have provoked animated discussion.

Discounting marks awarded to their own products (and some tasters apparently didn't recognise their own), the pure chocolates came top by a long way. Here are some comments on Valrhona, the outright winner: "Looks, smells, tastes good" (Jennifer Cork). "Extremely high quality, rare beans" (Chantal Coady). "Sophisticated, smooth, clean" (Gerard Ronay). "Subtle" (Ruth Metzstein). "Stylish, clean, elegant" (Me).

Tasting chocolate is of course a subjective matter - but for what it's worth, the box on page 60 displays our results. Another panel might well think otherwise. !

A DOZEN OF THE BEST CHOCOLATES

1 Valrhona, pounds 16 per lb

2 Chocolate Society, pounds 12.50 per lb

2 Rococo, pounds 4.40 per 100g

2 Sara Jayne, pounds 17 per lb plus pounds 4 p&p (517 Old York Road, London SW18 1TF)

5 Thornton's, pounds 9.99 for a 290g box

6 Charbonnel & Walker, pounds 16.60 per lb

7 Neuhaus Belgian, pounds 16 per lb

8 Black Magic Premiere, pounds 3.79 for a 220g box

8 Cavendish, pounds 16.50 per lb

8 Dorchester, pounds 7.20 per lb

11 Fortnum & Mason, Belgian selection, pounds 26.95 per 600g

11 Godiva, pounds 16 per lb

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