Gallons of ink, both real and virtual, have been spilled extolling the virtues of travel, with quite a few pints by yours truly. Whether described as expanding one’s horizons, sampling new experiences and cultures, or simply part of shaking up a daily routine, it can’t be denied that going to new places can introduce you to things you never imagined … and have an impact well beyond the trip itself.
A pre-Christmas birthdaversary trip to the city of Chester in 2017 is one such excursion that continues to resonate. Stumbling upon the folk group The Trials of Cato busking at the Chester Cross led to polite Facebook stalking, which in turn led to seeing them perform at two gigs and a well-played CD. And popping into Rococo Chocolates on a cold morning to thaw out with a hot drink gave MrElaineous and me a taste for luxury chocolates that continues until this day.
While the hot chocolate was good, it was their seagull eggs that hooked us. A salted caramel ganache filling surrounded by a sugar shell, the British word to describe them is moreish. You cannot eat just one. Indeed, sometimes MrElaineous and I have trouble stopping at one bag. Fortunately for us, not only do they have an online store, but they also have shops in London where we have been known to stock up on occasion.
During a recent trip to bid a fond farewell to Company, the stars were in alignment: we had some free time before the performance and Rococo was offering a class on making salted caramel truffles. It was a match made in chocolate heaven.
We were the only ones who had booked that day, so it turned out to be a private class with experienced chocolatier Jon. Like any class, it started with a bit of background before we got down to the practical business of truffle making. However, I think if more courses interspersed their lessons with chocolate samples like Jon did, learning would be so much sweeter!
For example, geography. The cacao trees that chocolate comes from only grow in a narrow band within 20° of latitude from the Equator. This means that some of the leading chocolate-producing countries are also big coffee producers and, much like terroir in wine, the type of plants that the cacao trees grow with can also affect the taste of the finished chocolate.
Then there’s biology. Unlike most fruiting plants (yes, cacao is a fruit), the cacao pod grows directly from the trunk of the tree rather than the end of the branch, and pods ripen at different times throughout the year, allowing for multiple harvests from the same tree. Each pod contains 30-40 cacao beans, and these are removed to ferment and dry. The drying is typically a low-tech activity: because the cacao beans are so sensitive to absorbing other flavours, drying in the sun in the preferred way to prepare the beans before grinding.
And for us making the truffles, chemistry comes into play once the caramel making begins in earnest: glucose and ascorbic acid are added, then a very careful waiting game as the mixture is heated and stirred. Caramel is very easy to burn, so we looked to Jon for guidance. It went something like this:
Not ready yet.
Not ready yet.
Not ready yet.
Remove from heat, now!
Next came one of my favourite parts, adding smoked sea salt. I have both a salt and a sweet tooth, so it was a balancing act of including enough for my palate while being mindful not to drown MrElaineous in delicious brine. The salt and the caramel thus combined, it was time to adjourn to the tasting room while the mixture cooled.
Here we were able to sample the different recipes Rococo has on offer. It was a fascinating look into not only their business and charity connections across the globe—they jointly own a cacao farm with the Grenada Chocolate Company to bring ethical, single-origin chocolate to consumers—but also see the full spectrum of chocolate on offer, from white and blonde to the more traditional milk and dark. It also challenged my taste buds; previously, I would have described myself as a white and milk chocolate type of gal. But combinations that I didn’t expect to work were some of my favourites, including Spice Islands, a dark chocolate bar made with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg, and the caramelised blonde chocolate with its delicate butterscotch flavour.
Next came helping to temper the chocolate through a process of heating, cooling, and re-heating. This step helps ensure that the chocolate is of better quality, with small, uniform crystals that are neatly in alignment. Untempered chocolate, on the other hand, leads to blooms of white patches on the surface caused by the cocoa fat separating out: it’s still safe to eat but doesn’t look very appetising. The tempering process we used involved a marble countertop, a palette knife, and a Black + Decker heat gun. It was also good fun: the liquid chocolate was spread on the marble with the knife to cool then reheated with the heat gun before cooling it down again to the precise temperature of 30o C.
With the chocolate done, we were finally ready to assemble the constituent parts. Carefully filling each pre-made chocolate shell with the precious salted caramel mixture became hypnotic as all my attention was focused on dispensing a Goldilocks amount: not too little (why skimp on caramelly goodness?) and not too much (really messy). Then it was time to get our hands dirty with the chocolate itself: the hole in each shell is capped with a dab of the brown stuff, followed by a generous helping of chocolate poured into a (gloved) palm. The truffle gets well coated in the liquid chocolate by being rubbed between the hands, before being dunked in cocoa powder; this produced a rustic truffle that looked absolutely amazing.
These were boxed up for us to take away, and we discovered we could finally answer that eternal question: is it possible to actually consume too much chocolate in one sitting? Yes, yes it is.
As a result, we couldn’t bear to taste them that evening, but on the train home the next day we broke the seal. A quick “let’s just have one” turned into three (each). And by the following day? We had moved beyond moreish: they were gone.
Many thanks to MrElaineous for sharing several of his photos with me!