London: English capital brims with chocolate
By EAGRANIE YUH | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 4, 2016
After eight days in London, my suitcase was crammed with more chocolate than clothes.
Each bon bon or bar came in branded packaging, but even without it I could have matched each product with its maker. As I’d learned on my trip, London is a city rich with chocolate shops.
This was my second trip to the English capital in three years. I’d been there in 2013 to judge the International Chocolate Awards. The trip was a highlight of my career as a chocolate taster, and I knew I had to return. So when my husband, Hamish, announced a London business trip, I jumped at the chance to tag along.
After we arrived and settled into the Sanctum Soho Hotel, I wandered into the neighboring district of Mayfair, and soon found myself outside the rounded glass window of Charbonnel et Walker. Friends had told me that this is one of the best places for the quintessentially English sweets called violet and rose creams. I’m fascinated by these fondant-based confections, which are flavored with essential oils, dipped in chocolate and decorated with candied flower petals. That they aren’t actually creamy only adds to their curious charm.
“One each of the violet and rose creams, please,” I said to the girl behind the counter.
Hearing my American accent, she paused and tipped her head. “Have you had one before? Would you like to try one first?”
Into my outstretched palm, she placed a dark chocolate rose cream: a chubby oval with a glimmering pink rose petal on top. I took a bite. The aroma of roses floated up the back of my throat, reminiscent of drawer sachets, but stopping just short of soapy. The inside was stark white fondant, with the texture of a peppermint patty. I liked it.
From there, a five-minute walk brought me to Piccadilly. Past the glittering windows of Rolex, Gucci, Tod’s and DeBeers, I arrived at Fortnum & Mason, or Fortnum’s, as the locals call it.
Its chocolates are in a busy alcove jammed with people. I finally caught the eye of George, a young man wearing gray, wide-striped pants and a coat with tails. He walked me through the line of chocolates made exclusively for them, as well as imported selections.
He gestured toward a tall glass case stocked with rose creams, lavender creams, mint, raspberry and more. “These are made for us by Audrey’s,” he said, referring to a chocolatier in East Sussex.
When I asked about the rose and violet creams, George knitted his brow and offered me a sample. The Fortnum’s rose cream is similar to Charbonnel et Walker’s, but with a gentle pink tinge to the fondant. It’s also sweeter, with a deeper, more complex rose flavor.
I was quickly developing a taste for these peculiar sweets. But I was getting the distinct impression that that’s unusual for someone my age and with my accent.
I wondered: If floral creams were the height of fashion in 1875, when Charbonnel et Walker was founded, what are London’s chocolatiers doing now? I headed west to Chelsea to find out.
Rococo Chocolates smells like glorious air-conditioning and chocolate. There are three shops in London, but this is where it all started, in 1983, when this section of King’s Road was considerably less desirable. Back then, owner Chantal Coady stippled the walls fluoro-pink to match her hair. These days, her hair is dark brown, and the walls are candy-lemon-yellow, accented with frescoes and chandeliers.
According to the Rococo website, when Coady opened, she swore off rose and violet creams, but the ladies of Chelsea kept asking for them. I asked Chris, the 20-something behind the counter, what he thought of the sweets. He chose his words carefully. “They’re kind of an acquired taste,” he said. “They remind me of my grandmother.”
Unlike the firm fondants I had tried before, the Rococo creams have a softer, almost creamy consistency, and are circles, not ovals. Violet and rose also show up in Rococo’s flavored bars. They’re chocolate-forward and less sweet, Victorian-influenced but firmly rooted in the present.
My next stop was a 25-minute walk away, due east on King’s Road. At some point in my walk, I’d left Chelsea and entered sumptuous Belgravia. One of the most expensive neighborhoods in London, it’s a mix of stately curved buildings housing foreign embassies, majestic townhouses and businesses that had closed for the day.
Thankfully, William Curley’s shop was open. Curley is the least obviously English of the chocolatiers I visit. He’s Scottish, his wife is Japanese and there’s no trace of violet or rose creams in his shop. There are familiar flavors — Earl Grey tea, lemon curd and whiskey — but there are also chocolates flavored with Japanese black vinegar and black sesame. Remarkably, the fillings melt on your tongue at the precise time the chocolate shell disappears.
Finally, I headed back to Soho. Past the Day-Glo-clad mannequins in the Agent Provocateur window, I arrived at Paul A. Young. The shop is overwhelmingly purple. In the center of the room, a round wooden table bears glass pedestals, each flaunting a cluster of truffles inspired by distinctly English foods: banoffee pie, Pimm’s, even Marmite. They mingle with classic caramels, typical French rochers and American peanut-butter-and-jelly truffles, while a sideboard features a selection of craft chocolate bars.
The English may have colonized the New World, but it was Americans who kicked off the trend in bean-to-bar chocolate — that is, the craft of making chocolate directly from the bean. Bean-to-bar may be new to London, but it’s not just the new kids jumping on the bandwagon. Rococo Chocolates has long supported the Grenada Chocolate Co. and owns a small cacao plantation in Grenada. And two weeks after I visited, Paul A. Young launched a chocolate tasting bar to accompany the shop’s selection of craft chocolates. Even venerable Fortnum’s has bean-to-bar chocolates as part of its ground-floor attraction.
One evening toward the end of our trip, Hamish and I wandered through Trafalgar Square, staring up at Nelson’s Column and inspecting the commemorative statues that sit atop three of the four plinths in the square. Since 1999, the fourth plinth has been host to contemporary exhibitions. This time, it was Gift Horse, a horse skeleton wearing a bracelet with a live Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 ticker.
I looked from Lord Nelson to the Gift Horse, the Gift Horse to Lord Nelson. In London, it appears the old, the new and the next seem to get along just fine.