Thursday 2 March 2023

A perfect self-guided tour of some Barcelona chocolate and patisserie shops

In January, I made a lovely trip to Barcelona, a city I have visited many times now as we have family living there.  I am always on the look out for interesting chocolate wherever I go, and as it has been three years since my last visit (that pesky COVID) I wondered if there was any new choc on the block.  When I visited Salon du Chocolat in Paris last year, there was a stand for the Bean to Bar Chocolate Association for Spain – which was interesting and indicated that there is a rising movement of craft makers in Spain – so I was optimistic for this trip to Barcelona.

I did some searching on the internet before the trip, and I also had a look at the Bean to Bar Association website for some suggestions.  I came across a chocolate journalist on that site, Nerea Prieto de Apraiz (@nereachocolate), who is Barcelona- based – so I wrote to ask for her local advice.  She is so lovely – lots of very good advice but also an invitation to meet for coffee.  What a treat – we chatted for ages, I learned so much from her both about the scene in Spain, but also about her own work and plans, and about the sector overall.

So the guided walk; this started  where we agreed to meet for coffee – L’Atelier in Eixample district of the city – I plotted out other places of interest and realised that they were all only 10 or 15 minute walks from each other and so a day of delights mapped out before me.  Barcelona is a lovely city to walk around – you go from small residential streets to grand boulevards at the turn of a corner, there are Gaudi pavement tiles to fascinate at your feet, elegant pavement cafes to tempt you, always a copa de cava available whenever you feel the need.  It was cold in Barcelona this January, so walking and chocolate eating/buying were definitely a good combination.

1.  L’Atelierthis is where Nerea and I met – a very elegant coffee and patisserie shop, with the most eye-catching of ‘cakes’ and chocolates.  They are famous for their hot chocolate as well; weirdly for a chocolate maker, I don't really like hot chocolate (I know, how did they let me in?), but have to say this was delicious – no cornflour, not too heavy on milk – rich, warming and very chocolatey.  The patisserie are so, so elegant   I am not really qualified to judge these – just ‘Wow’ really – I am fascinated by the whole realm of patisserie but rarely have the time, patience, expertise or equipment to make these layered extravaganzas.  And very few opportunities to sample them either!  The craftsmanship in these little works of art was breathtaking - I know my photos don't do them any justice - but, for example, the cactus in the flower pot had a chocolate pot, and the cactus shell was chocolate as well - filled with layers of ganaches, cakes, mousses.T he Director of the business, Eric Ortuno was there, and he kindly showed us around the whole place – it extended on and on behind the shop – with kitchens where a busy team were creating more patisserie and deserts, and then ever onward to the back where there is a patisserie school.  Amazing.

2, Cacao Sampaka This was to be my next stop, but as I had spent so much time (and eaten so much patisserie) at L’Atelier, I skipped it (always another time) and went straight to Lot Roasters.  

3. Lot Roasters: coffee and chocolate roasters, and really the chic-est space I have ever been in; it was all stainless steel cabinets and tables, in a high ceilinged old shop – with crooked floor tiles and whitewashed walls.  Even the espresso machine is the coolest thing I have ever seen (remember I live in Kenmore – I think I am allowed to get excited about an elegant espresso machine).  The photo here does none of it justice and nor does it represent how generous Ursula was in guiding me through what they do.  She offered me coffee that tasted of cocoa beans fermenting (a smell I adore – winey, earthy, fruity), cold brew cocoa husk tea, cocoa fruit juice (so refreshing) and some very special chocolate.  It was all amazing – and I loved both their packaging, their presentation, their passion and expertise.  Really worth a visit if in Barcelona.

4.   Museum of Xocolata:  you could factor in lots of time for this museum – I have visited in the past and they now have a whole Bean to Bar section as well – so there is even more to see.  They have a great café and shop if you just want to pop in – and a lovely range of their own single origin bean to bar chocolates

5.  Hofmann Patisserie:  there was a queue outside this tiny shop, so I peeked in through the window only (and took a quick photo).  Famous (clearly – hence the queue) for exceptional patisserie (my daughter informs me that their raspberry croissant is one of the wonders of the world), the 'cakes' on display in the window were truly exceptional.  Through the window I could see that they had a chocolate section at the back of the shop - again, a return visit is needed to explore further, 

6.  Bubo: The last of my tour – again a lot of patisserie – brightly coloured and bold, contemporary designs. This was a little cheaper than the other patisserie; busy, so there was no chance to ask questions – but their chocolates looked really interesting and I think a visit early to mid afternoon would have been quieter and better to be able to ask more questions, as well as to try some of their cakes.

