The UK is a nation of chocolate-lovers with a growing interest in good food and cookery, so it's hardly surprising that there's a thriving market for artisan chocolaterie-pâtisseries. Joanna Wood reports
Twenty-five years ago, the thought of British restaurants and chefs competing with the best the world had to offer was risible. But for many years now, London in particular has been looked upon as an exciting international culinary city. And it looks as if the capital's reputation as a foodie destination is about to gain greater depth.
Look closely and you will see a new wave of openings happening on the Big Smoke's high streets. Not restaurants - but artisan chocolaterie-pâtisseries. It seems that pastry chefs are stepping out of the shadows to launch themselves as chef-proprietors in their own equivalent of fine-dining restaurants.
As yet, there are only a handful of them, but their entrepreneurial spirit is a significant pointer to the future. Time may well show them to be the standard bearers for a new generation of skilled "restaurateuring" pâtissiers - selling and showing-off their skills in boutique businesses more akin to top jewellery and designer fashion outlets than traditional cafés, in the vein of Barcelona, Paris, and Tokyo.
Don't just take my word for it, though. Ewan Venters, food and restaurants director at Selfridges, London's renowned upmarket department store on Oxford Street, has a similar bullish view of the future. "I'd agree - we're on the cusp of change - a revolution if you like - in dining in London. People are not conforming to the three-course meal format in one restaurant. I think we'll see more dessert-based shop-restaurants opening - people will break off from one restaurant and wander down the high street to have dessert and coffee somewhere else."
Venters was responsible for bringing Pierre Koffmann's pop-up restaurant to the West End store last year and has overseen the expansion of Selfridges artisan chocolate offering to its customers, so he's well placed to make a call on the phenomenon.
The intriguing question, of course, is why is this trend beginning to emerge now? We'll come back to that a little later, but first let's deal with evidence. Last autumn saw the opening of award-winning William and Suzue Curley's second William Curley chocolaterie in London's exclusive Belgravia district, close by Sloane Square. Their first, in Richmond, Surrey (effectively part of Greater London), opened six years ago. The new premises - stylish, airy, seating 20 and undoubtedly sending out a subliminal message of luxury - is just round the corner from the frontage of Gerard Coleman's first L'Artisan du Chocolat frontage (established in 2000): Coleman also opened up a second retail outlet in June last year, this time in Notting Hill's Westbourne Grove with seating for up to 14.
In addition to these two, the Knightsbridge/Belgravia area will in July host the first London outpost of Pierre Hermé, France's iconic chocolatier-pâtissier who revolutionised the flavour palate and craft technique of the macaron (mini meringues - not macaroons) world (see Caterer Masterclass, 3 May 2007). An international big-hitter, with a presence in Japan as well as France and the UK, the fact that he is now venturing to our shores speaks volumes about the burgeoning market for haute couture pâtisserie and chocolate in London.
As indeed does the fact that another of the UK's home-grown master pastry chefs, Claire Clark - who spent four years heading up the pastry team of Thomas Keller's legendary French Laundry restaurant in California - is returning to London, with the intent to launch her own "pastry orientated" business (with café seating) within the next year (Caterer, 23 October 2009). The indications are that Clark is targeting the Chelsea area which runs into Belgravia/Knightsbridge, but lest you think this is the only district that will support top-end chocolaterie-pâtisseries, then take note of Paul A Young, who has two highly successful high street sites in Islington and the City (the latter at the Corn Exchange).
There are benefits, says William Curley, to the capital developing hotspots for haute couture chocolaterie-pâtisseries. "I like the thought of having a real emporium of fine chocolate shops huddled together. There are parts of Paris that have this, so if people decide they are going to have a nice little bit of chocolate they go there. What you get in the end, too, is a local community that is educated about fine chocolate. That has already happened in Belgravia because of L'Artisan du Chocolat and Chantal Coady's Rococo shop."
