I’m always intrigued by the way television covers the chocolate industry. It will usually take one of two angles; Either it will reminisce about the long lost British chocolate industry with archive footage of the Cadbury, Rowntree or Fry’s factories, or it will extol the virtues of some European country; usually either France, Belgium or Switzerland.
I had high hopes when I heard Michel Roux Jr was tackling the subject with his BBC programme Chocolate Perfection. If anyone can open up the exciting world of chocolate makers and chocolatiers, it’s him. He’s knowledgable, charming, and from what I hear, a very nice man.
As I sat down to watch with my cup of tea, my enthusiasm was brought to a crashing halt with the words “You won’t be surprised that in the search for my best, I won’t be touring the UK” spoken over archive ’70s footage of Cadbury’s Bournville factory.
Well actually, yes, I am surprised.
Roux chose to base the entire programme in France, which is fair enough, but the throw away statement as to why the UK – and the rest of the world – were being skipped entirely was both shocking and poorly judged.
Now you might think that I’m just miffed that us Brits were left out, and that French chocolate really is the home of Chocolate Perfection, but that’s really not the case. There does seem to be a perception amongst some in the food industry that French chocolate leads the world, but that’s an outdated point of view and frankly, one that is just plain wrong.
Don’t take my word for it though; The International Chocolate Awards represent the very pinnacle of achievement for chocolate makers and chocolatiers. Out of 59 medals given at last year’s World Final, only one went to a French company (a sliver medal for Bonnat’s – Juliana bar). Italy led the way with fifteen awards, followed the the US with ten and the UK with a respectable nine.
In my chocolate travels, I’ve been lucky enough to visit France on many occasions. Indeed, for the last three years, I’ve attended the world’s biggest chocolate show, Salon Du Chocolat in Paris. The show is awash with French chocolatiers from all over the country and most of them are pretty good. But when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that many are using the same Valrhona chocolate. In many cases, chocolatiers will simply re-mould existing Valrhona bars and put their own labels on them – complete with the original Valrhona product name.
The baseline for quality chocolate in France is certainly higher than in the UK. A bar or simple praline made with Valrhona chocolate is clearly better than our mass produced KitKat or Dairy Milk. The French have a tradition of quality chocolate and simply don’t eat cheap confectionery bars in the quantities we do.
But with that tradition has come a level of complacency. For me, there has been little in the way of innovation to see in Paris over the last few years. And when it does appear, it’s usually from Japanese chocolatiers. The likes of Es Koyama who have started with a traditional French style and taken it in exciting new directions.
French tastes are so entwined with tradition that it’s very difficult for a chocolatier to try something truly innovative. Weird and wonderful flavour combinations don’t tend to sell, and as a consequence chocolatiers stick with what they know.
Here in the UK, we might seem a little more reserved than the French, but we have an adventurous streak! Chocolatiers like Paul A Young experiment with everything from Marmite to cigar leaves in their products in their quest to tantalise the tastebuds. Down in Dorset, Chococo use delicious local and fresh ingredients for their range of beautiful and brightly coloured chocolates. Shelly Preston’s Boutique Aromatique in Nottinghamshire produces a wonderful range inspired by fragrant florals and essential oils. And up in Edinburgh, The Chocolate Tree produce an entire range of bars, truffles and confections with chocolate they make from the bean themselves.
There’s still only a handful of companies in the UK producing chocolate from the bean, but it’s an industry that’s growing too. Only this week, York Cocoa House are embarking on their own journey, bringing back small batch chocolate making to the spiritual home of British chocolate.
There is so much excitement and innovation in the British chocolate industry at the moment and it was a real shame to see it dismissed in a single sentence at the start of Chocolate Perfection. And there was simply no mention at all of the explosion of small-batch bean-to-bar makers in the United States that are taking the world by storm. I enjoyed the programme for what it was, a interesting look at the French chocolate industry, but that’s all it was.
I only hope the BBC will consider commissioning a follow-up, looking at some of the inspirational and innovative chocolatiers and chocolate makers we have here in the UK.
For another viewpoint on the programme, take a look at Steven Pierce’s excellent post “Why Michel Roux Jr Is Wrong About Chocolate“.