It's Easter, and so we can all feel good about gorging ourselves stupid on on chocolate for once. But wait a minute, we're not kids! What do you do if you want something classy and Kit Kat eggs just don't cut it anymore. Well, you're in luck. First there's plenty of choice: the new buzzphrase in chocolate circles is 'bean-to-bar’; chocolatiers are now making exceptional and distinctive chocolate bars that distill the flavour of different beans into silky slabs of yum. Second, although many of London’s interesting chocolate makers sell mostly their own makes, there are a number of places where you can sample a range of different brands.
My current favourite is Alexeeva & Jones – a chocolate boutique at the western end of Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill Gate that helps you to explore what’s on offer. Easter sophisticates, enter these doors. Here you can sample chocolate from some of the best artisan makers in Britain, Paris, Belgium, Switzerland and elsewhere. Whilst Alexeeva & Jones sells online, it is worth visiting just to be surrounded by the warmly scented waft of chocolate as you walk in: endorphin heaven. The ‘library’ of top bars is to your right and your eye is immediately drawn to beautiful packaging that alone makes this classy confectionary worthy of a present.
One of the trends in chocolate is for ‘dark milks’: milk chocolate with high cocoa solids – perhaps as much as 60%. Fans claim this gives you both the flavour of the beans and the comforting taste of milk – sort of like Galaxy for grown-ups. The helpful assistant gave me a nibble of a couple made by Friis Holm, a renowned Denmark-based producer who gets a lot of good press and wins multiple awards for his dark milks. I enjoyed the gentle dairy, which was pretty good but I found myself still searching for a purer hit of bean. Single origin dark bars offer a more obviously contrasting and stronger range of tastes, with beguiling layers of acidity and fruitiness that unfurl as the chocolate melts in your mouth. Not that I’m a dark-bar purist. Akesson’s Single Plantation Madagascan (75% cocoa) and Valrhona’s Blond Dulcey (32% cocoa), at different ends of the dark-to-creamy spectrum, both left me purring. Mercifully, posh chocolate bars are expensive – £3.50 to £10 or so – and you tend to eat them slowly.
There are other places for your taste buds to browse. For those curious or passionate about the new posh choc bars, Cocoa Runners is a recently-launched chocolate-bar-by-post company with a great website for tasting notes and monthly subscriptions (starting at £14.95) for a selection of bars. This includes those made by Duffy Sheardown of Red Star Chocolate, a British bean-to-bar chocolate maker whose products include the award-winning dark milk, Venezuela Ocumare 55%. Paul A Young is another excellent British chocolatier who has just added his take on bean-to-bar chocolate to his range, sold online and through his London shops. He even adds the shell of the cocoa nibs, usually discarded, in the Madagascan chocolate bars in order to give even more of the bean.