Coady, if you're not aware of her, has been a pioneer in opening up the fine chocolate world, producing artisan bars and chocolates for 26 years - selling them through her three London shops, including her flagship Belgravia store in Motcomb Street. Unlike the current crop of pastry chef-proprietors, her background is not in professional kitchens; rather she was a chocaholic amateur with the passion and drive to bring fine chocolate into the London arena. But today's craft specialists owe much to her trailblazing which began to raise public awareness that there was more to chocolate than mainstream confectionery bars, says one of the UK's leading chocolate experts, Sara Jayne Stanes (author of Chocolate, the Definitive Guide and a founding member of the Academy of Chocolate). "The best chocolate shops in London today are all run by top pastry chefs, but Chantal Coady laid the foundations for the current trend," she affirms.
And there, in a nutshell, you have a generic reason for why the market is opening up to pastry-chef-proprietors. Education. Public awareness and knowledge in food and restaurants has been growing ever more sophisticated for three decades now, particularly over the past 15 years. Food scares such as BSE fuelled a desire for information about produce sourcing and this fitted cocoa and chocolate production like a glove, with its stress on bean variety, soil (or terroir) growing conditions and lengthy and complex couverture-making techniques. As Stanes says, "The interest in dark chocolate has come along at a time when people want to know where things come from and that's perfect for chocolate." In many ways, it's inevitable that a chocolate-loving nation such as the UK would eventually discover the world of high cocoa-content, fine-quality bars and hand-made chocolates in its quest for further foodie knowledge.
"We're more educated about food, therefore we're more educated about chocolate," agrees Jason Atherton, the chef-director of the Gordon Ramsay Holdings-owned Maze restaurant. Atherton, while not a pastry specialist, has always been a chef who has his finger on the pulse of his industry. It's telling that he has been working on a range of chocolates and chocolate spreads that will go into Selfridges.
That Atherton is set to go in to Selfridges is a marker of how the store has cemented itself as a barometer of the haute couture chocolate market. Under Venters, Pierre Hermé has been lured to sell through the store (prior to his own shop opening), while other artisan chocolate makers showcased there include L'Artisan du Chocolat. Rumours abound, too, that Venters is wooing Spanish chocolatier superstar Oriel Balaguer (see Caterer, 4 December 2009) and cutting-edge British chocolatier-pâtissier Damian Allsop, neither of whom at the moment have their own high-street presence in the UK but who could, conceivably, use Selfridges as a stepping-stone to achieving that end.
For the record, Selfridges has seen its sales of fine chocolate increase by 20-30% year on year for the past four years (this in itself backs up the last biennial Mintel report on the chocolate market, released in mid-2008, which revealed that sales of dark, high-cocoa chocolate were worth £85m in 2007, almost double the value of 2005). And Venters wholeheartedly endorses the theory that expanding food knowledge is driving demand for haute couture chocolates, pointing to a parallel between the current level of chocolate knowledge in the general public with that of wine two decades ago and the coffee market at decade ago.
"Twenty years ago, people used to just ask for red or white wine, then they started thinking about country of origin, then grape styles," he explains. "Ten years ago, people began to think about and understand coffee - and quickly progressed to single-estate coffees. Chocolate is very much the next stage in this process: there's a real interest in small couture chocolates, in single-estate cocoa producers."
Central to the spreading of chocolate knowledge in the wider public arena has been the press and television. Curley has done cameo appearances on many shows - from the BBC's magazine programme The One Show, to slots on the current BBC2 Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets.
But it was the screening in 2008 of Channel 4's four-part series on the exploits of maverick chocolate producer-entrepreneur Willie Harcourt Cooze (Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory) that really put chocolate in the spotlight. The series passed on information on all aspects of the chocolate-making process to a captivated audience: from cocoa bean varieties and the importance of soil conditions to cocoa taste, to tantalising titbits on chocolate couverture making. It was an unexpected and massive hit with viewers. "Television is an incredibly powerful vehicle for getting messages across," Venters says.
