© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

 

© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

Articles in Produced goods category

Bringing home the bacon ... and lots more besides

Charcuterie and company
A Festival of Cured Meats by QEDLondon
Friday 28, Saturday 29, Sunday 30 October, 11am – 8pm [6pm Sunday]
Southbank Centre Square, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX

Qedchor This first ever celebration and exploration of the world of charcuterie will bring together a rich diversity of artisans, importers and enthusiasts. The best British traditions (some near forgotten) will be represented beside new-wave continentally-styled offerings, alongside the very finest hams, sausages and terrines from Europe that inspired them.

Whilst the pig will undoubtedly be the star of the show, beef, lamb, venison, duck and other alternative meats will also be on the menu. Browse over three dozen stalls, and buy to take home or feast on the spot.

A packed programme of free access tastings and workshops in the Event Tent will illuminate everything from the joys and toils of DIY home charcuterie, through the blood and guts of traditional puddings, to a comparison of cured bacons or matured hams. Which wines can take the cure? Which is finer — jamón Iberico bellota or culatello di Zibello? Or is Britain with its York and Suffolk Cure hams ahead of the pack?

Run by different chefs each day, our pop up restaurant, Intent2Eat, will offer annotated tasting platters showcasing different regional traditions — all accompanied by a well-chosen glass of wine — to enjoy socially at communal sheltered tables. And don’t miss Sunday’s Dog of the Year Show, crowning the hottest operators on the street food scene.

There will be something for everyone; charcuterie has ever ranged from working man staple to gourmet luxury.

Chocolate: Defining the Finest

Some things to consider.

  • In the UK we consume £4 billion of chocolate every year. Chocolate consumption has increased in the recession! Could it be because chocolate contains over 400 mood-altering compounds?
  • 3.8 million tons of cocoa are produced each year by 5-6 million farmers. We are currently consuming annually more chocolate than cocoa produced (there is some cocoa in store, due to ‘futures’ market trading).
  • These were amongst the salient Chocolate Facts handed out to attendees of the Adults’ Chocolate Workshop at the Kingston Food Festival on 9 June, begging the question, ‘What is it so many of us get out of eating chocolate?’ Or in the case of those who came to the tasting, ‘What is it we hope to experience from chocolate?

These are extracts from the factsheet we prepared for the adult tasting.

The factsheet for children (two workshops on 2 June) was slightly different, pointing out amongst other curiosities that

  • 350 million bars of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk are sold every year — that’s almost a million a day!

The good news is that CDM uses Fairtrade cacao, increasing dramatically the wellbeing of considerable numbers of previously exploited West African cacao farmers. The bad news is that CDM contains the legally permitted quantity of vegetable fat. (The also not so great news is that Kraft/Cadbury now makes it yet more difficult for smaller fairly traded chocolate producers to compete and retain a sustainable share of the UK market.)

We touched a good deal on issues of fair pricing, sustainability and the challenges of climate change in all the workshops; the finest producers are, after all, keen to ensure the future source of their cacao beans. For some — such as Original Beans, whose Beni Wild Harvest featured in the adults’ tasting — reforestation comes first, chocolate production second — though they make an extremely fine bar of chocolate.

But back to the whys and wherefore and to vegetable fat and its effect on quality. Everyone, from four year olds to, well, 40-plus, started with a first-time-ever taste of pure cocoa butter (many thanks to Bill McCarrick of Sir Hans Sloane for supplying this, along with pure cocoa mass). Not quite the sweet white chocolate experience some clearly hoped for, but hey, it melted readily in the mouth and left a nice clean palate ready for more. Vegetable fat is designed to withstand higher temperatures before liquefying. So it coats the roof of the mouth, stubbornly.

Try, just once, the succession of cocoa butter, then a chocolate bar with vegetable fat (Bournville, for instance, if milk chocolate is not your favoured style), then one without. The latter doesn’t have to be the world’s finest or priciest. High street Thornton’s, for instance, proudly declare the absence of fats other than cocoa butter in their range of affordable bars. You won’t forget the contrast.

