With Easter coming up, we at The Holborn have chocolate on the brain and are keen to stock our Pantry with the very best artisan treats.
Over the past few years there has been a boom in chocolate made by skilled chocolatiers, thanks to small producers experimenting with new techniques and flavours, as well as retailers and festivals championing proper bean-to-bar chocolate.
We dusted off our best china and invited award-winning chocolatier Paul A Young for some tea and a chat, to find out his thoughts on what the best chocolate is and should be…
Thank you for joining us in the Pantry at The Holborn for Tea & a Chat, Paul. How do you take your tea?
Day to day, I am a huge fan of Redbush tea. I always leave the teabag in. I also love the Rare Tea Company; I think Henrietta Lovell is amazing and she’s created a wonderful range of blends. You can sit down with a cup of one of them at our store in Heals on Tottenham Court Road and watch the world go by.
What would we find if we poked around in your pantry? Are you much of a home cook or do you prefer to eat out?
In my pantry, you would find a whole host of baking ingredients. Although I cook most nights I am home, I am a trained pastry chef and still love to bake as often as I can. After a rummage in my cupboards, you would always be able to find spices, a variety of Billington’s sugars, specialist flours – enough to bake up a storm. I love discovering new products – especially when I uncover a new brand I’ve not heard of. I do go out to eat a lot, but nothing beats the smell of something freshly baked filling my flat.
The most famous chocolatier is probably Roald Dahl’s fictional Willy Wonka, who is a wild, surprising, genius and unhinged character. Do you share any of these characteristics?
In a recent article, the Telegraph called me the “Ginger Genius”, which I really liked. I do try flavours and concepts that might be considered wild and surprising, such as the Caramelised Garlic Truffle of 2014, but that’s part of the magic of chocolate. We definitely share a love of sweet things and I like to indulge in a spot of “pure imagination.” I wouldn’t say unhinged though! I’m not as spontaneous as WW, all my chocolates are rigorously tasted and tested until we get the perfect recipe – and sadly there aren’t any Oompa Loompas in my kitchen.
What’s your earliest food memory?
Growing up, I did an awful lot of baking with my mum and my Grandma. The very first cake I made was of a Crinoline lady for my Auntie Brenda’s birthday. I’ve still got the little china milkmaid figure I used to make the cake in my kitchen at home – I only used it that one time.
Where did your love of chocolate begin?
I think I’ve always loved chocolate really. Growing up, I adored Matchmakers and Quality Streets. Professionally, I really discovered I loved working with chocolate whilst working my way through the ranks of Marco Pierre White’s restaurant kitchens, as well as my time as Head Pastry Chef at Quo Vadis in Soho. Amongst all the ingredients, chocolate was the one which captured my imagination most. After leaving the pastry kitchens, I became a product developer/consultant for supermarkets until Chantal Coady, founder of Rococo Chocolates, asked me to create a chocolate for her for the first Chocolate Week. This was the moment my life completely changed – I then continued to develop chocolates for many different chocolateries and companies. My sea salted caramel was proving quite popular, and I was encouraged to enter it into the prestigious Academy of Chocolate Awards. Winning the Gold Award was the final inspiration I needed to open my own chocolaterie.
How does artisan chocolate differ from the mainstream and what signs should The Holborn readers look out for?
A short shelf life will tell the customer everything they need to know to differentiate between artisan and mainstream chocolate. A short shelf life will mean that the chocolatier has used fresh ingredients and good chocolates do tend to be made in small batches at a time, to retain that attention to detail. A good chocolatier should also be happy to talk about the provenance of his ingredients.
You’re known for being incredibly creative, where do you get your inspiration to create new flavours and combinations?
I’m very lucky to live in one of the most vibrant cities in the world, so I can find inspiration anywhere and everywhere. From food markets to dinner dates, and outside London around the UK too, ingredients and concepts are always catching my eye. It’s normally late at night when all my ideas flood in. Because every product we sell at our London boutiques is handmade onsite in our kitchens using only fresh ingredients, we have the freedom to be creative and launch those new products the very same day we finalise the recipe.
Last year, I went to India, which was great for discovering new food pairings and ideas that I may never have thought of. I always love going back to Brooklyn every so often to catch up on the food scene in Williamsburg too; the food culture there is just brilliant.
What’s the most unusual/surprising request you’ve had from a customer?
Not so much a request as a dare, from Lydia Slater who was then a journalist at The Sunday Times who thought I couldn’t pair Marmite and chocolate. Since the Marmite truffle launched in 2007, it’s remained one of our bestsellers and has even spawned two associated products – the Marmite brownie and the Marmite bar. People just love the mix of salty and sweet. It’s surprising how good that umami flavour is with chocolate.
What flavours do you not enjoy or find challenging?
Pairing chocolate with unusual ingredients can be so much fun, but sometimes getting the recipe right can take a bit of work. Obviously, some combinations, especially the more crazy savoury recipes, take longer than others but I’ll keep experimenting until I get it right. Some savoury ingredients we’ve used in the past include black pudding, cheese, red onion chutney and rosemary. Fish is a total no-no though. It would never work in a truffle, maybe in a sauce but for me, that could be the only ingredient I would never pair with chocolate. But I do love a challenge…
You’ve described yourself as being “the only chocolatier in London working in a truly artisan way”. Tell us about how Paul A Young chocolates are made – where, when, how frequently, how big is your team, how long does the whole process take?
