On a cold, dark winter afternoon you press your nose against the window, steam up the glass with warm breath and look longingly at cabinets of glossy, ebony squares and spheres arranged like precious jewels waiting to be packed into a handsome box lined with rustling paper. It's a wonderful life when you don't have to imagine chocolate shops like this, but discover that they really exist.
France, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland have a fine tradition of artisan chocolate making. But though we eat on average almost twice as much chocolate as the Belgians, there's nothing artful about our chocolate - it's mostly fat and sugar. Now, at last, we're getting the message that chocolate means more than a gigantic factory like Willy Wonka's - thanks to a new generation of home-grown chocolatiers.
Our chocolate-makers are challenging our perceptions. Forget violet and rose creams, bring on the Szechuan pepper, Stilton and port, basil and strawberry with balsamic vinegar. These are delicacies devised by chefs who've researched the cocoa credentials and understand how unlikely sounding flavours enhance each other. And with more talented chocolatiers selling couture chocolate, their art has never been so accessible.
First, they start with the best chocolate, named according to its equatorial origins. There are two types of cocoa: the more robust and higher-yielding forastero, used mainly for mass-produced chocolate, and the rarer, more delicate and floral-tasting criollo bean. As interest in fine chocolate grows, criollo is being replanted in Venezuela. Trinitario is a cross between these two cocoa beans. And as sales of dark chocolate soar, we're getting more clued-up about different types of beans.
How and where the beans are grown, fermented, roasted and processed to turn them into chocolate - it's all critical. Fine chocolate has a minimum cocoa content of 60 per cent for dark and 30 per cent for milk, contains sugar and cocoa butter and no other fats, flavourings, colourings or preservatives. Bean quality is even more important than the cocoa content. Chocolatiers buy "couverture" chocolate to work with; the most demanding may choose single origin - such as Valrhona's 70 per cent cocoa content Guanaja blend of criollo and trinitario beans from the Caribbean - so their truffles or chocolates taste exactly right. After all, cocoa beans have more than 400 aromas and 300 different flavours.
Last year some of these connoisseurs set up the Academy of Chocolate to spread the word. Members, including the pioneer Chantal Coady of Rococo, want to recognise what's best with its World Chocolate Awards and ensure the cocoa is produced in an environmentally responsible way.
Not that real chocolate lovers need persuading. But the less that's added to the cocoa the healthier it is, too. Real chocolate is low in sugar, the phenylethylamine it contains is a natural antidepressant, and it's rich in flavanols and antioxidants. New research suggests that eating dark chocolate may even protect against heart attacks. Good enough reasons for buying voluptuous and beautiful hand-made chocolates? I should cocoa. See www.academyofchocolate.org.uk
I'm sipping an unctuous rich hot chocolate unlike any milky drink I've ever had before to a Frank Sinatra soundtrack. But it's not just the music that sets the tone at William Curley patisserie and chocolatier off Richmond Green. With its cabinets of chocolates, opera cakes, millefeuilles, it's a shop so chic you want to dress like Audrey Hepburn to do it justice.
The Academy of Chocolate's best British chocolatier is a poster boy for the growing number of pâtissiers-turned-chocolatiers. With two Christmases behind him, he was one of the first to set up on his own. As head pastry chef at the Savoy, after working for Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffman and Raymond Blanc, William oversaw 21 chefs. Now it's just him, his Japanese wife Suzue - "you see her touch all over the place" - and two others keeping the clients happy.
He planned the shop as a patisserie. But the chocolate is taking over and Curley wants us to appreciate it the way they do in France. "The culture of giving chocolates as gifts is one good thing in the UK. Otherwise our attitude to chocolate is under-developed." He sees signs of hope. "There is a food revolution going on, and people are learning what makes chocolate special."
He works with chocolate from two of the world's best suppliers, Valrhona from France and Amadei from Italy. Valrhona's chocolate includes Guanaja, Manjari and Caraïbe, each a different blend of beans from countries including Venezuela, Madagascar and the Caribbean. William's favourite is the 64 per cent Manjari from Madagascar. "It's the way the beans are fermented to give it a long flavour with a bit of acidity and zing." Another favourite is Chuao from an island between Trinidad and Tobago with which he makes his favourite, filled with a ganache of Chuao and covered in a thin layer of the same chocolate. The percentage of cocoa solids is not the be all and end all. "Some 70 per cent is grim," he says.
The skill lies in using fine ingredients to best effect, tempering to give that smooth texture, crispness and beautiful gloss that characterise well-made chocolate. "You don't have to be a scientist to create a beautiful chocolate. Just use good ingredients. But I've developed a trick for emulsifying to make them really smooth. Enrobing is a skill - it's important the coating is thin." Then it's about the fillings. His admiration for the Japanese art of patisserie and Suzue's influence is obvious. Among his 14 couture chocolates and seven truffles, are green tea and yuzi - a Japanese citrus fruit his mother-in-law sends over - plus mint and coffee.
Quite a number of customers are Japanese, but they're not the only ones after green tea chocolates. "People buy them because they think it's going to be good for them. We're doing red wine chocolates for the same reason." Never mind the health benefits of red wine. Any chocolate that tastes this pure has to be life-enhancing.
