Category Archives: Shopping

Diamond Jubilee: a tea party at Charbonnel et Walker

While tea party baking is a pretty big part of this weekend’s festivities at parties up and down the country, I was fortunate enough to receive and invitation to a tea party at Charbonnel et Walker, traditional London-based chocolatiers and…ta da…holders of a royal warrant.

So these are the people who provide chocolates to Buckingham Palace. As you can see below, they are also feeling very patriotic at the moment!

Charbonnel et Walker have been “purveying” chocolates in London since 1875. You might wonder where the French link comes from? Well, the future King Edward VII was rather partial to continental chocolate, and encouraged a French chocolate maker, Mme Virginie Charbonnel to leave Paris to seek her fortune in London. She teamed up with Mrs Minnie Walker, and the pair set up shop in Bond Street in fashionable and expensive Mayfair.

This is very much a traditional chocolate shop – beautiful boxes, lovely packaging and satin ribbons. The Jubilee, in particular, has inspired a lot of the gift boxes – lots of crystal crowns and Union Flags. However, if that’s not your thing, there are lots of more restrained (dare I say more British?) boxes to suit those tastes.

This last photography in particular is quite special – it is the actual royal warrant granted by HM The Queen.

I know Charbonnel et Walker’s chocolates, but the treat of the evening was the chance to actually taste things side by side – which truffle was my favourite, what chocolates did I like, and what new ideas are they thinking about?

We started with the classics – truffles, and would be tasting pink champagne, milk and dark versions. First of all, the very romatic pink champagne truffles. These are a milk chocolate centre with a white chocolate shell and dusting of powdered strawberry to give them a blushed look. These are the sweetest of the lot, and look very romantic, and are one of the best sellers. For the Jubilee, there are limited edition boxes encrusted with Swarovski crystals – I thought they looked rather amazing. If you were going for a more bling look at your party, this is clearly the way to go.

We also tried milk truffles, and then finished with dark chocolates dusted in cocoa. I liked all three, but it was the dark truffles that I loved. Rich, smooth and with a lingering warm earthiness from the cocoa powder. I might even go so far as to say the man’s truffle of choice?

After the intense richness of truffles, we got the chance to taste some more of their classic chocolates. And this is where things got very, very British. English rose and violet creams! These are fondant centres with rose or violet essence, and then topped with a crystallised petal. I’m normally someone that is a little wary of florals in chocolates but I was very pleasantly surprised by these – you know that these have rose and violet in them, but it’s delicate and refined. These have a very traditional flavour, so rather fitting for the nostalgia of the Jubilee. Indeed, I though these would be the sort of chocolate that would make wonderful wedding favours.

We also tried a couple of the “in development” flavours, which I gather are still top secret so I won’t talk about them. But there is one that I am going to rave about. For, to finish off, we were then treated to a new truffle that was about to go on sale. Salted caramel truffles.

Now, you might be sitting there thinking “yes, I’ve had salted caramel flavour in truffles before”. But these are different. Inside the chocolate shell there is actual liquid caramel and actual salt. Some bit into the truffle, and the caramel got everywhere. Others popped them in whole and let the flavours unfold. I was impressed. These things are very rich but seriously stunning chocolates. I’ll be keeping an eye out for these.

To wrap up our evening, we finally did get offered some teacups – it was a tea party, after all – but they did not contain tea. It was Pimm’s o’clock, the perfect summer drink to get us in the mood for a weekend of celebration.

So if you’re a visitor in London, you might see these chocolates on sale, but if you’re passing Piccadilly, you might want to pop in for a glimpse into the traditions on British chocolate. You’ve even got a portrait of Mme Charbonnel on the wall, keeping an eye on the whole affair.

Charbonnel et Walker, One The Royal Arcade, 28 Old Bond Street, London W1S 4BT. Tel: 020 7318 2075. Tube: Green Park.

LondonEats locations map here.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under London, Shopping

Get Oaty!

You may or may not have appreciated from past posts that I’m Scottish (see here, here, here and here). Our cuisine is, in many ways, quite curious. On the one hand, you have fantastic products like wild salmon and fabulous fresh fruit (like these), but it’s also a nation famed for the deep-fried Mars bar. Contradictions. We love our sweet things (tablet and macaroon bars) but we also love our porridge.

In fact, I think this last comparison is one of the most contrary of all – tablet is about the sweetest things you can imagine, whereas porridge is just about one of the healthiest things you can eat – low GI, higher protein than other grains, low-fat and plenty of fibre. That, and it’s quick, easy and tasty.

