Of London’s many villages within a city’, the one around Ebury Square, in Belgravia, is the least expected. As you leave the chaos of Victoria Coach Station and cross into Pimlico Road, you enter another world. On your left, The Orange gastropub proposes tuna carpaccio with violet artichokes as a starter and Champagne-braised rabbit as a main, while on the right, the immaculate Daylesford Organic farm shop is selling butternut chutney, Penyston cheese, and free-range bronze turkeys. Across the road is Hunan, dubbed ‘the world’s best Chinese restaurant’ by critic Giles Coren, and nearby, on Mozart Square, La Poule au Pot serves escargots de Bourgogne (snails with garlic), and duck confit.
In this hamlet of fine food, it’s easy to miss the discreet white shopfront of William Curley, the amiable Scot who, five years in a row, has been voted Britain’s Best Chocolatier by the Academy of Chocolate. Its awards are open to entrants worldwide, but the traditional crucibles of chocolate-making (Paris, Brussels, Bruges) have been overshadowed in recent years.
“Our awards have shown Britain is holding its head up against the rest of the world,” says Sara-Jayne Stanes, director of the Academy of Culinary Arts in London and a judge in the competition. “People like William Curley, Paul A Young and Marc Demarquette have put London on the map.” Others agree that, while Paris and Brussels have more chocolate shops, as stylish as any Hermès boutique, London has the edge when it comes to creativity.
“This one is Japanese black vinegar,” says Curley, when I join him for a tasting of couture hand-made chocolates. “Black vinegar is malt-like, quite similar to balsamic which works well with chocolate. People go ‘Wow, it’s crazy’, but it’s not; it’s a natural progression.” I bite into the centre and it doesn’t taste remotely of vinegar. My taste buds tingle and the slight sharpness merely accentuates the bitter-sweet acidity of the cocoa.
Next up is yuzu, a citrus fruit from East Asia with grapefruit and mandarin notes, followed by apricot and wasabi, the fruitiness amplified by a peppery heat that’s almost imperceptible. “It can be too subtle,” Curley says. We finish with a mustard and tarragon truffle. “Tarragon has aniseed notes,” he explains, “and aniseed has always worked well. I’ve got books from the 1800s where people have mixed aniseed in chocolate drinks. Cardamom, too, has been used in chocolate for decades, and chilli.”
Curley’s shop is used as a starting point for the Chocolate Ecstasy Tours led by Jennifer Earle, founder of WorldChocolateGuide.com and a champion of the capital’s new wave chocolatiers. “London is a really big player now,” she says, “and it’s all about innovation. There’s a guy called Franck Kerstener who has opened a shop in Paris, and he’s doing things like tarte tatin truffles and using spices, more like what the London chocolatiers are doing.”
Luckily for Earle’s clients, shops in London are clustered within easy walking distance of each other. Just up the road in Lower Sloane Street, is Artisan du Chocolat, with its startling interior of stainless steel, slate and rosewood which is in fact a showroom since the chocolates are made in a factory in Kent. It’s a 15-minute walk to Rococo Chocolates in the King’s Road, where Chantal Coady set the ball rolling in 1983. Her ornate French-style chocolates and flavoured bars, which include basil and lime, orange and geranium, and Christmas pudding, were thrust upon a British public weaned on Dairy Milk, but this and her flagship store in Belgravia (in Motson Street, a short walk from William Curley) continue to thrive 28 years later. The other axis is Notting Hill, where Artisan du Chocolat has its second, flagship store, and Melt lets customers pick their own chocolates.