The last three are on the edge of the Gothic quarter and so the shops are very busy, and draw many tourists..  I think I started my tour too late (1.30pm) so if I was doing it again – I would set off at 10 – to enable more time at each and more time to wait if busy.  You do see a lot of the city, v\you are visiting and supporting artisan local businesses, and feasting your eyes as well as your tastebuds.   If you would like to follow this route, I have tried to make a more detailed map online - just follow this link.

Thanks so much to Nerea for her time, friendship and advice; to Eric and his staff at L’Atelier for their time; to Ursula at Lot Roasters for her time and generosity.

Thursday 18 August 2022

Venn Diagrams and Me

I started thinking about Venn diagrams as an illustration for a post to try and capture some of the events and ways that I am able to learn new skills, new relationships etc to help me learn and shape my business.  As I played with them, I realised that they could also illustrate how the business has brought together different aspects of my life - work, education, interests.

There is a lot of work in making chocolate and running a small business and to be honest most of it is repetitive, laborious and more than a little dull!  What keeps me going is learning and experimenting - with flavours (new plants and new ways of processing them), with new chocolates that I meet and grow to know and love, with meeting new people in the foraging and chocolate making worlds, as well as other small businesses who inspire me.  These three worlds are on the whole completely separate and I often wonder if I alone occupy that large overlap in the above Venn diagram!  All three worlds are full of amazing people, all very generous with their knowledge and support and I take as many opportunities as I am able to take part in any to engage with them.  Over the last few months I have been involved in a couple of amazing events that have nurtured me in different ways.  

In May, I joined a wonderful group of foragers in a very beautiful rewooding field in the Lake District (Oak Howe run by the lovely Deborah and Rob of Wild Human),  at the Association of Foragers gathering.  Three days that passed in a relaxed fug of cooking, talking, laughing, eating, cooking some more, laughing some more.  I even roasted cocoa beans in a wood fired pizza oven, and we cracked and peeled them and ground them into a paste in a stone pestle and mortar (but once introduced to a a freshly roasted cocoa bean - most of them just got consumed!)  We even tempered chocolate in the field kitchen and dipped amazing wild goodies in them (apologies - had so much fun I did not even take any photos!).

And in July, my chocolate itch for learning took me (virtually) to Amsterdam and Chocoa.  I have been to Chocoa and it was fantastic to dip into chocolate conversations, meet cocoa growers and chocolate makers from around the world and TASTE amazing chocolates (I wrote a blog post about it here).  During COVID they ran an entirely online conference which was fabulous and during those disconnected days a real joy to spend three days in a virtual world.  This year, it was a hybrid event and although I would have loved to have been there and have warm, real conversations with people - I could not spare time or budget to travel.  However, I utterly loved the opportunity to listen in to presentations, discussions, and this is a really interesting time in the cocoa and chocolate making worlds.  Time for another Venn diagram I think.....

One of the big topics at this year's Chocoa was a new EU regulation coming in very soon, the Regulation on deforestation-free products. Once this is in place, any EU based business importing agricultural commodities (sugar, coffee, cocoa, etc) has to demonstrate that there has been no deforestation in the production of those commodities.  This has thrown the cocoa industry into a frenzy of activity - especially in West Africa, the largest producers of cocoa in the world.  Agroforestry is seem as one of 'the answers' and it was strange to listen to fervent presentations extolling the virtues of combining trees and agriculture, as I have spent so much of my former natural resources career doing exactly this - accompanied with lovely diagrams of layered tree canopies and crops, and cycles of cropping.  I was transported to a former life 40 years ago.  Exciting to hear people enthuse and talk about it, but also depressing that 40 years-on this form of land use is still considered novel and innovative.

The other exciting new movement in the chocolate world is the rapid rise in chocolate making in countries of cocoa origin; this was far more common in the Americas where there is a tradition of eating cocoa and cocoa products, but really not happening very much at all in Africa - despite so much cocoa growing there.  Cocoa farmers learning how to make chocolate from their own crop, adding value to their production - learning how to process, how to market, how to develop a domestic market that may not have existed before.  I have followed with fascination and admiration the Cross Atlantic Chocolate Collective - who are doing just that - sharing knowledge and learning from the Caribbean to Africa.  

