Just 6 months ago I started this blog late in the evening, after getting home from the Guardian Word of Mouth's marvellous easter chocolate tasting event. I'd been an avid blog reader for years and had been more and more food-related posts on my general, personal blog. But something about experiencing such wonderful chocolate in the company of journalists, food bloggers and plain old food lovers crystallised my long simmering intention to create a food blog of my own! I spent much of that night and most of the next day working on the blog, and copying old content across from various other locations.
"Kavey Eats" was born as I munched on a goodie cup of Paul A Young's basil chocolates.
Later that month, I visited his Camden Passage shop and treated myself to a box (above). I posted photos and feedback on the beautiful chocolates.
So, one of the best consequences of being a food blogger so far, is being lucky enough to attend the chocolate tasting evening hosted by Paul A Young himself for a small number of food bloggers, a few weeks ago.
Kicking off in the Camden Passage shop after it's closed for the day, the event consists of about 10 of us crammed into a make-shift arena of chairs as Paul talks us through tasting a number of high-end chocolates, or couvertures, as he most often calls them.
It smells of chocolate. Rich, complex, earthy chocolate. And you know, many chocolate shops actually don't! This, explains Paul, is because Paul A Young chocolates are made right there on the premises. "It's got to be a sensory experience!" Paul says, explaining that they had to battle against Health & Safety rules to be allowed to display his chocolates in the open, and not behind glass.
When I say "their" and "they" I'm referring to Paul and his business partner, James Cronin. Sharing a passion for really high quality chocolate, made traditionally and to the highest standards, Paul and James started the business in 2001, developing for others before launching their own products and shops.
Before this, Paul was a chef. It just wasn't possible to cook at the top level in the North, he explains, so he made the decision to move down to London to work for Marco Pierre White as a pastry chef – becoming a "Marco boy!"
He learned a lot from Marco but he's keen to point out how his priorities differ. "For Marco, the most important thing is the product. For me, the most important things are the product and my team."
"No one will be as passionate as James and I about chocolate. But the team we have now - if any of them leave, I will cry – I want people in the shop who, when they are infront of you, can emulate everything I'd want to say!"
All the chocolates are made by hand, not just hand-finished, and using the very best ingredients Paul and James can find. Artificial ingredients are eschewed and machines are shunned. Thus no refined white sugar, no vegetable oils, no ready-made flavourings, no bleaching agents, no preservatives… But fresh herbs, real fruit, pure distilled oils and home-made extracts, unrefined (Billington's) sugars and proper cacao butter…
There is also a focus on ethical sourcing, striving to use fairtrade, organic ingredients where possible. "No matter how busy we get – how big we get, are getting, have got, will get – the quality of the ingredients is the most important."
And Paul is keen to stress that when they say "by hand" they mean exactly that. They don't even use tempering machines, but temper by hand on large marble slabs. Paul asks, "This works in Belgium and France - why can't it work here? Why does everything have to be industrialised?"
Speaking of cacao butter, did you know that "cacoa butter is the most expensive bit of chocolate", not the solids? I didn't.
As chocolate seems to be sold on the basis of cacao solids content, Paul believes that "white chocolate should be called zero percent chocolate." And, since cacao butter is such an expensive and key ingredient, "chocolate made with vegetable oils instead of cacao butter shouldn't be called chocolate at all! It's just chocolate flavouring!"
Paul has another reason to decry the use of vegetable oils in chocolate. Often, when a product lists vegetable oil as an ingredient, it's referring to palm oil. This substance is controversial because of the destruction of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of acres of virgin rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations. Not only is this bad for the environment, it also robs a vast array of wildlife of it's natural habitat, including the beautiful orangutan, with whom ginger-headed Paul feels a curious affinity! Ironically, the demand for palm oil (and the resulting ravaging of the rainforest) has increased due to the Western appetite for bio fuel, touted as the environmentally-friendly option. Whilst it may produce less emissions, it's production can be anything but benign. Of course, palm oil can be produced sustainably - the problem is that it's so difficult for the consumer to find out whether the palm oil in a given product has been sourced ethically or not.
Find out more at the Orangutan Foundation website
So, after learning about what makes Paul and James tick, it's down to learning more about chocolate.
Firstly, we talk about beans. There are three main varieties of beans used in chocolate - forastero, trinitario and criollo.
Forastero is the most commonly grown group and consists of wild and cultivated strains. It's a hardier and higher yield crop and hence, is the most widely used. It's what you'll find in inexpensive, mass-produced chocolates.