It’s important to me that all my chocolates are made using the finest quality chocolate first and foremost. Good chocolate is an expensive ingredient, so we make sure we use every last drop. So attention to detail is an integral part of what we do – we think about every little detail; from the flavour of the bean the chocolate comes from to the precise brand of gin we chose to flavour the Gin & Tonic truffle this Valentine’s Day. As we’ve grown as a business, we’ve chosen different bean-to-bar chocolate to use throughout our collections; I like to use different origins of chocolate too.
By calling ourselves an artisan chocolaterie, I mean we are a small batch, hands-on chocolate company. Every one of our truffles, bars or brownies will be different. We don’t use machines to make our products, my staff are involved with every stage. For example, you won’t find any tempering machines in our kitchens, we temper all our chocolate by hand. Another part of being artisan involves on using products of the very highest quality – so you won’t find any artificial ingredients in our kitchens. I believe shortcuts are ultimately detrimental to taste. We’ve kept our principles the same since we opened the first shop in Camden Passage.
When we started, paul.a.young fine chocolates was just myself and my business partner James. Today, we’ve grown into a thirty strong business, all of whom are involved in the business 100%. We’re a close knit team. Every event, every flavour, every new idea is discussed as a team.
How far is making chocolate an art and how far is it a science?
It’s a blend of both really. The science is in the techniques and the processes we use but recipe writing, the finishes on the chocolates and decoration, they’re all art. Tempering the chocolate is definitely science – we use the “seeding” method. In chemistry, this refers to the addition of small crystals to a liquid to induce crystallization. Without this act of science, our chocolates would not be so good. However, people eat with their eyes too, so it’s essential that the “art” doesn’t betray the flavour within. Both play an important part in creating a perfectly balanced chocolate.
With your chocolates, you offer customers the opportunity to treat themselves with an affordable luxury. How do you treat yourself?
I love eating and planning new places to eat – discovering somewhere new or somewhere hidden is addictive. I still treat myself with childhood treats – I’m very nostalgic about food. I am also obsessed with barbeque flavours, if I could eat like that everyday I would be so happy, but also much larger!
As well as your own shop of course, where would you recommend readers of The Pantry go for a great chocolate fix, at home or abroad?
The chocolate scene in San Francisco is incredible. As well as Dandelion Chocolate, which I adore and stock in my shops, my current favourite chocolate maker, Dick Taylor Chocolate is based there. We recently started stocking their bars as well; their 76% Ecuadorian bar is the work of geniuses.
There is a growing interest for so-called “clean eating” which eschews sugar and dairy. Do you think the appetite for chocolate is in danger of waning? Will changing consumer tastes affect the industry?
I don’t think people will ever not want to eat chocolate. People may start looking for higher percentage chocolate as part of clean eating, but I don’t think it will change the industry as a whole. Chocolate has its own clean eating movement – using better beans. If you use higher quality beans, the chocolatier won’t need to add fat and sugar to cover the taste. The most important issue for the chocolate industry at the moment is preserving the diversity of bean varieties.
You’ve won many awards over the years – what has been your proudest achievement as a chocolatier?
After the bid had been accepted on our first premises I was full of pride. When we were finally able to open up on Islington’s Camden Passage, after four years of searching for the ideal location, it was a dream come true. Nothing beats that feeling of watching people enjoy your chocolates, which you made, in your very own shop, for the very first time.
What does the future hold for the world of chocolate? Any trends you can predict?
The chocolate industry in the UK is always evolving. It’s a very exciting industry to be in at the moment, with lots of talent. Due to the current issues in cocoa farming, we will see a move towards people paying more for their chocolate. But if you are prepared to pay more, you will be rewarded with much better chocolate.
I hope to also see the current fixation on what percentage of cocoa a bar is as being a mark of quality slowly disappear too. The ‘perfect percentage’ is a myth. A 64% and a 70% chocolate could completely equal in quality, yet a lot of people would still consider 70% to be the better chocolate. As an industry, we also need to need to do more to educate people about the origins of chocolate, as we have seen start to happen in the coffee industry.
What is your food guilty pleasure – time to fess up!
Some people may be surprised to learn that I am in no way a chocolate “snob”. I’m partial to the odd KitKat – you can’t beat one with a cup of tea.
What’s next for you? Any big plans this year or further into the future?
This year, we are hoping to expand outside of London, possibly in Manchester. I’d also like to have the opportunity, and the time, to write another book, a follow up to ‘Adventures in Chocolate’ and ‘How To Make Chocolates’. I’m always working on something new though, which is great as it keeps my creative juices flowing. I’m really excited about developing my “King of Caramels” collection, which will launch later in the year and I’m also working on a menu with Peter Gordon. At Providores throughout July, we’ll be running a Chocolate Menu. It’s been a joy working with such a talent like Peter; we share an ethos of using natural products and we’re both adventurous with our flavours.
Interview by Leila Dukes
The Pantry Editor / firstname.lastname@example.org