It is a little frustrating sometimes in my Highland remoteness that my only engagement with these exciting developments is passive and through the portal of social media and online events.  But I am grateful for this window, and to the extraordinary people that push boundaries and make change.  They influence my own way of doing things - challenge me to think differently, to reflect on my own experience and knowledge and push and expand and explore those overlaps in my Venn diagrams.

Saturday 7 August 2021

By sail to Orkney - a chocolate bar adventure

A few weeks ago a small package of our chocolate bars went on an extraordinary adventure of their very own (am I jealous?  You bet!).  The talented and adventurous writer, Linda Cracknell approached me with a magnificent proposition – she was sailing from Ullapool to Orkney on the Bessie Ellen, and what did I think of the idea of her taking a small cargo of chocolate bars with her and delivering them to a deli in Kirkwall.  Absolutely yes!  And for so many reasons…


Bessie Ellen en route to Orkney.  Thanks to Chrys Tremththanmor for the photo  

Linda has been researching her family history, learning a lot about her sea-faring ancestors in the South West.  One of her relatives through her mother’s family, Captain John (Jack) Chichester was keen to develop his business transporting heavy cargo, and he bought the Bessie Ellen in 1906.  She was a young ship then, a 120ft trading ketch built in Plymouth in 1904.  Despite the slow demise of sail over the early 20th century, they were able to use her 150 ton capacity to transport bulk cargos around UK and Ireland. I wonder if she ever transported cocoa or chocolate?  The age of sail though was on its way out, and in 1947 she was sold to a shipper in Denmark where she transported goods around the Baltic.  Eventually, she was converted to be powered by an engine.   Her current skipper, Nikki Alford, took her on in 2000 and has fully restored her to a beautiful sailing ship.  The cargo hold is now a dining room and living space for guests, who can go on sailing adventures around the UK, Ireland and beyond. Find out more about this beautiful ship here (and maybe book your own adventure!).  Linda’s idea was to take a ‘small cargo’ with her to Orkney and as she had a friend running a deli in Kirkwall – this all linked up very nicely!

Linda taking possession of the cargo in Aberfeldy

Skipper Nikki with the cargo on the Bessie Ellen

My own family history has links to the sea as well – my mother’s great grandfather John William Pyman was a Sea Captain in the 19th century based from the north of England.  Tragically he was lost at sea in June 1879 and as all his wealth went down with that ship, his widow and three children became destitute (and what happened to them is another story in itself!).  He did not own the ship, nor the cargo, but sea captains at the time were allowed to develop a small business on board, selling goods to the crew during the voyage, which would allow them to earn a little more than their pay:  that stock would have been their life savings.  We are not sure where his boat was lost, or where he sailed to and from; my mother says that her father just used to say ‘round the Cape’ – which we assume meant Cape of Good Hope and so maybe on to India.  Whether he ever did the transatlantic route or if he ever transported cocoa – these things we just don’t know.

Freyja at Stromness Books & Prints taking the cargo, and holding for collection by Duncan from Kirkness & Gorie

And I have long been inspired by the transatlantic adventures of the Tres Hombres – bringing chocolate, cocoa, sugar and rum from the Caribbean by sail to the UK and Europe.  The slow and dedicated re-establishing of wind powered cargo transport has been happening quietly over the last decade or so.  Ten years or so ago, Mott Green of Grenada Chocolate Company worked with Tres Hombres to transport chocolate bars made on Grenada to UK and Europe, and this started a small flow of wind-powered transport of chocolate and cocoa to makers in the UK ever since.  Falmouth-based company New Dawn Traders have developed trading routes linking transatlantic trade with the UK, Portugal, France and The Netherlands. A few years back I was excited to see that they were going to be calling in at Oban and Inverness, and hoped to order some of their Caribbean chocolate.  Sadly this trip did not happen in the end – but I have been hopeful ever since that they might replan it.


Duncan after picking up the bars from the bookshop in Stromness

So – lots of reasons why I enthusiastically accepted Linda’s offer.  And what did we send?  The cargo was a small box of ten chocolate bars, tasting of Perthshire in early summer – Elderflower flavoured white chocolate and Scots pine plain chocolate.  Linda stressed that weather and tides might mean that they might not make it to Orkney at all – and so, just as in my great great gandfather’s time – she could always sell it to the crew and passengers on the boat itself!

The chocolate bars reach their destination shelf in the fabulous Kirkness & Gorie Deli in Kirkwall

Many, many thanks to all those involved in this amazing daisy chain of delivery!  Linda especially, as well as Nikki and the Bessie Ellen, Freyja and Duncan.  And here's to a future of sustainable transport!

