Until March 2014, there was no Cocoa Nut having the Culinary Adventures of the eponymous blog. Yes, there was a food writer by the name of Zoe Perrett who rather liked chocolate and wrote about it as often as she could when she wasn’t involved with Indian food in her capacity as The Spice Scribe, but there was no dedicated space for her to both collate her many existing musings and just chat chocolate.
The blog name came to me just after my idea for pairing pork scratchings and dark chocolate inspired Food Urchin’s own ‘meat meets chocolate’ entry into the Godiva Chocolate Challenge; where I shared some pork scratchings & spiced sugar and mustard oil & chaat masala-spiked chocolate with a game Mark Hix and a rather less willing William Sitwell.
I was, of course, there to champion Danny, the Food Urchin of the web world; although sadly his bacon and chocolate tart was not triumphant. Should have stuck to the scratchings, Dan.
As Easter approached, so did the Chocolate Festival in Islington, where my mate Aneesh ‘The Chocolatier’ Popat created an egg-crowned, entirely edible goddess sculpture. Working on his stall for a while, I heard nothing but positive praise for Aneesh’s unusual flavour combinations and dairy-free water ganache truffles. Plus, I got paid in chocolate – including a slab studded with olives and cracked pepper and my favourite mango poppadom spice shards.
As The Spice Scribe as well as The Cocoa Nut, Indian-inspired chocolate combines all my favourite things. Inspired by the East-meets-West fusion a la The Chocolatier and Devnaa, not to mention the Bombay mix bits from Chocally and Duke of Delhi, I found my feet creating a recipe for charity Find Your Feet’s cooking competition – the Bombay Bad Boy chocolate cheesecake. Chef Vivek Singh judged it a winning ‘attractive and mad’ creation, and off I went to film this video.
The chocolate-Bombay mix blitz continued as we marched into May and I rustled up this recipe for my first column for South Asian culture website DESIblitz, alongside an in-depth exploration of chocolate with an Indian accent. Summer may have only just been beginning, but in The Cocoa Nut’s world it was almost Advent, with the advent of the first round of Christmas press previews.
Christmas in July highlights included making merry with Marc Demarquette, who was commandeering a large electric fan at the scorching Selfridges show where Pierre Marcolini’s poor chocolate Santa Claus was melting like the Wicked Witch of The West; ogling the Tree of Wonder in the wonderfully cool Maison Du Chocolat boutique; snaffling savoury chocolate canapes at Hotel Chocolat; and just about everything in Paul A Young’s Christmas collection.
This Cocoa Nut likes Christmas, and chocolate, but hates heights. More than I thought, in fact, because popping just a few floors up The Shard left me a little lightheaded. It was worth the sweaty palms, though, because the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was the discovery of a dozen chocolate bûches de Noël created by Britain’s best pastry chefs for Valrhona; all of which I ate, then later wrote about in the Winter issue of Good Things magazine.
My ‘Cocoa Cuisine’ article was the lead cover feature for Good Things‘ Autumn edition; exploring the savoury side of cooking with chocolate. Along with rather good recipes from the likes of Chantal Coady, Sophie Jewett and Paul A Young, it included expert pairing advice from Valrhona’s Frederick Bau and top dish picks from Chocablog‘s Dom Ramsay.
Dom and I swiftly established a firm friendship based on chocolate; surely the most solid of foundations. At the Speciality Food Show, he recommended I try Chocolat Madagascar’s Organic 70% offering, ensuring I am yet more indebted to him. An invite to an Ecuadorean chocolate tasting where I met Susana Cardenas and encountered Montecristi’s Manabi 70% – possibly one of my favourite chocolates ever – only means I remain firmly in the red when it comes to karmic debt.
After a little more Christmassing at Godiva’s fashionably late October festive preview, it was off to Hotel Cafe Royal for the launch of Profile 66 – Valrhona’s specially-commissioned chocolate, designed with chef Andrew Blas as the perfect product for use in patisserie. Along with sweet and savoury canapes, a fair few choctails were quaffed.
After Aneesh’s chocolate sculpture at spring’s Chocolate Festival, one expected him to create an impressive entry for Salon du Chocolat’s fashion show – and he didn’t disappoint, with his chocolate-printed ‘Saree du Chocolat’, accessorised with chocolate mendhi; a chocolate disk tikka; chocolate bindi, rings, bangles and a necklace; and even water ganache truffle drop earrings.
I could have asked to borrow it when I took part in Marc Demarquette’s blogger panel at the show – but I thought it might get messy. Instead, I simply chatted chocolate with Marc, Dom Ramsey, Chocolate Ecstasy Tours founder Jennifer Earle; and we introduced the audience to a few new tasters, including British bean to bar from Doble & Bignall and Zotter’s sugar-free milk chocolate – a bar which divided those who devoured it much like Marmite would.
Elsewhere at The Chocolate Show, there was only approval for Marc Hambrook’s box-fresh chocolate company – creative seasonal flavours and top technique marking Whisk & Whites out as one to watch. November’s judging at the International Chocolate Awards yielded a few more eye-openers; a white chocolate yuzumiso-infused truffle, a gorgeous green chartreuse ganache, and summat with soy sauce. Yes, soy sauce.
Salted caramels also abounded – their perennial popularity seemingly never waning. But, just a few days later, the inaugural Great British Salted Chocolate Challenge aimed to show that there’s further scope for creative salty cocoa combinations. With almost 40 entries to evaluate, judges including Paul A Young and The Telegraph’s resident chocolate expert Andrew Baker certainly had their cocoa-craziness put to the test.
Although, to be fair, I probably ate as many as they did. With chocolates of this calibre, it was hard to cease and desist. Speciality salts of all sorts were pressed into service in specimens like 18 year-old Zahra Snell’s winter spice and merlot salt chocolate, Fiona Sciolti’s ‘Salted Mocha Buzz’ with Espresso Bravo salt and bee pollen, and ‘Highland Chocolatier’ Iain Burnett’s winning shell-free raspberry and black pepper with Sichuan pepper salt.
And then Dom Ramsay decided to make his first forays into chocolate-making; his very first batch more beautiful than many market-ready specimens. So far, he’s worked with Ashaninka beans from Peru and Madagascan Sambirano Valley beans (lovely!), and has created a reputedly totally tropical-tasting Ecuadorean number. You’ll be pleased to know that he’s both accepting orders and offering excellent, in-depth bean-to-bar crash-courses like this one.
I’m not planning to make my own chocolate just yet, but at 2014’s end I remain a complete and utter Cocoa Nut – albeit one with a palate that’s unwittingly evolved to enjoy rather more superior stuff. This Christmas I consumed not a single overly-sweet Quality Street, opting for Cornish bean-to-bar maker Chocolarder’s majestic gold, frankincense and myrrh ‘Three Kings’ chocolate over those sickly sweet treats.
With a choc-full chocolate cupboard that in no way resembles Mother Hubbard’s, I’ll be welcoming 2015 with some brand new spoils – guranteed to make it a very happy new year indeed.