Want to take your experience of chocolate to the next level? Come to Hotel Chocolat’s unique event space in the heart of London.
The first clue that something special happens below street level at our Cocoa Bar-Cafe at No. 4 Monmouth Street, right in the heart of London’s Covent Garden, is a mysterious rattle and whoosh.
It’s a boisterous rush of cocoa beans, freshly roasted and cracked in the roasting machine displayed in the upstairs window, tumbling raucously down a long shiny steel chute into the basement.
The only way to follow them is down a spiraling staircase, into an intimate and softly-lit space called Cocoa Vaults, with a look of beaten metal, rough wood, hessian sacks and hurricane lamps, evoking the romance of a Saint Lucian cocoa plantation.
Cocoa Vaults is home to Hotel Chocolat’s School of Chocolate. Here, the still-warm beans are collected by a chocolatier and the naked nibs poured into a silvery Cocoatown conch.
Spinning at 42rpm, just a little slower than a 7-inch vinyl record, the conch crushes and rolls the beans for hours, even days, transforming them into glistening chocolate. It’s a hypnotic sight. But that’s the modern method. At the School of Chocolate, they also teach you how to do it the old-fashioned way.
That’s what I’ve come for today – a Bean-to-Bar Experience, hosted by seasoned chocolatier Claire Haddad, in which I will learn how to make a bar of chocolate straight from the cocoa bean. It’s just one of many amazing experiences available at Cocoa Vaults, from Tasting Adventures to Children’s Chocolate Workshops and Corporate Networking Events.
Our journey from cocoa to chocolate begins with a sparkling glass of Prosecco and an introduction to what happens on Hotel Chocolat’s own cocoa plantation in Saint Lucia, Rabot Estate.
“Chocolate is made just from cocoa beans, some sugar and maybe a bit of milk,” says Claire. “It seems really simple but a lot of work goes into growing and making it, some of which you’ll soon see for yourself!”
Claire cracks the thin shell from the cocoa nib, rolling a freshly roasted Trinidad bean on her palm with her thumb. These pure Trinidad nibs are earthy, intense and slightly bitter, with a sensual, dark bass note that lingers on the tongue. Even the shells are full of flavour, and Hotel Chocolat uses leftover shells to make cocoa infusions like the Hibiscus & Cocoa Cooler and even Cocoa Beer. Claire’s understanding of cocoa farming comes from experience. After all, in Saint Lucia, Hotel Chocolat plants cocoa seedlings, harvests pods and ferments the beans, working with local farmers in an ethical trading partnership.
Cocoa beans are very sensitive to the effect of the land it grows in, she explains, and acidic soil will give the cocoa a sharper taste. Even just covering cocoa beans with banana leaves may give the chocolate it makes a hint of banana flavour. The class get their aprons on, getting to work crushing Trinidad cocoa nibs with mortars and pestles. Now, this is old-school chocolate-making.
“This is the closest we can get to how the Aztecs made chocolate,” says Claire.
The friction and pressure acts like a mini Cocoatown conching machine, separating the cocoa powder from the cocoa butter. It’s surprisingly hard work.
“You can do it!” she urges, working on her own mortar. “And you’ll all leave with a bar of chocolate that you’ve made with your own hands.”
“This is why chocolatiers have a good right hook,” suggests a classmate.
But Claire’s right. Before long the crushed cocoa is becoming shiny, turning into a paste. Everyone around the table is comparing the state of their chocolate and getting surprisingly competitive.
To make sure we get a bar with a good shine and a crisp snap Claire helps us out with a dash of pre-tempered chocolate to help it set properly.
‘Tempering’ is heating and cooling the molten chocolate to ensure the cocoa butter forms the right kind of crystal structure. Without it, the chocolate will look dull and crumbly and lose its flavour.
The last step is pouring it into moulds, clattering them vigorously on the tabletop to get rid of any bubbles. Soon, we’ve all got our very own 50g bars of Trinidad 74% Milk chocolate, cast in Hotel Chocolat’s distinctive slab shape. The experience has taken just under two hours – but it’s flown by.
Before we leave, we’re given a goody bag and a 10% discount in store. But there’s something very special about chocolate that you’ve made from cocoa yourself with your own hand.
Claire tells us that we can expect the texture to be a little grainier than we’re used to, a bit closer to the old style of chocolate. But I don’t want to eat it, I just want to look at it.
Trust me, that feeling doesn’t last long.