I have always been a porridge fan, and it’s the perfect way to start the day when it’s nippy outside. This week we’ve been hit by a cold snap, so I’m grateful for a warming bowl of the stuff before I venture out onto the frozen pavements of Olde London Towne. But last week, I went along to a very intriguing evening, where the world of oats would be lovingly folded into the world of chocolate, thanks to Rude Heath and Demarquette Fine Chocolates.

The evening kicked off with a few wise words about all things oaty and porridgy from Nick Barnard from Rude Health. I would go so far as to say that what this man does not know about oats can be safely assumed to be not worth knowing. How serious is he? Well, he regaled us with tales of his participation in the World Porridge Championships in Carrbridge near Inverness, where he competed against a collection of “gnarly Scots” for the coveted Golden Spurtle. There were two parts to the competition – a “classic” round where participants made porridge from oats, water and salt, and a “creative” section where all manner of fantasy and whimsy could be deployed, provided that the results included porridge.

Now, first things first…if you’re wondering, a spurtle is a special implement (basically, a stick) used to stir porridge. Some people swear by it. I’m inclined to the view that it’s probably one of the silliest things that you could use to make porridge, and you’re far better off using a normal wooden spoon.

We started off with the “classic” version – porridge made from a mixture of course and medium oats, made with milk and water with a dash of salt. Having been identified as a Scot, I was asked what sort of oats I used. I told him I went for pinhead oatmeal, and I think that earned me some serious brownie points – for it seems this is the really hardcore stuff for, eh, gnarly Scots like me…

Now, I should confess that by this stage, having walked all the way from South Kensington tube station in the cold, we had been warmed up with a cup of hot chocolate made with oat milk, whipped cream and whisky (which was delicious, by the way). We’d also been able to nibble on a selection of chocolates and caramels. So by the time Nick had made his porridge, it’s fair to say that the version hearty, savoury porridge was actually rather welcome.

We were also offered some sugar, honey or cream to top it off. As a gnarly Scot, I stood there, skulking, and ate it unadorned…and I’ll let you muse on the idea of me standing in a shop, full of luscious chocolates, eating porridge…

Once we’d sampled the classic version (and I was shocked to see that not everyone devoured their bowl), it was time to see the “creative” section. Now, this was pure fantasy, combining decadence with Dalí: a dark chocolate cup, filled with warm porridge and salted caramel. The trick is that the filling is warm rather than hot, so that everything combines and melts slowly, such that the cup slowly collapses into sticky deliciousness. Think of those melting watches, but tastier.

As Nick made more porridge with an admirable focus of purpose, the resident master chocolatier Marc Demarquette got to work on the salted caramel sauce. In true Blue Peter fashion, everything was laid out ready for work!

I’ve made salted caramel before, but I have to admit that it tends to be a bit of a hit-or-miss affair, and it has, in the past, taken more than one attempt to yield the desired result. Helpfully, Marc shared some tricks of the trade with us, and mercifully for me, in clear and simple terms that I could understand!

Firstly, how to make the base caramel? It’s sugar with a dash of water, heated until lightly golden (too dark and it gets bitter) and you’re looking for “champagne bubbles” – that is to say, the small-ish bubbles you have once the initial larger bubbles subside. Next, adding the butter – the trick here to have it at room temperature, not straight from the fridge, and then drop it into the caramel and then let it sit without stirring. The butter melts, and then you are stirring hot melted butter into the caramelised sugar, which should help to stop things from seizing up. Then move onto adding the cream and salt (or, in this case Halen Môn vanilla salt) and you end up with a lovely, smooth, sticky salted caramel…

…then you fill the chocolate cups with a little porridge (or as the French probably call it to seem fancy – crème d’avoine) and top with a generous amount of salted caramel. As you can see, this causes the Dalí-like slow melting of the cup. Just lovely!

As the cup melts, you get to enjoy all three flavours together. All in all, a fun and very different little dessert. I’m pretty sure that chocolate and salted caramel have never been enjoyed in such a healthy way!

Now, a little damper on all this excitement – Nick told us a sorry tale. He’d fought the good fight last year to win the Golden Spurtle, but he was pipped at the post. Having just tasted this fantastic little dish, I was stunned. However, Nick assured us all that he’s going to have another go – and we all wish him good luck!

If you want to get some idea of the day, check out this film on Implausibleblog.com.

If you’re interested in getting hold of these chocolate cups, either for the porridge-caramel recipe, or for something of your own imagining, they’re available from Demarquette’s boutique in Chelsea, which I can highly recommend. I say this because below you can see some of the other chocolates that we sampled that evening. I know, after all that porridge and caramel (not forgetting the hot chocolate) I should have been full, but they were so tempting.