Criollo, representing only a few percent of all cocoa beans grown, is the most expensive cocoa on the market. Wiki informs me that there is "some dispute about the genetic purity of cocoas sold today as Criollo, as most populations have been exposed to the genetic influence of other varieties." As criollo strains are hard to grow, vulnerable to environmental threats and lower in yield, they are less popular with cacao farmers.
Trinitario is a hybrid of criollo and forastero. It's grown and used more widely than criollo and represents about 15% of the world's production.
Each variety of bean has it's own flavour characteristics. Forastero is strong in classic cacao flavour, but it's flavours dissipate quickly, which can make it seem quite bland. Criollo is nutty, with a hint of bitterness and has a more complex aromatic structure which lasts longer in the mouth. Trinitario, with elements of both, also offers more complexity than forastero.
But flavour and aroma in chocolate is not all about the bean variety, as Paul explained. The fermentation process governs acidity content, ensures that "horrid" volatile compounds are eradicated and determines how successfully the beautiful aromas of the cacoa are released. This is what gives the beans the chocolate flavours we know and love. Further research tells me that it's also important to harvest cacao pods only when they are fully ripe – unripe beans have a lower cacao butter content and insufficient sugars in the pulp for full fermentation.
And then there's provenance too, or terroir, as the French would put it. Where the beans are grown has an impact on their flavour – Madagascan cacao, for example, has a distinct citrus taste.
So it's no surprise that some of the top producers elect not to reveal the variety or provenance of some of their chocolate, choosing instead to let the taste of the chocolate speak for itself.
During the tasting, Paul talks a lot about the characteristics of different chocolates, and how some provide great initial depth of flavour, others give a lovely melting mouthfeel, and others still provide strong secondary notes for enduring aftertaste. And then explains how he carefully combines them to achieve just the balance he needs for each of his creations. And that's before one brings into the equation the combination of the chocolate itself with all the other ingredients such as herbs, oils, fruit and so on!
Although Paul reminds us that chocolate tasters should let the chocolate melt on the tongue whilst breathing in deeply, it's so hard to resist the urge to chew. Still, I concentrate hard, keen to perceive all the subtlities of flavour and smell.
Here are the chocolates we taste, in order.
Valrhona Jivara Milk 40%
As the first thing I get is a strong caramel flavour, I'm not surprised to learn that this chocolate is made with brown sugar rather than the white sugar more commonly used in milk chocolate. The consensus is that the round, malty flavours are comforting but I dislike the caramel taste and give a score of just 3/10.
Amedei Toscano Brown Milk 32%
This chocolate is made with cane sugar. I find it a bit bland and milky. Paul tells us it works well with nuts and biscuits. 4/10
Michel Cluizel Milk 50% Madagascan
The others do better at detecting the characteristic fruity nature of the madagascan beans. I find them harder to discern and find this one quite unpleasant. I give it just 2/10.
Amedei Toscano Black 63%
The first thing I notice is the loud clack on biting down on this chocolate! I say it reminds me of coffee and Paul nods and says it's the acidity from the fermentation and the flavours of the roasting coming through. I think I'm out on my own when I describe the aftertaste as reminiscent of cardamom. Others describe the taste as toasty and mention honey. I love this and give it a top score of 10/10!
Valrhona Manjari 64%
This chocolate is made from a blend of bean varieties but all are grown in Madagascar. This time I can really taste the citrus fruit zing and it makes my mouth water. It has a round, sweet flavour that reminds me of a very grown-up Bournville! Paul tells us it works well with sea salt and red fruits but not with winter spices. 6/10.
Michel Cluizel Los Ancones 67%
I don't taste much at first but it comes through eventually. Paul confirms that this one is all about the aftertaste, at the back of the tongue. Los Ancones is a specific plantation that grows a variety of beans and this chocolate is made from the first of 2 annual fruitings. It's muddy and smokey and slightly mocha. I reckon it's a 5/10 verging on 6/10 if I'm being generous.
Amedei Toscano Black 70%
Without a trace of bitterness this chocolate gives me flowers, molasses, toast and mustiness. It's wonderfully rich and complex and I can't decide whether it's a 9/10 or a top 10/10.
Michel Cluizel Blended 72%
This one is made from a blend of beans from different sources. Others menion coconut and hazelnuts. I literally spit this out into a napkin. I absolutely hate it, which is unusual. It's rather embarassing actually! 0/10
Amedei 9 75%
Hmmm, it seems I'm an Amedei girl, though I hadn't known it before this evening. The beans are grown on the family's own 9 plantations and are considered to be the "family treasure". This is so wonderfully rounded, with so many different flavours including rich dried fruits. It's perfect for everyday eating. Paul says it's been blended specially to produce that complexity. Again, I can't decide whether it's a 9/10 or a 10/10.
