Cook with chocolate this Valentine's Day
PUBLISHED: 00:06 12 February 2014
Chocolate shouldn't just be given in a box this Valentine's Day. Use it as a delicious savoury spice in cooking too, says our food and drink consultant Annie Stirk
If a diamond ring is out of the question this Valentine’s Day, remember, a big box of chocolates can also be a girl’s best friend. On February 14th it’s estimated that £95 million is spent on chocolates, with more than eight million boxes being sold as people clamour to shower their loved one with sensuous sweets. At The Little Chocolate Shop in Leyburn experts craft tiny shoes out of chocolate (for the girl who has everything), but it’s the heart-shaped pralines and truffles that are the biggest seller come February. ‘We make all sorts of hearts but a favourite is made from pure dark chocolate with a cointreau liqueur white chocolate ganache centre,’ says owner Jim Hogg. ‘After all, heart-shaped chocolates after a romantic meal certainly put people in the right mood.’
Indeed, modern day science shows there is more than a grain (or should that be bean) of truth in the idea that chocolate is a ‘love potion’. Cacao or cocoa beans contain the mood boosting chemicals serotonin and phenyl ethylamine that raise blood pressure, increase the heart rate and induce feelings of well being, bordering on euphoria, commonly associated with being in love. In fact, one recent study by researchers at Hasselt and Antwerp universities in Belgium showed that if you pump the aroma of chocolate into a bookshop people are more likely to buy romance than any other type of book. Now there’s an idea.
All that being said, if you came across a cocoa tree you’d be hard pressed to envisage a chocolate bar, let alone feel romantic. The trees’ vivid yellow or orange rugby-ball shaped fruits – up to the size of a small melon – grow from the trunk and, when opened up, burst forth with gooey pulp and white seeds. Left for a few days to ferment and create the distinctive and unmistakable cocoa aroma, the beans turn to a more familiar dark brown and, after sorting and grading, are husked and the fatty kernel or nib is ground into a rich liquid called cocoa mass. Some cocoa mass is squeezed under huge pressure, which presses out all the fat – called cocoa butter – and leaves behind dry cocoa cakes or powder.
While artisan chocolatiers take up to six days to roll and conch the cocoa mass to thicken it, allowing the unique acids and aromas to appear, the bigger manufacturers get this done in a matter of hours (often smothering the cocoa in a good dose of sugar and evaporated milk along the way), and then the chocolate is tempered (heated) before being poured into moulds.
Top notch chocolate is therefore all about the cocoa nib and cocoa butter content, and if there’s one place where that idea is finely tuned it’s at Hotel Chocolat’s new Roast & Conch Restaurant in the Trinity Centre, Leeds, which brings the flavour – and the chef – from its famous Boucan Hotel and Restaurant in the Caribbean to Yorkshire.
Here, the humble cocoa bean is taken to the next level by executive chef Jon Benson – who honed his skills while working at Hotel Chocolat’s sister venue on the Rabot Estate, one of the oldest cocoa plantations in St Lucia – with a Caribbean-inspired menu that includes dishes such as Cocoa Nib Bread & Dips with chocolate balsamic, cocoa pesto and nib butter, and Yorkshire puddings filled with slow-cooked pulled pork, garlic mash and red-wine cocoa gravy. Chef Benson insists the chocolate-themed menu is not a gimmick.
‘Three thousand years ago we were all using cocoa nibs in cookery, and it’s only in the last 400 years it has become associated with a sweet product,’ says Jon, who has worked at 12 of the top Michelin kitchens with stars such as Gary Rhodes and John Burton-Race (Tom Kerridge used to be Jon’s sous chef). ‘We’re now rediscovering cacao’s fantastic properties as a savoury spice – giving nutty, sweet and bitter tones all at once.’
If you can’t get to the restaurant, Jon insists there’s still plenty of scope for a romantic, chocolate-inspired meal at home.
‘Cocoa nibs are much more available now and are lovely in salads, where they can be used instead of pine nuts,’ he says. ‘You could even marinade them in oil and use them to give a nutty taste to pasta or fish.
‘Ultimately, chocolate and cocoa stimulates the brain and the heart, it soothes and warms and gives genuine pleasure – so in my mind it’s a perfect ingredient for February 14th.’ adds Jon.
The making of chocolate
Just why have these velvety treats become synonymous with romance, hedonism and sensuality? Let me spill the beans.
Chocolate’s beginnings as cocoa beans, nestled in the pods of the cacao tree in the humid equatorial forests of South America, Africa or Asia, already give the food an exotic flavour. The Mayans worshipped the cacao tree believing it to have divine origins, calling it the ‘Theobrom Cacao’ – meaning ‘food of the gods’ and its cacao bean (later corrupted into the more familiar ‘cocoa’) as ‘God food’.
When the Spaniards first arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519, it’s said King Moctezuma glugged down an impressive 50 jars of foaming ‘chocolat’ – a drink concocted from the seeds of the cacao tree and a precursor to our modern day chocolate – and it’s believed this early hot chocolate was designed to improve the male tribesmen’s success with women, and played a big part in early marriage ceremonies.
‘When the beans were smuggled to Europe and Asia, slowly but surely the rest of Europe fell under its spell,’ says The Little Chocolate Shop’s owner Jim Hogg. ‘At that time chocolate was a luxury enjoyed by the royal court and the privileged classes and it was only when Gladstone lowered the chocolate tax in 1853, and Rodolphe Lindt introduced the conching process, that the less affluent began to enjoy it.’
But with Madame de Pompadour, chief mistress of Louis XV, recommending chocolate as an aphrodisiac and Casanova rating it above champagne for its seductive qualities, it’s not surprising it became indelibly associated with romance.
Choc ‘til you drop
The Little Chocolate Shop, Harmby Road, Leyburn
There are more than 250 handmade chocolates to choose from including chocolate figurines, high-heeled shoes and chunky bars.
Hotel Chocolat, Albion Place, Leeds
This is chocolate for the connoisseur ranging from award-winning chocolate-covered kirsch cherries to the latest harvest from the Rabot Estate.
Monk Bar, Shambles, York
The long-established artisan chocolate specialist store is run by Liz and Ray Cardy and son Alan, makes more than 60 luxury chocolates as well as sculptures and artisan ice-cream.
Guppys Chocolates, Clifton Moor, York
Shards, bars, truffles and decorations made fresh in small batches by Peter and Fran Guppy and sold at local food festivals and farmers’ markets.
York Cocoa House, Blake Street, York
Sophie Jewett’s chocolate shop is modeled on the 17th century-style cocoa house, selling high-quality chocolates and offers tastings, a chocolate school and café.