Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Theobroma Cac-OW!

It's such a pity. On paper it looks as though Chiswick's 'chocolate lounge', Theobroma Cacao, should be everything you want and more. It is a dingly-dell of a place with every surface occupied by great abundant bowls of chocolate. There are choc-covered stuffed prunes, chocolate puddings, choc-dipped stem ginger, toasted almond chocolates, champagne and lavender (beautiful pale blue and white). Turn your gaze upwards and there are shoes of chocolate, Easter eggs galore, chocolate lollipops...and so it goes on. The overall effect should be entrancing - and it almost is - except for a few things.

My suspicions always arise when entering a chocolate shop that doesn't smell of chocolate. The majority of standard choc shops smell of sugar; the really good ones engulf you with their great billowing aroma of deep, dark cacao; whilst TC simply smells...tired.

I ventured further to the 'try-me' bowls and all was confirmed when, rather than having flavours flooding my palate as I chomped down on some 70% Venezuelan, there was a lousy, deadening thud-ette of stale chocolate that would only ever have been unremarkable at its best.

That wasn't great but then came our hot chocolates. For £3.80 each these had every opportunity to excel. 'Can we have mochas?' we asked. 'No, we only do coffee flavour' came the curt reply. 'But you offer espresso'. Yes, but we cannot put them together', the response. 'OK, then can we have three hot chocolates and three espressos on the side?'. 'Sure'.


When they eventually arrived we took off the lids, blew and went in for the first sip. All of us burned our mouths and one of us scorched her throat. I approached the counter, nicely like, telling the woman that hot choc shouldn't be served scalding like that and that we were all now donning rasping, burnt tongues.

Nothing. Not an apology or even slight hint of giving a damn. She looked vacant.

It's such a shame. Why do people even bother when all they're prepared to offer is a sad version of something? They've gone to so much trouble to make the place look nice, why not continue through to the quality? But also, why is customer experience so low on the agenda of so many places in this town? It's the easiest thing in the world and makes all the difference in the....universe.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

London's 1st Chocolate Festival

Coming your way (as long as your way is in the London area) next weekend. From Friday 3rd - Sunday 5th April the market area in by the Royal Festival Hall will be awash with chocolate. Masterclasses, demos, tastings and eatings all dedicated to our favourite tropical fruit. I'm most excited about seeing Damian Allsop again - rarely have I known someone more skilled and generous of his wisdom (you have to try his coffee and passion fruit explosions).

Choc Star will be parked up and packed to the rafters with hot chocolate, brownie fudge sundaes, Millionaire's shortbread, super-dark high-energy truffles, Venezuelan Black and....yes folks, I think it's time for ICE CREAM! Better get my scooping arm into gear because it's going to be needed from now til October.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Pierre Herme - imagine that!

Rumours have begun to fly about one of France's true choc gods. Pierre Herme - the 'Picasso of Pastry' may be coming to our shores to imbue us with his magic. If he does I may never need to leave London again. He can hop over here, enchant us all with the Herme touch; with his filthy rich Financiers, dreamy savarins, Sichuan pepper truffles and milk chocolate tarts and whatever voids we all thought we had would be filled with one swift spread of his whisper-light mousse.

Pierre Herme - you would complete me.

How to turn your wild idea into a reality.

This is the theme of the next Scanner's night, run by 'portfolio' careerist John Williams. I met John a year or so ago when I was, as ever, pondering my options. Oh, you're a scanner, he told me. Say What? A scanner is someone who wants to do lots of things, has lots of ideas and doesn't follow a linear career path. And there are, it seems, a ton of us out there.

John's monthly Scanner's nights are talks and workshops designed to give people fresh ideas and good advice on anything from how to get a book deal to ratcheting up your online presence. The other day I got a call from them asking if I'd be able to talk about how I got started with Choc Star and where I'm heading next with the choc-mobile. No probs, I said - especially when I discovered that my fellow speakers would be the lovely Sophie Boss of Beyond Chocolate and jelly visionary Sam Bompas of Bompas & Parr.

If you'd like to come and get some ideas, ask some questions or to home in on the choc and jelly nibbles on offer, it's on 8th April at Clerkenwell House - click here to book a place.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Chocolate....underground (SHhhhh!)

I've just discovered that Doyenne of the underground restaurant scene, Ms Marmite Lover, is to hold a series of cookery courses at her tres des res in North West London - beginning with CHOCOLATE!