More progressive still is Paul A Young, dubbed, ‘the Heston Blumenthal of Chocolate’. In his mauve-fronted boutique in Soho, filled with antiques and lined with embossed wallpaper, an assistant wearing only one white glove greets me like a forgetful butler. “This is our winter collection,” she says, but instead of leading me to a rail of couture clothing, she plucks a chocolate from a glass stand, offers it to me on a napkin and announces, “it’s our mulled wine truffle”. Others include port and stilton, goat’s cheese and ‘winter Pimm’s’, whatever that may be, but the one I really want to try is Young’s most talked-about creation to date: a truffle made with Marmite. Playing on the salty sweet trend championed by Gerard Coleman’s liquid sea salted caramels, served by Gordon Ramsay at Claridges in 2003, they’re either loved or hated. Initially lampooned by critics, it has proved so popular Young doesn’t dare take it off his list. Tentatively, with the maestro standing by, I pop it in my mouth. The moreish chocolatiness comes first, followed by a subtle, salty tang. “I love it,” I reassure Young — but I expect he is used to hearing that.
Five fine chocolate experiences
1. Chocolate Ecstasy Tours: Guided walking tours to chocolate shops in Mayfair and Chelsea. T: 07981 809 536. www.chocolateecstasytours.com
2. Artisan du Chocolat: Sleek Chelsea atelier, famous for caramels, with a second shop in Notting Hill. T: 020 7824 8365. www.artisanduchocolat.com
3. Rococo Chocolates: Chantal Coady’s King’s Road shop, founded in 1983; also in Belgravia and Marylebone. T: 020 7352 5857. http://rococochocolates.com
4. La Maison du Chocolat: Grand Parisian chocolate house in Piccadilly with suited assistants. T: 020 7287 8500. www.lamaisonduchocolat.com
5. Montezuma’s: The trendiest of them all, in Shoreditch, set up by ex-lawyers who pioneered chilli chocolate. T: 020 7539 9208. www.montezumas.co.uk
The four chocolatiers
Marc Demarquette, Chelsea
Former management consultant Demarquette owes his traditional skills to a French father and the exoticism of his art to a Chinese mother. His ganaches (filled squares) include Chinese green tea and jasmine, Thai lemongrass, the award-winning Arabian coffee (with cinnamon and cardamom) and Tunisian bharat (damask rose, spices) while his Kentish cobnut praline was one of three Demarquette chocolates to win gold in the 2011 Great Taste awards.
■ How much: Boxes from £7.95 (six pieces); Couverture bars £5.50.T: 020 7351 5467.
Chikako Watanabe, Notting Hill
Watanabe is head chocolatier at Melt — an open-plan shop where customers watch chocolates being hand-made fresh, then pick their own from trays. Try chilli cube, yuzu ganache, ginger and passionfruit cup or a bonbon made with caramel and black olive tapenade. The provenance of the base chocolate used is crucial, with an emphasis on ethical sourcing from Colombia and Grenada, and support for a small artisanal producer in Utah, USA.
■ How much: Boxes £15.50 (10 pieces); ‘pick your own’ £1.50 each; bars from £2.60. T: 020 7727 5030.
Paul A Young, Soho
Another pastry chef with a pedigree, Young is a chocolatier in the Heston Blumenthal mould, experimenting with daring attention-grabbing creations. Marmite is his boldest, though port and stilton and variations on mulled wine and hot toddies have proved popular in winter. Last year’s summer collection included tomato, basil and olive oil, and strawberry, balsamic and black pepper. This shop looks like a cross between an apothecary and a fashion boutique; the two others are in Islington and the City.
■ How much: Boxes from £6.90 (four pieces); individual chocolates £2. T: 020 7437 0011 (Soho).
William Curley, Belgravia
A classically trained pastry chef who has worked with the greats — Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc — Curley brings all his perfectionism to couture chocolate-making. Even odd pairings (mustard and tarragon, apricot and wasabi, white chocolate and miso) are founded on sound culinary principles. He also does a fun nostalgia range like jaffa cakes, tea cakes and millionaire’s shortbread, and exquisitely decadent desserts, here and at a second branch in Richmond.
■ How much: Couture boxes from £21 (16 pieces); nostalgia range £3 each. T: 020 7730 5522.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)