It was interesting to chart the moment, with the kids, when smiles of discovery (there is a sweet life beyond CDM) turned into scowls of dismay. Montezuma’s Darth Vader effort, a 54% cocoa solids bar wryly named “The Dark Side” (compare with CDM’s lowly 20%) had most virtually reaching for their light sabres. I hasten to add that Montezuma’s gentler bars — all organic, all fairly traded cacao — met with widespread approval. Nonetheless, Hotel Chocolat’s Saint Lucia 50% (only a ‘Dash’ of milk to soften the cocoa attack) rung up its converts — not least among the parents. Just about everyone loved Thornton’s intriguing Tonka Bean scented Venezuela bar (a ‘mere’ 38% cocoa solids), which we served as a fun final flourish. Clearly a worthy Gold award winner in this year’s Academy of Chocolate flavoured milk chocolate bar category, it actually brought out the budding gourmet quality in a good number of the kids, who aptly detected flavour notes of ‘caramel, vanilla, almonds’ and the like.

With the adults, it wasn’t so much a game of cocoa-solids tolerance (though a number were surprised to find that under 70% bars yielded fantastic finesse, in striking contrast with 85% and 100% ‘macho’ bars) as considering the effects of conching or the dramatic differences between single ‘estate’ source bars.

The best illustration of the difference conching (fine grinding cocoa mass to, usually, below 20 micron size particles, a process born of happy accident when Lindt Sprüngli left a grinding machine running overnight some 130 years ago) is to sample bars identical in all but conching time. The Austrian artisan Zotter does this, as does Hotel Chocolat with their Saint Lucia 65% bars, which we sampled. Some prefer the more untamed ‘high’ flavour notes of the less conched chocolates, others the mellow tones induced by a longer conch (96 vs 120 hours in the case of HC’s Saint Lucia). No ‘right answers’ here, though chocolate aficionados, just like coffee geeks, tend to favour the wilder shores of flavour untamed by high roasts or refinement.

Contrast of an entirely different nature came from two producers of rare Venezuelan sourced beans. Both Amedei’s Porcelana and Amano’s Montanya have mouth-wateringly enticing aromas – due in part perhaps to the intrinsic acidity of the bean varietals. Experts and dreamers could no doubt conjure up an Amazonian rainforest-full of descriptors. Suffice to say that after one sniff of either, it is unfeasible not to pop a square onto your tongue.

Melting a square of each chocolate slowly on the tongue (no effort involved, restraint aside, as cocoa butter melts at body temperature) produces quite contrasting experiences. The Porcelana, as its name — actually derived from the porcelain pale hue of the beans in the pod — suggests, yields its flavours gently, with subtly savoury notes leading into tropical fruit, then exotic flowers. The flavours linger lightly, but because the palate finishes clean and almost dry — thanks to that acidity which remarkably never comes across as actually ‘acid’ — you immediately want to pop another piece.  The Montanya has a much more robust approach, and though complexity is clearly there the dominant flavour of semi dried apricots hits home quickly and just increases in intensity, then suddenly strikes a much deeper note that Amano define as ‘marshmallow’ but seems to me the essence of toasted marshmallow, the kind you melt down in layers on a twig or skewer in front of a fire — in other words dark and smoky more than scented and sweet.  This time the flavour lingers, and lingers, and lingers…and though we couldn’t attempt this in the confines of a workshop: do try this at home. Half an hour gone and the finishing flavour (actually back to zesty dried apricot) is still there in force.

It’s fair to say that most workshop attendees had never tried the slow melt approach, except perhaps by accident. Cheaper chocolate goes for a swift simple hit; its producers benefit from a rapid whole-bar guzzle, unthinking mass consumption. Maybe that’s what most of us consumers want also.

Then there are producers and beans and bars that positively defy this approach. There’s the price factor, for one thing. Amedei and Amano bars cost twenty times that of the cheapest chocolate in our tasting. And if you don’t treat them right all you’ll get — apart from mood-altering maybe not of the desired kind — is a hole in your pocket.

