Sunday, March 18, 2007

Hotel Chocolat

I write this post on Mothers Day, a celebration of all our mothers. It is also Mothering Sunday, not the same thing at all. In bygone days this was the Sunday when Christians returned to their mother church – usually the cathedral of their diocese – for a special religious celebration.

But, as with most festivals now, Mother’s Day is another great excuse to eat chocolate, the first steps in the build up to the chocolate crescendo that is Easter. And as I didn’t give up chocolate for Lent – it never really crossed my mind actually – I am able to bring you advance news from the chocolate front. A company called Hotel Chocolat very kindly sent me one of their eggs and it’s only fair that I eat it and tell you all about it.

It comes very beautifully and elegantly packaged in black and silver and this one is thick milk chocolate, filled with little praline eggs. As I usually look for the big numbers on dark chocolate it was interesting to read up on milk chocolate. Good quality dark chocolate usually contains a minimum of 50 % cocoa mass, but can go as high as 85 %. Because milk chocolate has more added sugar than dark, as well as dried milk solids, it has a lower percentage of cocoa mass, usually about 30 - 40 %. Hotel Chocolat’s egg is made with 40% cocoa mass, at the very top end of the scale. I checked out the milk chocolate available locally and found that many of the familiar labels have no more than 27% cocoa mass. I couldn’t find anything with 40%, but Green & Blacks has 34%, as does a milk chocolate called Bellarom, bought in Lidl, and Tesco’s own brand Belgian milk chocolate has 32%.

Growing up with Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (20% cocoa mass but not a word against it, not a word!) has anaesthetised my taste buds when it comes to milk chocolate. Some courageous souls have done good work in this area, for example Wayne Schmidt’s Milk Chocolate Comparison page. Says Wayne “I like a pure chocolate flavor that isn't masked by fruity, smokey, or mocha flavors. The after taste should be strong, long lasting and not turn sour.”

So, to June’s Concise Milk Chocolate Comparison Test:

Tesco Belgian Milk Chocolate

Cocoa Solids 32% minimum
A good full rounded taste, strong on caramel. Coats the mouth. Short after taste

Bellarom Deluxe Finest Alpine Chocolate

Cocoa solids 34% minimum
Very pure chocolate taste, light, very little caramel. Pleasant after taste.

Green & Black’s Organic Milk

Cocoa Solids 34% minimum
This has a strong, not altogether pleasant taste, rather sour in the mouth. Burnt caramel.

Hotel Chocolat Egg

40% cocoa solids
An immediate hit of that dairy texture that reminds me of Dairy Milk, followed by a good strong chocolate flavour, sweet in the middle of the palate with a caramel aftertaste.

Hotel Chocolat’s website gives a lot of information about its products and their provenance. Chocolate from the Americas usually comes from one of two varieties – Forestier and Criollo. A third variety, Trinitario, is not found in the wild, but is a hybrid of the other two. Hotel Chocolat buys some of its beans from FairTrade sources, but is involved with a new estate, Rabot, in St Lucia. According to the website “With the construction of a chocolate making facility on the cocoa estate, within two years Hotel Chocolat will be employing local labour and using local sugar to make the chocolate from their plantation, as well as buying cocoa from neighbouring farmers at a rate that enables them to make a profit and re-invest in their cocoa farm.
This approach will be radically different from the industry norm, where the cheap commodity crop is usually exported to Europe for the value to be added there.”

The website also offers a host of other products and options, including treats for vegetarians and vegans.

Hotel Chocolat is also running an Online Easter Egg Hunt, to win one of 20 of these luxury hampers.

The competition is open to everyone (UK and abroad) and closes 2 April. To enter, here is the link:

And, just in time to make us all feel a whole lot better about eating chocolate, comes a claim from science that a compound in unrefined cocoa has enormous health benefits.

Epicatechin is derived from unrefined natural cocoa and Professor Norman Hollenberg of Harvard Medical School believes it could have a revolutionary effect on stroke, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Epicatechin is a flavanol with a bitter taste and for this reason is usually removed from commercial cocoa. Research shows that drinking epicatechin-rich cocoa boosts blood flow for two to three hours after consumption, raising the possibility of enhancing brain function among elderly or sleep deprived people.

Britons eat 10kg of chocolate each every year, spending an annual total of £4.3bn. Makes you wonder... who's eating my other 9kg??

Friday, March 09, 2007

By colour, by season

February is such a grim month. By nine o’clock most mornings the sky was pewter grey; by nine thirty the heavens had opened. Underfoot everything turned to mush. I didn’t feel much like writing, so I just opened another Swedish crime novel and stoked the boiler.

According to meteorologists, Spring starts on 1 March. And lo, a brisk warm breeze has arrived to dry things out, and the sun is up for a few practice bouts. There are daffodils in a hundred different shades of yellow and the world is back to Kodachrome.

At Christmas I was given this great book by Allegra McEvedy. “If you eat by colour by season” she says “you will naturally be giving your body what it needs at that time of year.” I have always thought that this was true, but Ms McEvedy, and Georgia Glynn Smith’s lovely photographs, put it most persuasively. This is a robust, unfiddly book, brimming with flavour and good humour. I found I started to bookmark the pages I wanted to return to: Berber salad, dandelion salad with goats cheese and polenta croutons, soft cheese baked with quince in vine leaves. And this delicious sounding recipe for Portuguese custard tarts.


1 x 12 large or 24 small muffin tray

1 packet frozen puff pastry defrosted

275ml milk

Zest of 1 orange

1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped out and reserved

4 egg yolks

150g white sugar

1 ½ tbsp plain flour


Preheat oven to 220ºC/425ºF/gas 7

Grease muffin tins with butter.

Roll out pastry to 3mm thick and line moulds

Heat milk in a non-stick pan with orange zest and vanilla pod (not seeds)

In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks with sugar until pale, then stir in flour and vanilla seeds

Just before milk boils remove from heat and strain through a fine sieve into a jug. Discard zest and pod.

Pour milk on to egg mixture, whisking all the time.

Fill pastry cases to brim

Cook for 15 mins for small muffins and 25 mins for regular size.

They will come out of the oven looking like Yorkshire puddings and will collapse a bit, but that’s ok. The entire house will be scented with orange and vanilla, and it will be the real thing, not that Christmas candle ersatz aroma.

Leave to cool a bit, because they are VERY HOT when they come out of the oven!

Allegra McEvedy's Colour Cookbook. Photography by Georgia Glynn Smith

published by Kyle Cathie Ltd

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