Friday 21 August 2020

Fruit leathers

No, they don’t sound terribly appetising do they?  We need to come up with a different name – but this old traditional one does describe their appearance so well and gives them a certain character.  But it gives no hint to their intensity and flavour impact – and the surprise is part of the pleasure maybe.

Leathers are a traditional technique for preserving fruits; made well, they will keep fruits as a snack sweetmeat through the winter. They require a lot less sugar than jam or jelly, and pack more flavour.  Made carefully, they don’t need much cooking either and so can keep flavours bright and intense.

We have a ‘duplicated’/mimeograghed copy of fruit preserving leaflet from the 80s in which leathers feature prominently, but it wasn’t until my Wild Wonders course last year that I was re-introduced to their possibility.  I struggle with how to manage fruits in the chocolates – they are wet, acidic and often don’t carry intense enough flavour to make a great impact in the ganache.  Acquiring a dehydrator has helped – and drying some fruits helps manage the moisture without too much boiling or added sugar; raspberries and sea buckthorn work particularly well in this way.

But leathers offer a way to process fruits and weave round chocolate in a different way from ganache filled chocolates, and I began to play around with them last year.  Blaeberries were my first real success;  I went to a great talk by Eva Gunnare, a Swedish forager, as part of the Foraging Fortnight and she gave us blueberry leather and described how simple it was to make.  You can reduce your fruit pulp by simmering and boiling, but better still – reduce through dehydration.  The sugar added can then be more about taste than preservation as you are removing excess water through the dehydrating process not the boiling/simmering/sugar concentration.  This is why freezer jams for rasps and strawberries are so delicious – preservation is managed through freezing and not sugar concentration and moisture reduction through boiling – the flavours are fresher, brighter and more intense.

For wet fruits like blaeberries leather making was the answer – get it right and you have a soft, slightly chewy, intensely flavoured nibble – that is just perfect dipped in the right chocolate.  We made these for the Wild Food Festival last year and they disappeared really quickly.

They are though, a lot of work.  Foraging wild fruits is in itself a labour requiring meditative levels of patience and endurance.  Blaeberries, raspberries, wild strawberries (actually I have never gathered enough of these at any one time to do anything other than eat them!) – but the joy of leathers is that you can make from any fruit or vegetable I imagine.  So we have tried rhubarb, Japanese knotweed, elderberries and sloes.

I cannot really give you a recipe, more like a process.  So much depends on the fruit, the flavour you want, and what equipment you have for dehydrating.  I will describe the process for raspberries and blaeberries, and hope that this serves as enough of a guide to help you get started.

Pick over your fruit to remove any mouldy or badly damaged fruits; remove stalks and leaves.  Wash carefully and drain.  Weigh the fruit, and add a third of that weight in sugar (less if you think the fruit already sweet).  Mix in and leave covered for a few hours – stirring occasionally to help bring out the juice.  By the end of this period, there should be lots of juice, possibly submerging all the fruit.


Quickly bring to the boil, just to kill off any bacteria or yeasts; if you don’t mind the seeds, then mush up into a pulp.  Otherwise strain into a bowl; using the back of a metal spoon, force as much of the juice and soft fruit pulp through the sieve, until you have only seeds and skin in the sieve.  If the strained liquid is really thin, you could heat and evaporate off some of the excess water – but be careful about monitoring the taste, as this will change with prolonged cooking.

Prepare trays to go in the dehydrator – maybe line with silicon baking paper, and pour a thin layer of the pulp (say 0.5 to 1cm deep – depending on how thick you would like your leather to be; remember it will shrink considerably through drying so take this into account *).

Dehydrate on a low heat – 115 to 120 F – until tacky enough to handle.  Remove from the paper, peeling it away carefully.  To store, lay the sheet onto fresh paper and then roll up with the paper so that there is sheet of paper between each layer of the leather.  Wrap in a plastic bag, or in a sealed food box.  When you want to use, unroll and cut into strips.

Have fun!

*I tried making a rhubarb leather once that was too thin and it dehydrated to hand-made paper thinness – infact thinking about it, it was hand made paper – edible and beautiful pink green mottled colouring.  OK – a whole new possible craft industry – edible fruit papers!

Thursday 27 February 2020

How to judge a chocolate?