Bite straight into a chunk of Original Beans’ Beni Wild Harvest and it will bite back at you with a startling acidity that’s almost mint-like: not in taste as such, but much like the effect of breathing in through your mouth after consuming a Bendicks Bittermint: positively painful, if very fresh. But melt it (the Beni!) gently near the back of the tongue and while the acidity is a clear feature there’s an intriguing myriad of deep, dark, almost smoky elements, which the producers define as ‘cognac, raisins, honeyed black tea’. They conch pretty briefly and deliberately don’t add even a hint of softening vanilla, with an effect that is akin to unfined and unoaked ‘natural wine’ from some wild indigenous varietal. The flavour that lasts for an eternity takes no prisoners. Looked at another way, that’s an immense amount of bang for your buck.

So what would our workshop attendees do now? Despite what were to some revelatory experiences, and a general eagerness to source the ‘rarities’, most felt they’d probably adopt a regularly affordable middle ground. You’re not going to be readily transported to the Amazonian rainforests in the context of a jam packed commute. Good news for the local outlet Montezuma and High Street Thornton’s and Hotel Chocolat. Not such bad news either for the sourcers of rarities. When I tried to secure another bar of Salt Lake City based Amano’s rare mountain bean limited edition Montanya to relive the experience, there were none to be found.

The details of the chocolates used may be found in our tables for the adults' and children's workshops.

The cream of milk chocolate

Whether as a budget palliative or as an Easter awakening of the tastebuds, chocolate has been very much in the news this week. Lodged between Fairtrade Fortnight and the Chocolate Festivals taking place in Brighton (last weekend) and London (Southbank, this weekend), a rap to ethical sensibilities was provided by BBC1's Panorama unveiling the child labour exploitation in the cocoa groves of West Africa. A measure of press attention was also devoted to the less well documented but depressingly similar scenario in Madagascan vanilla plantations, where the dramatic drop in price of vanilla on world markets has led to young children's education being sacrificed in growers’ desperate attempts to boost production.

So it was a laudable measure for the Consumers’ Association to focus its panel tasting on Organic and Fairtrade chocolate, both dark and milk. Rather startlingly, samples taking in ‘supermarkets and well-known brands’ found not only that supermarket own label chocolates ruled the roost, but that Tesco won in both categories, with its Finest Fairtrade Organic Dominican Republic 70% Plain Chocolate and Finest Fairtrade Organic Ecuadorian 39% milk chocolate. Interestingly, Green and Black’s gained a ‘worth considering’ in both categories. A recent Independent article quoted chocolatiers damning G&B with faint praise as "the best of the worst", and the brand has failed to do at all well in chocolate workshops I’ve run in the past (poor fermentation was the fault identified by then US artisan Scharffenberger experts). But here we shift from ‘well known brands’ to rather rare bars crafted by skilled artisans who, often as not, produce their chocolate from bean to bar rather than relying on ‘industrial’ couverture or even the likes of renowned Valrhona.

Is it ‘fair’ to focus attention on a rarefied ‘gold standard’ potentially dismissive of the widely available and readily affordable? I think the answer to that must be ‘yes’, if “Organic” and “Fairtrade” are increasingly recognised (as highlighted by that Indie article) as buzzwords that give scant indication of quality. Even Which? cited the ‘expert view’ of Martin Christy that the Fairtrade label is just one way of addressing exploitation: ‘another approach is small-scale production and transparency’.

So we conducted a very small-scale tasting (that’s David, tasting blind, and myself tasting merely with a poor memory) of top-notch fairly-traded milk chocolate, with a minimum of 40% cocoa solids. At this level, the nuances of the cocoa assert themselves in distinctive ways; the milk modifies acidity and softens both texture and ‘mouthfeel’ but does not serve to create a merely bland, easy-going confection. Accurate, meaningful description of flavour notes is a challenge that eluded even David’s wine-taster’s palate; I rather sympathise with Rose Prince, writing this week in the Daily Telegraph:

‘I find that new tongues are being born. As Easter approaches, it seems that a modern lingo is needed if you are to enjoy chocolate. Chocolate has become very complicated stuff. "Slobberingly yummy" simply will not do ... I must, I must try harder’.