L.A based uber-chef Roberto Cortez will be chez Marmite this Monday (23rd March), ready to impart some of his much sought wisdom and techniques on:

Understanding how chocolate works and different types
perfect mousses every time
flavour development
cocoa percentages

He will show how to make:

70% Dark chocolate mousse
64% Dark chocolate lavender cream
42% Milk chocolate cinnamon cream
White chocolate mousse with raspberries.

Cost - £40

Things kick off at 2pm and will get pretty chocolatey - click here to book a place through We Got Tickets, or e-mail Ms Marmite directly (theundergroundrestaurant@gmail.com).

Wish I could make it...

Friday, 20 March 2009

Giant Oreos

I spent yesterday baking: brownies, Malteser muffins and a new kid on the block - the large, in charge, pimped-up homemade American classic...Oreo cookie. I have loved them so long - the equal part top/middle/bottom layer, the almost salty black cookies that contain that whiter than white, kinda wrong in a right way vanilla creme. They would make my whole mouth black but I'd get so lost in the reverie that to attend to the carnage would ruin it all.

Not quite sure how to fully replicate these noir/blanc icons I did my usual and made them way too big: too wide, too thick...so too much filling and...well, what transpired was a rather gulp-inducing proposition. But, as Mickey Rourke would say, 'If they ain't got the balls then f*** 'em'.

Luckily the crowd at Bazaart weren't daunted and saw off the G.Os quick smart - along with endless rum hot chocolates (it was chilly under that railway arch) and brownie fudge sundaes. There was something of the festival vibe about last night in fact; as my buddy Jemma remarked, full of kids with so many distinguishing features it wasn't only the art on the walls that had you gawping.

I'd left the house earlier with hardly any warm clothes, imagining somehow that it really was summer, and Jimmy had had a rupture en route, so as we departed the party there was a kind of vibration-off between us; me gently, subtly and easing off with each notch that I jacked up the heating. Jimmy meanwhile chuntered through the City like an out of work tractor looking for a field...I await the new part with baited breath.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

I heart David Lebovitz!

So, so much. I mean he's on 24 hour choc-watch - the guy doesn't take a break! Check this out...

Monday, 16 March 2009


Quick heads-up to anyone who likes a bit of street art in their week. Or, as the organiser puts it...

I am co-hosting an event which will be an eclectic blend of visual and aural artistic endeavor.
Expect free drink early on plus plenty of interactive stuff including a huge paint by numbers canvas to be raffled off at the end of the event.
We've got live screen printing and a great line-up of artists, DJ's & Bands.
This event is entirely free which may leave some cash in your pocket to purchase some one off art pieces, limited edition screen printed posters, and bespoke jewellery.
Check out www.bazaart1.blogspot.com for daily updates on artist participation.
Please respond either way as we need to know how big to make the dance floor!
Feel free to pass this on to all your friends, we have a 5000 sq ft warehouse we need to fill with lovely faces.
Me and the van will be there on the opening night (Thursday) with our chocolate treats - p'raps a few Make It A Jamaicans and iced chocolate martini shots for good measure. Hell, if it continues like this there may even be some ice cream!

Address: 3 Colts Lane, Bethnal Green, Tower Hamlets, E1 - Thursday 19th - Sunday 22nd March.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Tea with Henrietta

My good friend Simon recently introduced me to the wonderful Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Company Ltd. You have to meet, he said, she's right up your chutney Mary. Well, he didn't exactly put it like that but knowing how strongly she felt about one plant (tea) and I about another (take a guess) he figured it would make sense for us to get together and get to know one another.

So we met for tea.

I whipped up some Whoopie Pies filled with salted caramel buttercream. Delish. I should have made them a bit smaller though as each one was like a midi-cake in itself. And it didn't do the non-dairy aspect of my life much good but you should check out this buttercream - a kind of posh Fluff: egg whites whisked into a snowy frenzy with warmed sugar, then butter and dark caramel added until it all comes together in this wonderful voluptuous billowing delight. I ate a small pot of the stuff for fortitude for my long journey north of the river to Camden and Henrietta.