The Academy of Chocolate was established to promote the concept of ‘good chocolate’ – chocolate that is ethical, sustainable, creative and delicious.  They hold an Awards competition every year, and their Bronze, Silver and Gold awards are coveted and adorn very fine chocolates from all over the world.

I saw a call out for judges for this year’s competition, and as I was not entering anything myself, approached the organisers to see if I would be eligible; I am not a member of the Association, I hold no formal qualitifications in Patisserie or chocolate making – but it seems all I needed was a passion for good chocolate, and that along with a reasonable good understanding of working with chocolate – would qualify me.

As I looked forward to the experience, and told people the reason for my trip to London, I was tickled by their amusement of the concept of spending three days judging chocolate (was it going to be a Britains’ got Talent style affair, with Chocolatiers vying for the top award, me and other judges sitting like Simon Cowell pooring derision and scorn on entries?).  I also realised that I had a number of anxieties about putting myself forward for this; do I know enough?  Are my tastes in chocolate too narrow, or at worst at odds with what is ‘popular’?  are my taste buds discerning enough?

I was put at ease very quickly by both AoC organisers and other volunteer judges as soon as I arrived.  It was wonderfully relaxed, and as I chatted with others I found that I was not the only newby, and not the only chocolate maker.  Participants ranged from food journalists, chefs, chocolate makers, interested foodies, a coffee taster.  We were mainly but not all from the UK – but we covered a range of professions and a range of food cultures.

The judging room is large, with three tables situated as far apart from each other as possible!  At each end there are tables with entries waiting to be judged;  small plates of 5 or 6 samples of each entry, nervously waiting their turn to be scrutinised (Ok, they are just chocolates sitting on a plate – but out of their sumptuous packaging they do look vulnerable, exposed and out of place – and hence, a little nervous).  There are glossy brightly coloured and decorated ones, plain ones with no décor, simple, elegant ones – all sorts.  The plain ones seem more anxious, maybe wishing they had a little colour to them – or maybe quietly confident as they felt they would star when it comes to flavour. This isn’t as fanciful as it sounds – the makers are not in the room and so these small confections are their representatives and embody the nerves of their makers, just as much as they embody their creativity and ambition.

In a separate room, busy people organise the entries.  Table tops, trolleys and benches are piled high with all manner of boxes – all the entries having been sent from all over the world – carefully packaged to ensure that they arrive in the best possible state.

I am allocated a table number and join my other four group colleagues.  Introductions, some guiding wisdom from Silvija Davidson of AoC,and we start – presented with three entries to assess.  As we finish those, more are randomly delivered to the table – some enrobed or panned, some white chocolate, some nut categories – constant variety to keep our senses busy.  We set about dissecting and scrutinising people’s hard worked creations; inspecting the product visually first – is it well presented, does it look pleasing?  Then cut through the middle to see how well it is constructed and put together.  Smell, look and then taste.  We are scrutinising people’s livelihoods and it feels deeply uncomfortable; to respect that responsibility, we have to stay true to a critical line; is this well made? Is it balanced? Does it give joy?  Even a chocolate I personally don’t like can give joy – in texture, look and ambition – and it is heartening that we as a group are really respectful of that.  We are not judging on just ‘do I like it or not’.

C, and we start – presented with three

By the end of the first session, I am sugared out; my mouth is complaining.  I stop at a café on my way home thinking a coffee will sort me out, but it just seems to be another assault on my overworked taste buds!  I have read that people crave salad after a session of judging – clean, crisp, cool brightness and I fully get that.  A cool swim after frenzied overindulgence

Judges are volunteers and so some do one or two sessions, others do more; for me, this goes on for two more days. We taste on; each session I find myself with a different group and the table has a slightly different dynamic about it.  I learn to refresh my palette more often with water, plain bread and thin sliced apples.  I gain confidence in putting forward my thoughts and observations to the group.  In my last session I am asked to be the scribe – and have to note and summarise the group’s feedback and thoughts on each entry – this will be the feedback that makers receive – so it needs to be clear and constructive, helpful to the maker to further improve their product – another level of seriousness and respect for the entries.

In 3 days I think I might have tasted about 120 or more chocolates; chocolates from all over the world with flavours ranging from the familiar – hazelnuts, raspberries, to fruits I have never heard of before (longans), through peppers and teas, liqueurs that spill out of their chocolate shells, to algae and fish!  Each one a discrete package that represents its makers creativity, expertise and ambition.  Some with stories attached (the descriptions of the chocolates that entrants are asked to give range from a straightforward overview of the chocolate, to stories of local traditions that lie behind the flavours used).  This all helps in the judging.

