The first such event they’ve run, the invitation was in the form of a blog post from Susan Smillie, WoM editor, and wasn’t open long as interest was keen! Luckily, I got in fast and was allocated my golden ticket!
Maybe 40-50 fellow tasters and I arrived at “Guardian Towers”, near King’s Cross, for 6.30 to sign in and sticker up. Sadly, no-one seemed to be following Susan’s instructions to display not only our names but the sweet we felt best represented us so I chickened out of appending Foam Banana to my name, having deliberated all day about what sweet I’d be! (For the record, the shortlist included Sherbet Dip Dab, Space Dust, Hungry Hippo, Milkyway and Flake). My “lonely observer” pose didn’t last long as I quickly started chatting to a blogger also into food and travel.
Once the crowd had assembled we were greeted by Susan and lead to choctasting HQ. The welcome speech was mercifully brief (and accompanied by a glass of delicious sweet port) and we were soon collecting tasting forms before filing in to a room with a vast table laid out with many baskets of chocolate bars and eggs broken into pieces ready to try.
Photo courtesy of Rachel Clarke. (That's me in the bright orange top)Paul A Young gave us a quick guide on how best to taste and judge chocolate, invited us to visit his own table in the corridor outside and then we were away. Many of the samples were of little interest to me (either because I'd tried them before or didn't hold out huge expectations of a quality experience from them) so, with Susan’s email advice about some of the specialist producers having only limited stock ringing in my ears, I decided to start at the top and sought out Paul’s table, groaning under the weight of broken pieces of eggs, chocolate truffles and extra gooey chocolate brownies.
I started with the very best of the bunch, the fresh basil truffles. These were a beautiful dark brown with splashes of pale green on top but I could detect no scent of basil when I sniffed. Once I took a bite, however, a burst of savoury herbiness raced across my tongue and that fresh basil aroma came into play. The basil was infused into dark chocolate perfectly balanced between bitter and sweet. Inside the crisp shell was a silky smooth ganache, so much lighter than the more traditional cream-based ganaches. A revelation and matched only by the Gorvett & Stone fresh mint truffles I came across a few years ago (and continue to dream about).
Before moving on to Young’s other offerings, I was offered a cup of fragrant jasmine tea by Henrietta Lovell from the Rare Tea Company. She explained that fine white silver tips of tea are steamed and scented with fresh jasmine flowers to produce “the most delicious jasmine tea available”. Certainly the tea was far more fragrant than others I’ve tried. Her “Emperor’s Breakfast” black china tea was also excellent so when I asked about what other teas she offered, I was very excited to learn about her Oolong, winner of a gold star in the 2008 Great Taste Awards. (Her Silver Tip White Tea garnered 3 stars). Oh and, as they were filming her talk about the tea during one of my tasting visits, I was asked if I had nice nails (I do, though I failed to notice mine were somewhat mucky with chocolate), and could I be the hand model and unfurl the delicate tea leaves for the camera!
Back to Young’s chocolate and I’m afraid I wasn’t too keen on the caramelised milk chocolate with smatterings of cocoa nibs. Then again I’m not a huge fan of caramel so this was to be expected. The dark chocolate peppermint egg was more to my taste though it was much like most high-end mint chocolates I’ve tasted. It certainly didn’t nail the essence of fresh mint in the way their truffle did for basil.
Switching away from the tea for a moment, I opted to try some Gonzales Byass sherry for my next tipple. The Oloroso Dulce wasn’t treacly enough for my extremely sweet tooth but the Pedro Ximinez was right up my alley.
Before leaving Young’s table I also sampled their stem ginger and black cardamom pave which was the most disappointing of their wares for me. Neither the smell nor flavour of ginger or cardamom came through and I’d recommend Kshocolat’s Orange and Cardamom bar to fans of cardamom and one of the two Green & Black’s ginger bars to gingerphiles.
The Guinness truffles redeemed them slightly; as general truffles they were delicious – the same great balance between bitter and sweet in the chocolate and a wonderfully silky filling – but they lacked more than the subtlest hint of stout and I again caught myself wishing they’d been bolder with the headlined flavour.
At this stage I figured I ought to try some of the chocolates in the main room, though I knew I was already nearing my limit. I skipped the Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Nestle, Thornton’s and Cadbury’s offers (as I’m seldom a fan of cheap chocolate) and even, with a little more reluctance, the Green & Black’s (just their regular milk and dark varieties), Hotel Chocolat (ditto), Waitrose and Lindt offers (as I was already familiar with all of them). Instead I opted for those I’d not tried including a piece of the Godiva nougatine egg (surprisingly sweet and sugary chocolate with little cocoa flavour but a nice thickness of shell and generous chunks of crunchy nougatine), a piece of Dalesford Organic’s dark chocolate egg (good smell and taste but very similar to many readily-available 60-70% cocoa solids chocolate) and one of Lidl’s single origin premium chocolate squares (from Papua apparently and as sugary, fatty and disappointing as the Godiva chocolate).
The only chocolate I’d intended to try but missed was from L’Artisan du Chocolat who, so my tasting form tells me, had some dark shaker eggs with pepper caramel drops on offer.
Also present at the event were Courvoisier. I tried a small sip but cognac is definitely not my tipple. Still, the lady (from Godiva) serving the samples was very charming.
Time passed all too quickly and suddenly it was 7.30 and time to hand in our forms. I quickly copied my illegible scrawls onto a fresh form and dropped it into the box and took a break from all the feasting.
Regretfully I didn't manage to squeeze in time to participate in the chocolate making demonstration being run by Chocolution using their "Mayan Magic" chocolate making kit, but from the comments I overheard it was a very popular experience.
By 7.40 all the forms were in and Jay Rayner pulled out forms for the prize draw (well done to the lucky winners) before inviting us to continue munching away until 8.00 and also to grab a paper cup and fill it with some of the (surprisingly plentiful) remaining samples to take home.
I started selecting a few bits from the large table before remembering Paul A Young. I put back some of the (wrapped) cheap stuff and was delighted to discover that there was plenty left at his table! Urged repeatedly to take more, much to Paul’s delight, I discarded the last cheap egg in my cup and obeyed his instructions properly. I did hold off on taking more than a single basil truffle until I noticed that most people had drifted off and there were several remaining so I ate a couple more and took a couple for my cup. Paul donated an (unused) rubber glove which made a fine lid for my cup of goodies and I finally drifted off.
Having failed to sample their ever-so-sticky chocolate brownie earlier, they also pushed a piece of this into my hands, most of which quickly found itself all over my fingers!
I chatted to a some lovely bloggers during the evening including New Zealander, Epicurienne, also interested in food and travel and Petra a.k.a. Choc Star, who's spent the last year or so doing a tour of Britain in her converted ice-cream van, exchanging chocolate goodies for dinner and a bed for the night. She’d never come across Gorvett & Stone so I hope she finds them as good as I promised!
I also chatted to some of the Guardian team including the very approachable Tim Hayward, food critic and journalist Jay Rayner, and bread master Dan Lepard (who only just stopped himself from diving after the chocolate brownie I carelessly managed to drop onto the floor).
Realising that most of the people left were Guardian staff and suppliers Petra and I beat a reluctant retreat and walked back to the tube together before heading our separate ways home.
All in all an excellent evening. Everyone ought to have nothing but chocolate for dinner once in a while!