These little domed chocolates are a range of caramels with exciting flavours like winter berries, festive cinnamon and apple, Scottish raspberry and Cornish sea salt caramels. We also got to try the Medina chocolate, an award winner based on a whipped ganache filling. Given that this was the server’s first day in the boutique, we all think she did pretty well in guiding us through the display and served those chocolates with great aplomb!

Demarquette Fine Chocolates, 285 Fulham Road, London SW10 9PZ. Tel: 020 7351 5467. Tube: Gloucester Road or South Kensington.

LondonEats locations map here.

11 Comments

Filed under London, London, On Location, Shopping

Wagashi from Minamoto Kitchoan (Piccadilly, London)

I spent several hours at the weekend trying to get to grips with agar agar. I still see this as an ingredient with potential, but one that I am still unfamiliar with. I’m sure I will be posting something using it quite soon. I checked online for Asian recipes that use it, and this led me to Japanese Wagashi. This is traditional Japanese confectionery, and for me, what really stands out is not only how pretty these look, but also the different basis for making them – jelly, bean paste, rice…all very intriguing.

As a result of my various searches, I came across Minamoto Kitchoan in central London. I was heading to that part of town in any case to pick up a few new books, so I dropped in to check it out. Time to enter the world of Wagashi.

The shop is terribly cute – to my untrained eyes, it all looked very Japanese, with cases filled with all manner of exciting-looking treats, and even a small seating area if you want to buy something and have it straight away. I even heard that you can get a cup of green tea with your Wagashi fix. Being a more restrained type, I came away with a small selection, which I have tried to describe below.

I also want to share the little note that comes with the Wagashi: “Delicious Japanese sweets full of natural goodness. “Wagashi” contains red beans, kidney beans, glutinous rice, powdered rice, sweet potatoes, sesame, agar-agar and sugar. “Wagashi” is full of sun kissed goodness and high in plant protein. There is almost no animal fat, which makes it a wholesome, healthy product. Natural unrefined sugar is one of the most important ingredients in “Wagashi”. The sugar is not only sweet but it is made from pure carbohydrates and they are totally natural. Serving with a cup of hot green tea is the typical way to enjoy the perfect traditional complement to the sweetness of this confection, but you can also enjoy with non sugar English tea. Ah, not just sweets, but a health food! I put the kettle on, and got ready to try my exciting purchases.

Sakuranbo – Japanese cherry in a clear jelly. I loved this one, both how it looks and how it tasted. The cherry was pretty fresh (I was expecting some glacé effort) and the jelly was delicately flavoured. My ignorant palate said “plum wine” although I am sure this is more likely to be extract of cherry blossom. It was light, fragrant, fruity and fresh. Fantastic, and I would buy these again in a heartbeat (for example…this week!). I also understand why it is recommended to consume Wagashi with unsweetened tea – yes they are sweet, but not overly so, and a couple of spoonfuls of Tate & Lyle’s best could easily overpower the delicate flavour of the Wagashi.

Kurishigure – candied chestnut wrapped in soft bean paste. It was unusual, and it did take a moment to decide that I did like it. I think this is just because of how different Wagashi is compared to Western sweets, and I didn’t know what to expect from a bean-based sweet. The texture reminded me a little of marzipan, perhaps a marzipan made with hazelnut rather than almonds, and had a dry-ish, sandy texture. The lack of sugar was also apparent in the chestnut, which was lightly sweetened rather than candied (as we know them here). Overall, the lack of sweetness was nice, a very delicate sweetness and nice texture. I would take another box of these if someone is looking for a little gift idea…

Tsuya – sweet red  bean paste sandwiched between two sweet pancakes. This one…I did not really like. The cake is similar to British mini-pancakes, but it was the filling that I did not like. Sweet kidney beans (or so it seemed to me). This combination just didn’t do it for met. The “beany” taste was quite detectable. I was a little surprised, as the bean paste in the Kurishigure was really nice. I’m glad I tried this, but I don’t think I’ll be trying it again any time soon.

Beika Goma – black sesame rick crackers. OK, I concede that these are not Wagashi, but I love rice crackers and these looked so pretty. They tasted good too – tasty, with a little nuttiness from the sesame, and the typical great “savoury” taste with a touch of seaweed flavour. These are my new favourite rice crackers!

After writing all this, I recalled that I had actually had Wagashi before, but was not aware that there was a whole “world of Wagashi” out there. I received a gift of a box of chocolate Mochi one year at Christmas – chocolate in a soft, sweetened rice paste and rolled in chocolate (thanks Jazz!). They were very, very strange at first taste, but once my sense of taste had adjusted to the lack of sugar, I was happy to have them at a rate of one a day with cups of green tea.