I come to the end of my three days – the judging goes on for another couple of days for this part of the competition (the filled chocolates) and will go on for the next month or more with judging of bars.  Those entries that we identified as silver or gold will go to the grand jury for confirmation of award.  Once in a while, we completely disagreed on a chocolate as a table, and when opinion varied wildly, it felt fairer to ask another table to give a second opinion.

I really enjoyed the experience – and home again and making chocolates, it has made me conscious of my own practice and challenged my own approach to chocolate making.  I had volunteered to learn, meet other people within the sector, see what other people are doing – and achieved all that.  I am looking forward to when the awards are announced, knowing that I was involved in a small way.

Thanks so much to AoC for involving me – and to all their hard work in bringing all this together.  And maybe next year, I might enter the competition!

Monday 26 August 2019

Seeking Finnish wild treasures: berries, boletes, bears and boreal forest

My phone has wierdly remained in Finland time since we came back, and it is helping me hold on to what was such a great trip – so interesting, so enjoyable, so tasty.  We went to Karelia – the eastern-most province of Finland – an area that has endless forests – interspersed with more lakes and ponds than farmland.  The small town of Ilomantsi was our home for a few days, set a-buzz (literally) by the Bear Festival – chain saw sculptures of bears ‘in motion’ (this year’s festival theme) emerged from great spruce logs lining the street when we arrived.  We watched each time we passed as sculptures gradually came into focus – from rough outline, to angular forms and eventually subtle expressions of movement and character.

We did so much in just a few days; we cooked in a Lutheran church – an amazing three course lunch that saw us raiding flowerbeds and nearby woodlands to embellish both table and plate; we forayed into woodlands – giddy with the abundance of the familiar and new that we found there; we visited an award winning distillery and got tipsy and a little loud tasting Arctic Blue and Black Tea gins; we made fresh cheese, walked beautiful farms and milked inky-eyed, long-eye-lashed gentle cows at Cow Camp, guided and led by our equally gentle and knowledgeable hosts; we heard stories of wolf and bear attacks, the realities of living on the edge of the great boreal forest, as well as lessons in plant use, and cooking fungi; we had an interesting morning hearing from two government projects within the Forestry Service, LUKE and Lulume, on how foraging works in Finland – marvelling at the ‘everyman’s right’ to pick, and sell (tax free). 

We drank coffee at woodland fires, were treated to the most generous and extraordinary hospitality throughout – delicious food, generous sharing of knowledge and glimpses into rural lives in Finland. The focus of our visit was the Wild Food Festival in Ilomantsi and this was great fun – we visited on the Saturday and ate all sorts of wild delicacies – tar icecream, wood flour biscuits, wild flavoured juices, bear meat for those that wished it – using mobile phones and google translate to communicate when the international language of Latin plant names failed us.

Too much really to take in, and definitely too much to describe.  However, a few highlights and thoughts for me were:

  • how ‘normalised’ wild foods are – starting with blueberry juice on the Finnair flight, in restaurants, blue berries everywhere, in sweets, icecreams, at every meal (both in savoury and sweet dishes), in supermarket products.  Not just blueberries – so many other wild berries as well – crowberries, cloudberries, lingonberries, and lovely to see sea buckthorn a ‘common berry’.  Our gorgeous host Mari (such fun, continuosly ensuring that we had all we needed, translating, guiding) knew plants because she just did – brought up using them, and still using them as food and drink.
  • so straightforward – everyman’s right; tax free sales;  Mari mentioned that there is a license system – for which you need to demonstrate that you know key species (wish I learned a little more about this).  At different times and in different groups in Scotland, we have tied ourselves in knots trying to develop codes of practice, should be have licenses to pick commercially – but in Finland they seem to have a simple system based essentially on trust and tradition.  We were spellbound to hear that ordinary people collect 50 million kilos of berries a year (20m kgs are then sold on) and 5-10 million kg of fungi (1.5 million kg sold on); the stats themselves are amazing but also amazed that the stats exist, that wild gathered products are quantified in this way. The importance of wild foods to local domestic, local and national economies is both recognised and supported; the presentations from LUKE and Lulume outlined how this is being developed through widespread research and support to private forest owners.

