On Thursday evening I went to the Guardian’s WoM Chocolate Tasting Event, which I blogged recently. At that event I met, amongst others, Petra a.k.a. Choc Star, who told me about the Chocolate Festival happening this weekend at the Southbank Centre. She would be there, with her Choc Star van, as would many other chocolate specialists. A second dose of chocolate goodness just 2 days later? I couldn’t resist!
Although the skies were still cloudy on Saturday morning, we put our trust in the weather forecast, which promised a sunny afternoon, and hopped on the tube down to Waterloo.
As we emerged from the depths we quickly spotted the white tented stands of the festival and Petra’s conspicuous van off to one side. We stopped by to say hello (and got her top tip for the show – Damian Allsop) before leaving the stands till later.
We meandered around the South Bank area admiring busking musicians, watching fellow tourists enjoying the weather and raising our eyebrows at an art installation called Sherbet Dab Swivel created from a London black cab, a street sweeping machine, some traffic cones and bollards and a tangle of wiring providing sound and light. A quick Google reveals it was created by Southbank Centre artist-in-residence Ujino.
We spent quite some time checking out menus and deciding on a lunch stop, only ruling out Royal Festival Hall’s Skylon restaurant when we discovered there were no window tables available.
Eventually we settled on Las Iguanas, somewhat nervous about whether it would fulfill the potential of it’s intriguing “latin” menu or offer over-priced tourist-targetted mediocrity. With the pile of “art” emitting a constant and most irritating wail, we opted for a table inside rather than out, for fear I might lose it and enact a case of road rage on the thing.
I’m pleased to report that we enjoyed our lunch of selected tapas dishes and would go again; please see this entry for a full review.
Following a recommendation from a friend, we skipped coffee and dessert at Las Iguanas and instead popped into Caffe Vergnano 1882 just a couple of doors down. Our friend had told us that, whilst the food was over-priced and under-flavoured (something confirmed by the lack of customers for lunch at a time when every other lunch venue was heaving) the coffees and hot chocolates were excellent, with the extra-thick hot chocolate in particular being to die for.
The menu told us that their hot chocolate was “the oldest drinking chocolate in the world made to the original Torino recipe of 1678” and we could see it being churned in a bartop vat. I opted for a small “Cioccolata 1678 con panna”, which arrived with a veritable mountain of whipped cream perched above hot chocolate so thick it was hard to decide whether to drink it or eat it with a spoon. Pete chose a large “Caffè Paradiso”, an combination of espresso, hot chocolate and steamed milk topped with whipped cream. Definitely amongst the best hot chocolates I’ve tasted; similar to the “fondant hot chocolate” I enjoyed in the National Geographic Store’s Café (Regent Street) just before Christmas.
Finally we returned to the Chocolate Festival only to find it far, far busier than it was when we’d arrived a couple of hour earlier. Pete did some people-watching in relative peace whilst I braved the crowds to do some sampling and a little buying.
The first chocolate I tried was an Irish whiskey truffle (made with Bushmill’s Black Bush whiskey). Smooth and with a distinct but not overwhelming whiskey flavour, I was very tempted, though at £5.80 for a box of 5 truffles, I decided to see what else was on offer before parting with so much cash for so little chocolate. I’m afraid I’ve lost the card I picked up with the name of the producer and, after visiting William Curley’s stand later, I never did make it back.
My next stop was the Damian Allsop Chocolates stand where I tried a sample piece of their tiny soft muscavado salted caramel centre eggs which were on sale for 50 pence each. The filling was almost liquid and bursting with flavour but whilst it was amazing and certainly unlike anything I’d had before, I wasn’t sure I loved it enough to take some home with me. Unfortunately, the water-based ganaches that really intrigued me – the fresh basil (to compare with Paul A Young’s fresh basil truffles), the crunchy peanut, the catalan olive oil and the fresh raspberry – were only available in a mixed box of 12 which also included salty liquorice and pear & aniseed, both of which I didn’t fancy at all. As they weren’t selling the flavours individually, nor providing samples (which is fair enough) I’m still none the wiser about just how good they are.
Probably the most unloved stand at the festival was Healthy Chocolate UK’s. Keen to expound the virtues of their Xocai Healthy Dark Chocolate they trotted out all kinds of pseudo-science about cold-pressing rather than roasting in order to avoid alkalizing the chocolate and the wonders of the trendy acai berry and blueberry. Whether their claims are true or not, their chocolate didn’t sound very appealing and, since they wanted me to pay £1 to buy a 6 gram “power square” sample I didn’t bother to find out. I did sign up to attend one of their chocolate tastings so perhaps I’ll find out before too long?
Amedei Tuscany also had a stand and I tried chocolate button samples of their milk and dark chocolates. Surprisingly, given the partnership William Curley has recently entered into with Amedei, I didn’t much like either of them though I would have liked to try their pistachio, almond and hazelnut bars. Sadly these weren’t available to taste and I decided against buying them untasted.
I had a rather unsatisfactory visit to Artistry in Cocoa’s stand. Manned by what I think was a mother and daughter team, the mother (also the producer) was talking a vegan visitor to the stand through her wares. As I was the only other person at the stand, I waited for her to finish as I was particularly interested in the flavoured marzipan chocolates and the prices of all the various chocolates on offer seemed more reasonable than many of the other stands. Her daughter did try to interrupt to ask her mother where the box was so she could cut me a little piece to taste but her mother bruskly told her to wait. As the daughter then looked rather panicked I told her not to worry, I was happy to wait till her mum was finished with the other customer. And, because I was genuinely interested in buying some of the marzipan, assuming it tasted as good as it looked, I waited for several minutes. To my surprise, the po-faced mother, when she did finish with the vegan customer, glanced at me before turning to another visitor who had just that second arrived, to ask him how she could help. Now, let’s be clear, I wasn’t exhibiting any impatience (since I wasn’t actually feeling any. At that point I shrugged at the perplexed daughter and walked away. I really can’t figure out whether I offended the mother by letting her daughter know I didn’t mind waiting, whether she was cross with her daughter for interrupting the earnest sales pitch to the vegan or simply whether she genuinely has no idea about customer service. And I doubt she’ll even consider, let alone miss, the £8 I was planning to spend but it was the only sour note in the day.
The longest queue was at the stand selling chocolate milkshake though the pancake stand and alcoholic bar were also popular. The Caffe Vergnano 1882 stand was doing good trade in hot chocolate (both of the hot drink, prepared and served in cups to take away, and of tins of the chocolate preparation itself).
My next visit was to the William Curley stand which was doing a roaring trade. I could see one of the stand holders cutting up pieces of their sea salt caramel bar (of which they had two varieties, one with distinct, breakable squares and the other a single bar). Not usually the biggest fan of caramel this just blew me away! I decided to buy one of the single bars (£2.50 for about 40-50 grams) and two individual fresh mint truffles (£1 each) which I hadn’t tasted but wanted to compare to the Gorvett & Stone versions I tried and adored a couple of years ago.
Our last stop was to Petra’s Choc Star van where a sizeable queue had grown. Sorely tempted by the home-made brownies (and blondies) we eventually plumped for the ice-creams instead. Pete said his blackcurrant sorbet (in a tub) was so much more “blackcurranty” than most he’s tried. My mint choc chip ice-cream was equally intense. I think the light texture – somewhere between a regular creamy ice-cream and a water-based sorbet – allowed the mint to pack a lot more of a punch. Coupled with good quality mini dark chocolate chips it was, like Pete’s sorbet, one of the best I’ve tried. The sugary cone was much appreciated too!
Satiated, we left the festival and made our way home.