The current collective consumer knowledge of fine chocolate has certainly helped to create opportunities on the high street for enterprising chocolatier-pâtissiers, but it's an undoubted fact that 10 or 15 years ago they wouldn't have been knowledgeable enough themselves about quality chocolate couvertures to take proper advantage of the market opening up before them. This was partly due to the small number of companies who dominated the supply-chain, something that has changed radically over the past decade. Small, artisan producers such as Italy's Amedei - and more recently the Utah-based Amano - have shaken up the market and shown pâtissiers what a difference a top-quality couverture can make to haute couture chocolates and fine pâtisserie.
"It has been a meeting of minds between pastry chefs and people such as Amedei," Stanes says. "Suddenly pastry chefs tried chocolate couverture that wasn't around before and were blown away by the quality and taste. They had never analysed individual qualities of different beans and couvertures before."
"It's the pastry chef's time now," says chocolatier-pâtissier Paul Wayne Gregory, who established his successful artisan chocolate-making business in south London in 2006 but as yet hasn't expanded on to the high street. "It reminds me of the late 1980s/early 1990s when people such as Marco Pierre White started out. Now it's our time - I think you'll get a lot of people setting up dessert houses and chocolateries."
"It's just evolution," agrees Curley. "We're a bit more entrepreneurial these days - for many years British pâtissiers have gone down the route of running operations within restaurants and large hotels, but you get to a period when you say, where do I go now? Become an executive pastry chef in a bigger hotel or do my own thing? It's a challenge for a pâtissier or chocolate-maker to go it alone in the UK. But when the economy picks up again I think there'll be few more joining us on the high street."
WATCH A VIDEO MASTERCLASS WITH WILLIAM CURLEY & DAMIAN ALLSOP
THE BRITS... WHO'S WHO IN LONDON
William and Suzue Curley
Business William Curley
Background Both classically trained pastry chefs with CVs incorporating stints with big name French, Belgian and British chefs and hotels (including Marc Meneau, Pierre Romeyer, Savoy hotel).
Where? Two chocolaterie-pâtisseries in Richmond, Surrey (Greater London); and Belgravia.
Does what? Artisan chocolates and pâtisserie. New Belgravia business has seating for 20, is just about to launch a brunch menu and matches fine sweet wines and Champagne with its chocolates and desserts.
Business L'Artisan du Chocolat
Background CV incorporates spells in Marco Pierre White's The Restaurant (Hyde Park hotel), with Pierre Marcolini in Belgium.
Where? Two chocolateries in London (one near Sloane Square, the other in Notting Hill). Plus presence in London's renowned foodie haven of Borough Market and throughout the UK in all Selfridges stores.
Does what? Artisan chocolates. Notting Hill also serves chocolate-based cocktails in its bijou 14-seat space.
Paul A Young
Background Pastry chef at Marco Pierre White's Criterion Brasserie and Quo Vadis.
Where? Two chocolateries in the City of London (Camden Passage, Islington and Royal Exchange).
Does what? Artisan chocolates.
Keep an eye out for...
Claire Clark Ex-French Laundry head pastry chef, planning to open a high-street business in 2010-2011 probably in Chelsea-Belgravia.
Damian Allsop Chocolatier-pâtissier (ex-Aubergine, Locanda Locatelli, Jordi Rocca) who set up a business in 2007 and supplies Michelin-starred establishments such as Claude Bosi's London restaurant, Hibiscus. Not on the high street yet, but rumoured to be going into Selfridges with his revolutionary water-based ganache-filled chocolates. www.damianallsop.com
Paul Wayne Gregory Chocolatier-pâtissier (stints with Jean Valentin and Spain's superstar pastry chef Oriel Balaguer). Not on high street yet, but rumoured to be going into Fortnum & Mason's.
Out of London
Small artisan-led chocolateries (some with seating) are spreading out of London. They include Brighton-based Montezuma, set up by self-taught amateurs Helen and Simon Pattinson (www.montezumas.co.uk): Chococo in Purbeck, Dorset set up by Claire and Andy Burnet (www.chococo.co.uk); and Salcombe Chocolate Academy, set up by chef Andrew Cunningham (www.salcombechocolateacademy.co.uk).
