You should cocoa

Easter eggs must be treated as suspect packages, says the Chocolate Society. Jane Furnival offers a purist's guide
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Before your children tuck into their Easter eggs this Sunday, read the labels. If an egg contains less than 35 per cent cocoa solids, throw it away.

That's the advice of chocolate crusader Chantal Coady. The 37-year-old founder of the Chocolate Society thinks we should stop Easter becoming a frenzied chocolate-feeding festival, and eat eggs in a more continental mould.

"It's a bit like the Campaign for Real Ale," she says. "In France, a child is given one exquisite thing made from fantastic chocolate. In England, they get half a dozen eggs, all junk."

She should cocoa. Yesterday in her Chelsea shop, Rococo Chocolates, people were fighting to buy this year's Easter special, mint-flavoured chocolate lambs. Spilling out over the counter were huge bags of eggs from reed warblers, thrushes, robins and great creste grebes.

In Chantal's opinion, and that of a growing band of chocolate purists, you should treat an Easter egg as a suspect package if you see that it contains "saturated or hydrogenated vegetable fat". Most British chocolate does, and it's the reason for the EC attempt to ban our bars, or rename them "vegolate".

"Vegetable fat is a thorn in the side of European chocolate-makers," says Chantal. "The only fat in chocolate should be cocoa butter, a natural product that is extremely good for you. Chemically, it's similar to olive oil and reduces blood cholesterol levels. But it's expensive."

Eventually, Brussels relented. But not out of respect for our traditional British freedom to eat rubbish if we feel like it. The decision hinged on commercial concern for vegetable oil farmers, who would go broke if the law was passed.

So what is the best chocolate? Chantal rates Valrhona French chocolate. Lindt, sometimes. Gerard Ronay (whose hand-doodled eggs filled with red wine truffles cost more than pounds 10 in her shop). Ackermans. Bendicks. And an olde worlde chocolate maker called William Payne, who runs Audreys of Hove and makes chocolate for Fortnum & Masons. "He dips by hand and uses ancient recipes in the violet cream mould, but extremely well."

What? Cream-centred chocs? With their overtones of Milk Tray, I'd expect them to be considered sad, if not tragic, by couture chocolate-fanciers.

"We're very excited about flavoured chocolate, not chocolate-filled with flavoured cream. The cutting edge of French chocolatiers are doing that," she says.

Artisan bars are her private experimental range, made by two smiling white-hatted girls who look like assistants from Twenties Lyons corner houses and work in her tiny chocolate kitchen at home in Vauxhall. Here they toss surprisingly delicious pink peppercorns, lavender, mango and cardamom into various chocolate soups before pouring them into moulds. Their latest coup is chocolate flavoured with ... chocolate, in the form of tiny nut-like bits of raw cocoa. She is also experimenting with Aztec recipes, including chilli pepper.

She frowns on milk chocolate. "Milk masks cocoa. When people start drinking wine, they go for sweetness. But once they develop a palate, they wouldn't, except for a few dessert wines. We assume that children don't like dark chocolate. That's because our dark chocolate is horrible - poor quality cocoa beans roasted till they're burnt and bitter, so they go a long way."

Chocolate purists aren't addicts. They are monastic in their self-discipline. They never snack on chocolate but eat it after a meal. "If you're eating sugary chocolate on an empty stomach, you're more likely to suffer a rush of blood sugar and then feel that you need more," explains Chantal. "If you can get out of the chocolate bingeing cycle, one square of real chocolate will give you a real cocoa hit without the sugar, which I feel is the addictive element in chocolate."

Her views have aroused the less sweet-tempered side of the chocolate- making industry. The giant makers are notoriously sensitive to criticism. One critic went so far as to cite medical evidence from a professor to counter Chantal's argument. Chantal retaliated by finding her own medical research. "When I looked into it, this professor had first produced a research paper critical of sugar, and then been bought out by the sugar industry. He thought I wouldn't do any research!"

How should you eat chocolate? Use your senses. Fresh chocolate has volatile flavours that make it taste quite different from old chocolate, which mass-produced Easter eggs usually are. This is because they were often made last summer, to keep the big factories busy during the lowest months of chocolate demand. Old eggs can be stored badly in fluctuating temperatures or humid rooms. You can see this if you check the shine on your chocolate. "Dull and streaky is a candidate for the dustbin."

Break a bit of chocolate off. Bin anything that breaks with a dull thud rather than a clear crack. That's a sign of too little cocoa butter and too much villainous veggie oil. You can even try to spot the crystalline structure, like tree bark, which Chantal assures me is there in prime choccy.

Dying to take a bite? First you've got to smell it. Burnt? Not a good sign, of course. Other dud smells are vanilla or caramel, artificially added to mask the high sugar content.

At last, pop it on to the tip of your tongue. It should melt completely, without leaving an oily film behind (that vegetable oil again). That's because cocoa butter melts at a lower temperature than blood temperature.

When you're buying chocolate, cocoa content is important. But you can't spot a good chocolate merely by the amount of cocoa in it, just as you wouldn't choose wine by a high alcohol content. "People are getting into the percentage of cocoa in chocolate," Chantal confides. They have a special fetishists' bar that is 100 per cent cocoa called Plus Noir Que Noir, but she feels that 60-75 per cent cocoa solids is a good chocolate content. You should also look for the type of cocoa bean. Criollo is the rare, complex cocoa bean that makes up less than 10 per cent of the world crop; forastero is the more commonly used type. Cacao fins is the French word for good cocoa.

A delightful way to spend Easter afternoon is having a chocolate-tasting. Use a cup of water or coffee, or fruity light wine, as a palate-clearer, though some swear by malt whisky. The chocolate-taster's favourite wine is Banyuls, from the Cote d' Azur. Choose four or five types of chocolate, leaving a petrol station brand till the end.

Does Chantal eat much chocolate? Hasn't touched a drop all week. But she likes to have it around "for security".

`The Chocolate Companion' by Chantal Coady is a taster's guide to all the fine chocolates of Europe. Apple Press, pounds 15.

Rococo Chocolates, 321 Kings Road, London SW3 5EP. Bars from pounds l.95 each. Free tastings encouraged. Call 0171-352 5857 for mail order including books on chocolate.

The Chocolate Society, 36 Elizabeth Street, London SW1W 9NZ (0171-259 9222).

Recommended Easter gift: voucher for the Unlimited Chocolate Buffet at the Waldorf Meridien, London. Every Friday afternoon, pounds 10.50 each (0171- 836 2400).

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