  • to be somewhere so abundant and rich. I am sure not all of Finland is like this – around cities and towns, and where there is more pressure of agriculture on land it might be very different – but from the presentation given to us by the forestry guys well over half of the land is. In and around Ilomantsi – the forest and marsh are abundant.  The forest crown is quite open, allowing light through to the forest floor which supports a wonderland of berries, fungi, and mosses.  Every footstep we took, there were carpets of plants – mainly familiar – ladies mantle, cranesbills, rose bay willowherbs, thistles, nettles, raspberries - so familiar but so surprising to see so much abundance and diversity.  And it proved a perfect nursery ground for the fungi novices of the group – a gentle but varied introduction to our up-coming fungi studies.

For me, to be surrounded and immersed in Boreal forst was a real treat – we have the same tree species in the UK – Scots pine, Norway spruce, birch, aspen and alder – but not so often in these open mixed stands.  A particular delight was the abundance of aspen – one of my favourite trees – rare to come across in Scotland, but tall and elegant in these Finnish woods – and the sound of the breeze through the tremulous canopy still fills my ears.  On the last day we had a wonderful walk through beautiful mixed woodland, coming out by a large pond – skirted with water lilies, bog bean, mosses, cranberries and an abundance of different berries.  We fell to picking and eating, in a frenzy – brought to a climax by the sight of large purple splodges on the path – bear poo!
There is so much I realise I did not ask whilst there; for example, what is the concern story there – I think I was blinded by so much going on, that forgot to think about why there is a LEADER project in the area.  Our own project in Scotland is driven by an urge to reconnect people with wild foods and nature, but what is theirs?  from where we stand it seems sorted, but clearly not, as otherwise there would be no project.

Could one of the issues be a narrowing of variety?  Even in this culture, there seems to be a ‘pop’ list – the berries (blue, cran, cloud, crow), mushrooms, (ceps and milk caps – despite the huge abundance of fungi – in the festival it seemed only ceps were available and dried), plants (goutweed, ladies mantle, meadowsweet).   We are much the same – elderflower, berries, chanterelles, ceps (amongst the foodies), brambles, wild garlic.  Our list is shorter, but it is the same issue, of expanding the familiarity with different plants and in different uses. 

Even with so much tradition and widespread knowledge, it was wonderful to see the new energies in play – the gin distiller, the young chefs and many of the stall holders at the festival.

Wild Wonders

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be given a place on a training programme funded by LEADER, called Wild Wonders.  It is a year long programme, led by Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods, and our group of 12 apostles meet up with him monthly to learn more about foraging, using wild ingredients and how to introduce and guide others to a greater connection with our natural larder.  We are a mixed group of food makers (chefs, small food businesses), herbalists, guides, community educators all brought together with a common thirst to learn and explore the wild larder’s as well as our own potential.  It has been such a wonderful tonic for me – to expand my own knowledge, find a ‘tribe’ of like minded folk, explore different parts of Scotland, and meet other people using foraging at the heart of their businesses. 

I have already started to make new flavours as a result of the course, and constantly thinking about new ways to incorporate flavours into the chocolate.  As part of the Wild Wonders programme we are organising a Wild Food Festival, as part of the wider Foraging Fortnight in early September.  Our festival will be on 14th September, at beautiful Cardross Estate.   

Being LEADER, it is a cross cultural programme, working with groups in Finland, Lithuania and Latvia.  We have just had a great trip to Finland to a Wild Food Festival in Karelia province and we are looking forward to spending time with foraging friends from Finland and Latvia at our September event.

Friday 15 March 2019

Chocoa 2019, Amsterdam

As a small business in a rural area, it is easy to feel a little remote from the chocolate making community out there - I don't even bump into Iain Burnett very often and he only works 10 miles or so down the road!  So, with great excitement and with pockets full of business cards, I set off to meet fellow chocolate makers and adventurers at Chocoa 2019 in Amsterdam, an annual gathering devoted to all things cocoa and chocolate.  It is an extraordinary event - bringing together 'big chocolate'  - the Cargills, Mars and Callebauts, as well as Ministers of Trade and Cocoa from cocoa producing countrues aroud the world - and (where I fit in!) the smaller craft makers, and the various business small, medium and large who are involved in the 'value chain' of cocoa to chocolate. 

Map of Amsterdam port and waterfront
Amsterdam is the centre of cocoa in Europe - the port receives cocoa from around the world, stores and then dispatches it through Europe - and there are also chocolate processing businesses along the industrial waterfront of the city outskirts. For some reason, I had not really known or thought much about this - but it was with real pleasure and interest that I met Astrid Fisser, an amazing woman whose job is to organise all the cocoa logistics in the Port, and she told me all about its role in the cocoa supply chain and then how cocoa is moved on through Europe - mainly through the waterways and by train.