There she was in her pristine flat, poised over a selection of teas and ready for the alchemy to begin. Now I'm no tea drinker - it's never really been my bag - but I have been dabbling in that side of life a quite heartily recently and felt more than ready to be inducted into the ways of the tea. From White to Green to Black we went, taking in Jasmine, Oolong and various levels of...flushing along the way; it was as if being introduced to First Class after a long and gruelling career in the hold. And each moment of wonder that swept my face was joined by Henrietta and more fascinating tea facts. (God, that sounds so SQUARE but it's not, I promise).

We necked tea, shot-like, and ate Whoopie pies and dreamt up a million different schemes for bringing the magic of the two together. I think we have a plan and it's going to be awesome - hold tight!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Underground Mexico

Blogger's acting up, hence a rather tardy round-up of Sat night. Which was brilliant. I want Sat nights like that all the time and I loved that I had a choc-mobile to add to the mix. I arrived fresh from a slightly harrowing dodgeball tournament in Hammersmith and then went bump-bump-bumping over the endless suburban humps en route. Found the road, just wasn't sure of the house. 'Ms Marmite!' I cried down the handsfree, 'where the heck's your driveway?'. Busy dealing with her false eyelashes she dispatched her Goth, doll-like daughter to call me in to the narrow space. It wasn't the most dynamic call-in ever - the daughter stood awkward and sullen with no clear idea of what she was doing out there - but eventually we squeezed through and I was taken into the heart of Underground Restaurant HQ.

It was a bit like Kilburn's answer to Rocky Horror. There was the sister all corsets and high-heels, her ample boobs practically meeting her chin, an almost permanent twinkle in her eye. And Johnny, the Australian 'front of house' - ginger quiff, piercings through nose, mouth, eyebrow(?) etc, sharp in black, total dude. Then Helen, the food blogger who really wanted to get involved. The daughter lurked in the background, the epitomy of anti-waitressing whilst Ms Marmite Lover bustled out resplendent in black cocktail frock, super-high wedges and a broderie Anglaise Victorian pinnie.

I felt right at home.

My friend Charlie had introduced me to MML a few weeks back and we quickly concocted a plan to bring the choc van along to one of her secret suppers. The theme was to be Mexican so I came up with a spiced chocolate mousse laced with a chilli syrup for the occasion. I made most of it in advance but needed to finish it off on arrival, so after plugging in through the bedroom window I tottered out in my stilettos and got to work.

'What are you doing in there' asked some passer-by. He pressed his face up against the back window of the van to see me surrounded by choc mousses, enveiled in lurid pink and pulsing rope light combo. 'Oh you know, just stirring it up' I replied and he backed away with an amazed grin on his face. I was then ushered into the house where a place had been set for me in the 'restaurant'. I grabbed a margarita (very tangy) and joined my table.

The whole room was chattering away animatedly - around 20 guests all thrilled to be doing something different with their evenings; what a relief - we can talk to one another! The constraints of decorum kaput, chair hopping and glass sharing ahoy! At each table were salsa and chips - corn & mango, tomato and my favourite, the guacamole. Joder! this woman can season! It was a really tasty one - in fact the best I've had in London. I dug in lasciviously.

Meanwhile in the kitchen things were kind of hectic. I went in to chat and could barely see anyone for the smoke that was engulfing the place. I felt my way past the hanging undies and bottles of wine to the Aga where I found MML griddling the tortillas for all she was worth. Real blue corn tortillas to be served with the chili sin carne, stuffed, baked jalapeƱos, rice and sour cream. Eventually, buoyed on by a few more swigs of margarita, she was ready to serve. Table by table, each of us pounced on our plates most heartily. More wine got ordered, more people swapped places and then seconds got dolled up.

Finally came the moment for pud. I got into position behind the counter, grabbed the bottle of chocolate martini mix I'd been chilling in the freezer and furnished each of the guests with a mousse and a shot - perhaps a small tour of the van for those who were really keen - and away they went, back into the hub and all the perkier for it.

After coffee, cognac and more getting to know one another (Gronya with the YSL coat from eBay! Spike with the Pekham chocolate shop suggestion! The festi-loving couple who'd visited us at Bestival!) they all trooped off and home. We, the 'staff', then gathered round the Aga for a cognac-tinged 'wash-up' meeting spearheaded by Johnny. I was on the edge-of-my-seat rivetted by his ideas, MML and sister were shattered but happy and the daughter interjected with the occasional correction to Johnny's French.

In the end MML lost her voice, Johnny cycled home and I went to bed amidst the Underground Restaurant debris...a great night that I hope continues really successfully for them all.