William Curley Pâtissier Chocolatier, 10 Paved Court, Richmond upon Thames, Surrey; 020-8332 3002, www.williamcurley.com
In the converted garage of an ordinary home in a respectable suburb of Belfast, a mother of two is living out many a woman's fantasy. So strong was the grip in which her passion held her that Paula Clamp, a best-selling author of romantic fiction, became determined to turn it into reality. After travelling as far as Venezuela and studying with masters of the art that obsessed her, she was ready to devote her life to it.
This Christmas, Koka Contemporary Irish chocolates, handmade by Paula, go on sale in all nine Sainsbury's branches in Northern Ireland. Made with single origin chocolate from São Tomé, Papua New Guinea and Venezuela, her three themed boxes of truffles are filled with Irish cream and butter and distinctive Irish flavours. Her Black Velvet box pairs dark Irish stout truffles with white chocolate champagne ones. In the Angel's Share box there are three whiskey-centred chocolates: a lemon and honey syllabub in white chocolate, a whiskey toddy in dark, and whiskey mac in milk chocolate. Murphy's Law includes Irish heather honey and chilli, strawberry and balsamic, and Irish cream and Bourbon vanilla-filled dark, milk and white chocolate truffles. Now Paula's eyeing up other Irish ingredients for chocolates as well as truffles. She's almost there with Irish Sea-salted caramel, and has been experimenting with carrageenan moss and Irish seaweed. "I want to use local ingredients and would like to help develop pride in the food of Northern Ireland."
Paula's conversion to artisan food production began because she's always eaten chocolate as she writes. Graduating to the purer, more cocoa-rich chocolate - "so good you only need a couple of pieces to be satisfied" - her desire for better quality chocolate grew and grew.
First attempts at making cardamom-flavoured coasters were "horrendous". Success with Irish stout-flavoured truffles set her off in the right direction - to the Bukaie plantation in Venezuela where the prized criollo beans are grown. She discovered the savoury side of chocolate, and learned to enjoy the taste of langoustines cooked in it. After some training in chocolate making, she began practising in earnest, turned the garage into a chocolate room, and as soon as her youngest child started school, she went into production. There's nothing romantic about it - "not when you have chocolate under your fingernails. It's hard graft, and it has taken a lot of mistakes to get what we want."
But she must be getting it right. Sainsbury's has snaffled more or less all the truffles she can make. And having put on a stone since she started making them, she has had to cut down on chocolates. "Though do you know what I still love?" she says with a heartfelt sigh. "A Toffee Crisp."
Koka Contemporary Irish Chocolatiers (028-9085 1623). Available from all Sainsbury's in Northern Ireland
Paul Young's chocolates are works of art, and when Alexander McQueen came into his shop, he recognised a fellow couturier. Let nobody confuse Paul with a common or garden confectioner - and if they do, he'll put them right in no uncertain terms. "I'm not rude, I'm passionate," he insists. "I'm actually placid for a chef." Wearing surgical gloves and with the deftness of a croupier, he re-establishes a pattern to the rows of chocolates on the cool slate. Just don't ever expect to find rose or violet creams at Paul A Young, the Academy of Chocolate's best new chocolate shop. "They're very old-fashioned. We want to be different," says the chef, pâtissier and chocolatier. And he is. Different and brilliant. No wonder he's been called the Heston Blumenthal of chocolate.
Autumnal spiced pumpkin has ceded its place to Stilton and port, toasted cumin has been perfected and joins the arrangement of bite-sized beauties. A mulled wine chocolate lines up with the dark truffles that he's brought back from summer retirement. There's a fragrant mandarin bar with nutmeg and cinnamon, and a gold, frankincense and myrrh bar for Christmas, too.
Don't look for more than one milk chocolate either, or much in the way of white. For Paul refuses to pander to those seeking sweet thrills. At this level chocolate has little to do with sugar, so it's not so strange that he doesn't seem to have a sweet tooth. "I used to salt my desserts when I worked for Marco Pierre White."
Hence his chocolate with an oddly compelling Marmite filling. "It challenges people. Now we sell loads of it, not because it's a gimmick but because it's not too sweet."
Belgian chocolate is another taboo. "Everyone thinks it's the best but it's sugary and fatty," he sniffs. "French and Italian is cocoa-rich, intense and strong," and that's how he likes it. Starting with the finest, from Valrhona and Amadei, not only is the chocolate - be it 72 per cent Araguani, 64 per cent Manjari from Madagascar or 70 per cent Chuao - chosen according to which best matches the filling, he believes that the shape, thickness of the coating and texture should vary from flavour to flavour. His Marmite chocolate is a ganache of chocolate and Marmite coated in 70 per cent Guanaja, a robustly flavoured chocolate.
Sea-salted caramel is moulded in the darkest, glossiest 64 per cent Manjari, the Stilton is a sphere of 72 per cent Araguani hand-rolled and dusted in cocoa powder.