France's most celebrated pâtissier, Pierre Hermé, is heading for London. In Paris he is feted on a par with chef-restaurateurs such as Joël Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire and forged his reputation by re-inventing macarons in the 1980s (mini meringues sandwiched by ganache or cream, often served as petits fours). He introduced flavours such as rose and pistachio, now considered classics - and more recently lime and basil, truffle and hazelnut, olive oil and vanilla, matcha green tea and sesame nougatine. His chocolate collections have used a similar range of raw ingredients while staying recognisably within the French chocolatier technical tradition.
Hermé's shop will open in July in Lowndes Street, Knightsbridge. Its will join existing boutique chocolaterie-pâtisserie outlets he has in Paris and Tokyo.
"He has been an inspiration for lots of British pâtissiers over the past decade and it's good news he's coming over here. He's the best of French we want to be the best of British!" comments William Curley, who last November opened up in the same London area.
SOME CHOCOLATE TREATS
Tancredi and Alberto Alemagna are the fourth generation of a family that has created Italian confectionery since 1911. They have recently introduced the T'a collection of single-estate chocolates and exclusive blends using Grand Cru cocoa beans from Mexico, Venezuela, Equador, Colombia, Brazil, Ghana and Tanzania which includes "Dragées" - hazelnuts and almonds covered in white, dark or milk chocolate and available boxed or loose; one- or two-piece boxes of eight gram squares of chocolate with varying percentages of cocoa in a combination of milk and dark; and various T'a bars including a dark chocolate bar with 66% cocoa combined with Japanese pepper, Sorrento lemon or Calabrian liquorice.
Lauden Chocolate was set up in 2007 by Sun and Stephen and recently opened its factory in the centre of Leeds. The chocolates are decorated with patterns made from cocoa butter and the 12 core flavours are: Fresh mint, Lemon, Blackcurrant & Redcurrant, Marc de Champagne, Salted caramel, Passion Fruit, Lime, Sour cherry, Lychee & Rose, Raspberry & Rose, Mediterranean Orange and Single origin with 64% cocoa beans from a single estate in Madagascar.
0113 244 0289
Damian Allsop Chocolates
Damian Allsop's hand-made chocolates are created using a water base instead of cream or butter. This removes the lactic flavour which gives a purer, more intense taste, together with a lighter, fresher sensation. The range includes ganaches, semi-liquid chocolates, lollipops, chocolate nuts, flavour changers, chocolate bars, chocolate spread, and the latest creation, Clouds, a contemporary take on a classic macaroon, with a light, crispy centre in a seasonally changing flavour, encased in chocolate and decorated by hand. A new range of chocolates called Pure Amano Collection is about to be launched.
Town & Country Fine Foods
Town & Country Fine Foods has a range of over 850 products. Besides a range of nearly 40 different couvertures - including première cru from French chocolatier Michel Cluizel, Grand Cru from Swiss chocolatier Felchlin, and Swiss Carma - the company offers premium European chocolates and petits fours from family master chocolatiers in Europe. A new addition is a de luxe selection from Michel Cluizel which includes single origin ganaches from their partner cocoa plantations (Cuba, Costa Rica, Equador, Vanuata and Venezuela) and decorated with 22-carat gold and silver leaf. Personalised Neapolitans and chocolate boxes are available to offer guests in their room and new products for the mini-bar including British organic Montezuma's bars and chocolate buttons.
La Maison du Chocolat
Parisian chocolatier La Maison du Chocolat has 17 boutiques worldwide including one in London's Piccadilly. Products include Les Attentions, a box of two chocolate ganaches; Les Pralines, a small box of four assorted pralines infused with coconut, orange bergamot, roasted chocolate nibs and pistachio; and Les Orangettes, thin strips of candied orange dipped in dark chocolate.
020 7287 8500