Paul decides to treat us to a tasting of what is often referred to as the world's most expensive chocolate. Made from a variety called called "Porcelana" for its porcelain-like color, and prized as a genetically pure strain of criollo this is the only chocolate to set one of our number sneezing madly – an unusual reaction! I find the texture slightly grain and the flavour reminds me of coffee. To my relief, I don't like this quite as much as some of the other Amedeis and give it 8/10.
Valrhona Madagascan 100% Manjari Pate
Pate is also known as paste, liquor or mass. It's essentially just the pure beans, ground down into a paste. There is no sugar, no salt, nothing. At first it's bitter, as you'd expect, but not massively so – I'm left with a mild sourness of flavour. Some of the group are very taken with this, but for me it's a 3/10.
Paul mentions that he did have an 85% Valrhona which he hated, so stopped using it, but that there are other high percentage chocolates that are lovely.
It's time to move on from the chocolate to sample some of the creations Paul has developed. I'm reminded again just how nuanced and skilled a job it is to select and blend chocolates and then combine them with other ingredients to produce a finished product that satisfies on so many levels.
To my delight, I can see on Paul's tray some of his Marmite truffles and his Port & Stilton truffles. Both are amongst those I really liked in the selection I posted about back in April. When developing the port and stilton chocolates, he started out only with stilton. He "made them and then they exploded – put a mouldy cheese into a tight shell and it goes Pooh!" Adding the port was partly about flavour but also a way of using alcohol as a preservative to stop the blue cheese mould from growing. The third variety is Paul's award-winning Sea Salt Caramels (in which he uses butter, cream and real sugar not glucose, he reminds us). Delicious!
The shop also sells hand-made ice-cream and chocolate brownies; the latter are seriously squidgy, rich, fudgy affairs.
Finally, Paul calls James to the front of the class to introduce us to Tcho. Paul and James are extremely proud to be the first UK stockists – infact the first non-US stockists – of this innovative American brand and James relates how he visited them at their base near San Francisco and learned first hand about their business. Tcho visited producers all around the world looking for the best beans. Infact, they went further than simply looking – they gave producers and farmers direct feedback which helped them to improve. Usually, cacao farmers have very little understanding of their own product, as they sell the raw cacao pods which are processed elsewhere. Tcho took portable labs out to the farms and performed a two day fermentation process which allowed the farmers to taste their own produce, often for the first time. They then developed hundreds and hundreds of versions before settling on their eventual production versions, some of which we tasted with Paul and James.
Tcho have chosen to name their bars according to their dominant flavour characteristics. Hence there is a Citrus, a Chocolatey, a Fruity, a Nutty and Earthy and a Floral. We tasted the first four.
The Citrus bar, unsurprising now we know the characteristic of Madagascan beans, is 67% and made from Madagascan cacao. It's a subtler, fruitier citrus than the Valrhona Manjari bit still clearly Madagascan. 6/10.
The Chocolatey bar is a 70% chocolate made from Ghanian beans. It is reasonably chocolatey, and has a hint of alcohol, for me. But it's not as intense or deeply chocolatey as I expected. 4/10.
The Fruity bar beans are from Peru and it's 68%. It has a mushroom cave dankness but is fruity at the same time. It reminds me of pu erh tea. 5/10.
The Nutty bar is also from Peru and is 65%. It has a completely different characteristic to the Fruity bar though I detect coffee notes, rather than nut. It's really, really smooth and creamy and silky too. And sweeter than one might expect of a 65%. I like it. 8/10.
By this stage, I know I'm not alone in feeling rather full and, with great timing, have just reached my limit for chocolate for the day.
We are offered a kitchen tour, during which Paul points out molds, ingredients and a huge block of cacao butter before showing us a picture of a checkerboard skull that he's been commissioned to recreate in chocolate!
Clearly exhausted from working long, long days often 7 days a week, Paul is also extremely gregarious and the conversation swings from his opinion of the competition to his recommended recipe for chocolate cake.
Finally we call an end to the evening. Goodie bags clutched possessively in our hands, we traipse out into the dusk of Camden Passage and wend our ways home, heads full of a newly-reinvigorated passion for all things chocolate.
Many thanks to Kate for organising the evening.
Paul's book, Adventures with Chocolate, is out this month, and available through the new Kavey Eats Amazon Store.