Leave a comment

Filed under London, Shopping

Macarons from Yauatcha (Soho, London)

I have blogged before about macarons and my attempts to make them. It’s fun to do and you feel a sense of pride about having mastered something complex, but you are then usually left facing a mountain of the things, all in the same flavour. Given just how rich the filling typically is, they are also not the sort of thing that you would sit down and eat a lot of in one go. But I am sure that has not stopped many from trying.

For this reason, it is still fun to buy macarons, as you can then choose from the exciting flavours on offer. I have had the excellent dim sum at Yauatcha in central London before, and on Thursday picked up a selection of their macarons. The main draw for me was the flavours they offer – in addition to the French classics such as coffee and vanilla, they also have matcha (green tea), earl grey and an intriguing black sesame. If I have one niggle from my recent visit, it is that they didn’t have quite the same range as I have seen in the past. It might have been due to me passing rather late in the day, so I’ll check back in the near future for the promised ginger, violet or yuzu…

I took a box of fourteen. I have so far worked my way through the matcha (with very grassy notes), raspberry (fruity) and black sesame. This last one was excellent. The filling was a black sesame paste and white chocolate ganache, with a pronounced but not overwhelming sesame flavour. It was clearly black sesame too – not toasted white sesame. Almost like poppy seeds. This was innovative and delicious, and so far, my clear favourite.

2 Comments

Filed under London, Shopping, Sweet Things

Anijsblokjes

When I was in Amsterdam recently, I brought home a packet of anijsblokjes (literally “aniseed blocks”). These are sugar cubes infused with aniseed oil which are stirred into a cup of hot milk, thus making anijsmelk. Simple!

As tonight it’s a bit chilly, seems like the perfect time to try them. I expected a strong liquorice taste (given how much the Dutch seem to love the stuff), but it turned out the be quite mild and very pleasant. The taste is like milk with a little honey and a light fennel aroma, and seems quite soporific. A nice alternative to bedtime cocoa, and I’ll be picking up another packet next time I see them.

While this makes a nice drink, I can also see a few other possibilities too – surely where I would normally use milk I could instead use anijsmelk? I can imagine using these to make a custard, crème brulée or rice pudding, as the flavour is a perfect way to provide an extra dimension to these dishes.  Another one for the to-do list.

3 Comments

Filed under Shopping, Sweet Things

Pierre Marcolini chocolates

I have a box of chocolates from my favourite Brussels chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini. There is a very great temptation to eat them all, but they are being strictly rationed – and very much enjoyed – at a rate of two a day. So far, I’ve had the rose, violette, caramel and saffron, each a ganache chocolate with a wonderfully smooth centre. Amazing! Will my patience last? We shall see…

Leave a comment

Filed under Shopping, Sweet Things

On Location: marqt (Amsterdam)

On my recent visit to Amsterdam, I was taken to marqt, a rather fancy new food store.

I was not too certain if the focus was on organic or just good quality, but the place looks amazing and has the air of a chic boutique with concrete floors and walls and bright minimalist lighting. Food is displayed on the shelves in a manner approaching art (check out the rather cool stripped-back design on the milk) and I would defy anyone to go in and come out empty-handed. Much hipper and fresher than Wholefoods or Planet Organic, but certainly not cheap. If you are around the Rembrandtplein area, I really recommend popping in for just about anything your heart desires, from fantastic fresh bread (observe the baker actually kneading the bread!), fish, fruit, cheeses etc. Postcards are fine, but a little edible gift for the nearest and dearest really shows you were thinking of them, and so much of a culture is linked to its food!

But my mission is food, not (just) style, and after sampling the bread on offer, I did indeed buy a few things. My absolute favourite is the Groningerkoek, a sort of teacake made from syrup, rye flour and spices. It’s a little like German Christmas biscuits and utterly delicious, and I am just sad that I was not able to bring a second one back to London.

I also have pink muisjes, literally “little mice”, which are aniseed balls. These are put on buttered rusks and served when a baby is born, so I will produce these as part of my contribution to an upcoming baby naming day here in London. It is supposed to be in a garden, assuming the weather perks up. Fingers crossed!

Finally, I picked up some anijsblokjes, sweet aniseed blocks that are dissolved in warm milk, which I imagine makes for a comforting drink when it is chilly outside, and some hagelslag, which are real chocolate sprinkles for eating on bread.

As they say in the Netherlands – Lekker!

(and in case you are wondering – I had my fill of gouda on the rest of the trip, so I wasn’t feeling the need to buy more here!).

2 Comments

Filed under Amsterdam, On Location, Shopping