The not-remotely sickly smell of real chocolate infuses the boutique above the basement where he makes chocolates every day. On his "creating table" there is a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, Marmite, smoked paprika, and Chambord liqueurs and spices. But no coffee. "I won't do coffee creams. Honestly, I think the flavours clash." Mind you, he concedes, "I would like to experiment with different coffee beans and roasts. And coffee and aniseed and coffee and passionfruit work really well together..."
Paul A Young Fine Chocolates, 33 Camden Passage, London N1 (020-7424 5750, www.payoung.net)
The lights in the new shop at 9 Princes Avenue will still be burning at 10pm pretty well every evening for the next month. If he hasn't pulled down the blinds, Jon Collins can be seen at work in the corner behind the counter, handmaking chocolates the likes of which Hull has never seen before.
He opened Thomas Francis, in a 100-year-old former confectionery shop, only five months ago, and for his first Christmas as a chocolatier back in his home town, Jon is single-handedly making the thousands of chocolates his customers keep coming back for. There are countless chilli and coconut centres to enrobe in dark Tanzanian chocolate and finish with a dried chilli flake; there are strips of candied orange and lemon peel and organic apricots to dip in chocolate; there are pink grapefruit and poppy seed centres to swathe in white chocolate, and sumptuous slabs of dark, milk or white chocolate to be studded with cranberries or scattered with chilli flakes before being broken up into bite-size shards and packed in little bags. The way things are going, "I'll have to get some Oompa-Loompas help me out in the next few weeks," he jokes, referring to Willy Wonka's work force in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Every one of the 2,000 chocolates he makes a day is dipped, rolled and enrobed by hand, sometimes twice, "so you can really bite in and get a clean crack against the smooth filling." He makes his chocolates with nothing but cream, chocolate, glucose and the flavours of peppermint oil, rose petals, fruit (strawberry, blackcurrant and cherries), beans (coffee and tonka) and alcohol - armagnac or single malt whisky.
The chef-turned-chocolatier, who wanted more control over his output after running kitchens where "it's frustrating that you can't do everything at once", started making chocolates for friends, was encouraged by his chocaholic girlfriend Emma, and learnt the ropes on a professional chocolate- making course at Slattery's patisserie in Manchester. The rest he taught himself, and he's still learning. So are his growing number of regular customers, who he is encouraging to move towards the dark side. He wants them to appreciate the layers of flavour, discover the different cocoa beans and learn about where they're grown. There was a satisfying run on the 85 per cent Valrhona bars, and he's thrilled that chilli and coconut is his best-seller as well as the fact that so many people will try peppermint-filled dark chocolates and salted caramel and come back for more of his unusual flavours.
Thomas Francis, named after his brother and sister's middle names ("because it sounds posher than Jon Collins") is doing its bit to change the way we buy chocolate. Jon Collins has a vision: that one day soon every town will have a handmade luxury chocolate shop like his.
Thomas Francis Chocolatier, 9 Princes Avenue, Hull (07818 007588)
Brighton, a city that knows how to show you a good time, is chock full of chocolate shops. But you won't find Anthony Heurtier's chocolates in any of them. Only Infinity Foods, the famous wholefood store, sells his Chocolate Empire boxes, not just because they come with the Soil Association's assurance that they're organic, but because they are handsome, handmade locally, and the fresh, natural fillings are a knock-out.
Now, for his second Christmas, more connoisseurs have picked up on the artisan chocolatier. Heurtier works flat-out underneath a computer shop on the less glamorous back side of Brighton station to supply shops as far afield as the Welsh borders and Edinburgh.
Janette Rowlatt of the Chocolate Gourmet shops in Shropshire (which specialises in truffles) was so impressed she signed him up to supply her with loose truffles and chocolates. "They're very, very good and not too big. The basil and fresh garden mint are wonderful and the mixed spice has all the flavours of Christmas," she says.
Anthony trained as a baker and pâtissier in France, where chocolate-making is part and parcel of the profession. Seven years ago he came to Brighton from Brittany. He liked it, stayed and worked for a cake-maker until last year, when he branched out to do what he loved best - making croquembouche wedding cakes and chocolates. Between now and 20 December, he reckons he'll be making 10,000 chocolates a week.
He uses single-origin organic chocolate from the Dominican Republic, a blend of the criollo, trinitario and forastero cocoa beans, which he fills with organic cream infused with fresh herbs and spices. He says simply, "I do what I feel like and people seem to like it too."
Few others handmake organic chocolates, and not in flavours like orange zest and honey, cinnamon or hazelnut praline with nutmeg. Basil, his least conventional flavour, is such a good seller he makes boxes full of the dark batons with their powerfully fragrant filling.
With a son and fiancée (who is a social worker) both over here, he says, "I feel very happy in England. At home I like to make a nice big roast, crumbles and mince pie. Since I've been here my tastes have changed. But I haven't learnt to like English chocolate. That's why I'm doing my own."
Stockists: Infinity Foods, Brighton (01273 603563, www.infinityfoods.co.uk); Middle Farm shop, Firle, East Sussex (01323 811411, www.middlefarm.com); The Chocolate Gourmet, Ludlow (01584 79332, www.chocolategourmet.co.uk); The Store, 13 Comley Bank Road, Edinburgh (0131-315 0030, www.thestorecompany.co.uk)Reuse content