My first participation was in Women Network in Cocoa and Chocolate - an afternoon workshop that brought women from all over the world; through a number of fun introductory activities we got a sense of the global reach of the group (huge), the breadth across the value chain (from growers to bloggers), and rather alarmingly the disparity in how much chocolate we all ate a week!  We were led through a brilliant session on negotiating - so no haggling at my market stalls in the future!

On Thursday and Friday two events ran concurrently - the Chocolate Makers Forum and a Trade fair.  The trade fair covered two huge halls within the Beurs van Berlage - a very handsome early 20th century building in the heart of Amsterdam - originally built as home to the Stock Exchange.  As you walked into the Trade fair, you were met by a wonderful smell of cocoa - an earthy, slightly fruity and chocolatey aroma - and a buzz of conversation and exchange.  There were many west African growers represented - projects from Sierra Leone, Cote D'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon - brilliant to see as these are on the whole dominated by the large chocolate companies.  Companies also from East Africa - Uganda and Tanzania, including tree to bar makers.  Asia was also well represented - India, Philipines,and Vietnam.

It is a huge sector, but possibly also a small world - lots of greeting of old friends and colleagues, hearty discussions about bean variety, fermentation, sugar types and flavouring.   A couple of years ago, talk at such events was all about cocoa genetics; now it is 'post harvest' - the fermentation and drying processes that convert the raw cocoa bean into the commodity that is shipped, stored, roasted and ground into chocolate.  Lots of conversations about sustainability - the pros and cons of certification, the bottom line being how to ensure farmers are paid enough to keep them in cocoa, and attract young people into the industry.

One of the most exciting meetings for me was with Samuel Baruta - the founder of Marou - who it turns out has been to Aberfeldy!  Marou make the gorgeous Ben Tre couveture that Dewars have matched with their Aberfeldy Single Malt - so very sorry I did not happen to have a bottle at hand to present to Samuel!

What was amazing was the number of companies converting cocoa into chocolate in the country of origin - a trend that would see the value this adds staying in the cocoa growing countries - as well as skills developed, etc.  The chocolates were wonderful as well - my particular favourite a Vietnamese business VNCacao.

I had a fabulous chat about Indonesia cocoa with a chap who is setting out to source from Aceh, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Flores - it was great to catch up on how things have devoloped in the fine cocoa since my two visits there many years ago.

The big questions asked were mainly about sustainability; I am left with thoughts about integrity of supply chain, as well as are we at 'peak' single origin craft chocolate?  the trend does seem to be moving towards flavoured chocolates more.

And the event finished with a cocoa auction (I had to sit on my hands through that!) and then a rather surreal finale of an opera singer, accompanied by a harpist, singing arias she had matched to different chocolates.  This felt so very, well Dutch, really!

Thursday 9 March 2017

Making progress with our bean to bar

We are making progress with our steep learning curve on making chocolate from cocoa beans (bean to bar), although we still have a long way to go!  Limitations are both equipment and technique, but bit by bit we are understanding more about this incredible process.

We have been hand roasting small batches of about 2kg of beans at a time, still using a domestic oven and still playing around with temperatures and times.  A recent trip to visit Duffy Sheardown taught me much and adopting his 'roasting test' I have been able to be much more consistent with roasting, and recently we were able to process over 10kg of beans in one batch.

We also made a major breakthrough in winnowing last month; I have been reading about and pricing small winnowers, and dreaming about a faster way of removing those pesky cocoa shells.  Meanwhile every small batch we have done, I ended up peeling by hand.  Faced with the 10kg of beans (an order for an event in March) we knew we had to do something and I had another go at the 'hairdryer and bowl' technique much talked about on DIY bean to bar chat forums (such fun!); I had found this uneffective and messy when I first tried it, but maybe desparation or guided by a cocoa angel - this time around I seemed to get the knack!  Still messy (eye goggles and screening off half the workshop a necessity) but as the video below shows - it really does work and reduces a task to one day, that would have taken us 2 weeks by hand.

So, a production process developed:  we cracked the beans with a rolling pin (no technology too complicated here!) and then into the 'winnowing corner' and we have beautiful clean cocoa nibs ready to go into the grinder!

And then into the grinder for 3 days, left to mature for 3 to 4 weeks and then tempered and moulded into bars, and ready to go!  From bean to bar in 4 to 5 weeks.