Here, then, is our rather simple, ‘old-tongue’, personal appraisal of the chocolate we sampled:

  • Tesco Finest Fairtrade Organic Ecuadorian 39%. Pleasant, deep chocolate aroma. Soft texture with slight graininess. Markedly mouth-coating. Milky, caramel notes yield to deeper tones. Reasonable length.
  • Hotel Chocolat Signature 40% milk (HC works directly with Rabot Estate, but this chocolate is not organic). Attractive tobacco-note aroma. Some ‘snap’. Markedly milky with caramel notes, but also good acidity at base. Quite sweet. Good length.
  • l'Artisan du Chocolat ‘God Save the Chocolate’. An ‘oddity’ here as origin of beans is not declared, but ‘cane sugar sourced from the only independent British importer and manufacturer of sugar’ is, as also is 'milk from the British Isles'. Thus a ‘Great British chocolate’. Cocoa 40%, milk 26%. Savoury-caramel aroma belies a tribute to the sweet British tooth. Sweet, soft and very smooth, though not without balancing acidity and length.
  • l'Artisan du Chocolat Panama organic and fairly traded. Fermentation and sun drying of Trinitario and Criollo beans described. Cocoa 40%, milk 26%. Quite extraordinary, from the cigar-box aroma, via crisp but smooth texture, to savoury-salt hit on the palate (but no salt is added) and distinctive sandalwood/tobacco flavours leading to an almost savoury, very clean finish.
  • Original Beans (The Planet: Replant it). Esmeraldas Milk with Fleur de Sel, Ecuador Declared: 42% cacao; 50 hour conch. Tracking number certificate enclosed. Invests in local communities, preserves old growth rainforest and plants new trees in buffer zones and clonal nurseries. Once again deep cigar-box aroma, curiously scarcely more ‘salty’ than the Artisan Panama. Less woody, more caramel on the palate — so yes, rather like salted caramel in a bar, but vastly more subtle. Long but clean finish.
  • Labooko (Zotter) Dominican Republic 40% Hispaniola. Organic and Fairtrade. Different varieties of raw cane sugar; conched for six hours. ‘We adjust the processing times individually to the cocoa, vary the roasting grades, mill pressure and conching times, set nuances and produce small quantities’. Mild, milky, nutty aroma. Silky soft and gentle on the palate. Sweet floral notes, yet a dry finish (perhaps due to short conching?)
  • Labooko (Zotter) Ecuador 50% (Manabi). Organic and Fairtrade. Cacao Nacional beans, cane sugar from Paraguay, vanilla from Uganda, milk from Tyrolean mountain farmers. Reddish-toned sheen. Deep cocoa aroma. A flavour that is both floral (hibiscus?) and ‘liquorous’. Packed as a ‘duo’ with the Dominican (above). Also finishes ‘dry’.
  • Hotel Chocolat Macho Milk 50% (HC works directly with Rabot Estate, but this chocolate is not organic). Dark sheen. Tobacco-box and deep cocoa nose. Almost savoury on the palate with ‘forest-floor’/mushroom notes. Good, ‘dry’ length.
  • Mitzi Blue (Zotter) Starmilk Nicaragua 50%. Fairtrade and organic. Zotter’s ‘premium’ range. Raw cane sugar from Paraguay, organic milk from the Tyrol. 16-hour conching at the Styrian workshop. Dark sheen. Bright snap to the slim disk. Aroma of red fruits steeped in red wine, although more like rumtopf on the palate. Extraordinary length and nuance.

Difficult to choose a favourite; best ‘balance’ perhaps to be found in the Original Beans Esmeraldas Milk, and the Hotel Chocolat Macho Milk. But the most fascinating flavours were yielded by Artisan du Chocolat Panama and Mitzi Blue Starmilk Nicaragua. All are worth sampling.

Hotel Chocolat available from their growing number of London and UK shops, also mail order; l'Artisan du Chocolat from their two London shops and concessions, including Selfridges; Original Beans from La Fromagerie; Zotter bars from the Food Hall at John Lewis.

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