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.  

Friday, 1 July 2016

The prickly case of Gorse flower and that elusive scent

I am sure you are familiar with that wonderful heady coconut aroma that hangs heavy over a patch of gorse, resplendent in gold yellow flowers in early summer?  It has teased me over the years - I have tried to capture this in chocolate for a number of years now - all to no effect.

It is a prickly challenge as well - gorse (Ulex europaeus) flowers are tightly clumped on prickle covered stems.  Picking them requires precision; wearing gloves makes fingers too clumsy to remove the flowers, and I realise that my little finger is raised as if drinking tea with the Queen, as I focus on using thumb and forefinger to pluck out the flower, and attempt to keep my other fingers as far as possible from the needlelike spikes.

Undaunted, each spring I watch out for a good sunny day, dry and warm, hopefully building up those gorgeous aromas.  I seek the most aromatic shrubs, and set to with my prickly task.  I take the flowers home, still warm from the sun and immerse them in melted cocoa butter in an effort to capture that fabulous flavour.  I know it will work well with chocolate - we all know coconut works well with chocolate!

I have left these flowers to infuse for varying amounts of time - from hours to days.  Leave them too long and they start to rot a little - not a pleasant concept; but all to no avail - all I get is a cocoa butter with a slight floral teint.  No coconut.

So I tried infusing in cream for a ganache; again, no coconut.  I have been doing this every spring since I started making chocolates!  A couple of years ago, I came across Chocolarder, a chocolate maker  in Cornwall who uses gorse flowers to flavour chocolate - and it was just as I imagined it would be; lovely coconut macaroon flavour.  I wrote to the chocolate maker, and he introduced me to a new word 'enfleurage';  on looking this up I realised that this was a fancy name for what I had been doing already - but there were a number of ways of approaching it and I had only been practising 'hot enfleurage';  there was a cold version as well - maybe this was the solution?

The following year, brimful of optimism, I tried this alternative technique; picked flowers and laid them between thin wafer layers of set cocoa butter.  Left them for a week or two - but wildly disappointed to find that there was still no coconut.

I began to wonder whether we had a sub-species of gorse in this area that has no aroma; or maybe the weather never gets warm or humid enough?

One last try this year, and a glorious warm spell of weather in May - surely this must have been ideal?  But no - I was to be disappointed again.  In one last attempt I tried a ganache - a cream infusion of flowers, combined with milk chocolate.  As I feared, no hint of coconut, but this time, maybe because I was giving up on coconut, I allowed myself to just taste the resulting ganache and stop focussing on one flavour.  I realised that the ganache tasted like honey, with a slightly peppery edge and full of caramel.  It was amazing!

I have introduced it into the early summer selections and it has been very well received; and conversations with customers about it have revealed that I am not the only one that finds the coconut aroma elusive.

So lesson learned; I need to taste with an open mind, and don't fixate on one flavour. Here's to next year's gorse season.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

First steps in bean to bar

My own bean to bar journey started with what felt like a really random event.  I was doing a stall at the Rob Roy Challenge in Kenmore; it had been a slow afternoon and by the end of the afternoon as I was packing up, a couple came over and started talking to me about cocoa beans and chocolate; did I make my own chocolate from beans?  (no, but would love to)  would I like some to experiment with – they have some in the back of the car!  Jocelyn and Aixa have a cocoa farm in Panama and these were their first beans and they were in UK to test the market for fine beans.

The beans are delicious – just crunching in to one is enough to tell you that they will make yummy chocolate.  So a plan was hatched; I would buy myself a late congratulations present for the awards received earlier that year, invest in a wet grinder, and set aside some time to experiment.  The week of Perthshire Open Studios in September felt perfect; during the week I am unable to do normal production anyway, so could have this bean to bar process take over the workshop.   Visitors could learn about the process, as well as help out if they wished!


I had bought the wet grinder from HB Ingredients, who also had instructions on their website.  They recommended roasting at about 120C for 25 minutes or so, and I had received some advice from Jocelyn and Aixa about roasting time as well.  My plan was to experiment with each batch and see what worked.

First problem; what temperature really was my oven at?  I might set it to 120C but was that the actual temperature?  It is very old – probably over 25years old, a fan oven,  Duffy had told me that they should smell of brownies when done, so we all stood in the kitchen nostrils alert to aromas from the oven.  After 20 minutes we opened the oven to check – were they ‘singing’ (the water in the bean escaping the shell), had the shells come loose?, how intense does the brownie smell need to be?  I was already realising that simple words on a page belied a complex process, and subsequent conversations and research support this.  It is a little like Mrs Beeton  simply and helpfully saying ‘first take your rabbit’.

So fearful of over-roasting (number one cardinal sin) we pulled the beans out after 25 mins.  In the second batch I kept tabs on the oven temp with a thermometer and learnt that the oven was far cooler than the dial was set to.

Peeling and winnowing

If I thought ‘roast the beans for 25 mins until they smell of brownies’ was an understatement I was soon to learn that ‘peel and winnow the beans’ was an even greater one.  We followed HB’s instructions to crush the beans in a bag with a rolling pin – easy enough – but then were faced with this ‘Aesop tale type task of removing the shells and separating the broken cocoa beans from the papery covering.   The shell did not leave the bean as easily as was intimated; we ended up peeling them.  There were hidden pleasures in this – when you manage to keep the whole bean entire and reveal a beautiful dark shiny complete bean rather than have it crumble into nibs in your fingers.  They looked like chocolate pecans almost, little convoluted folded coyledons of the new seedling.  Such small triumphs though did little to diminish the tedium of peeling those beans.  This was fast becoming a sticking point.

At least in hand peeling we were able to separate most of the papery shell from the nibs; Aixa had asked if we could keep the shells as the folk in Panama infuse them in rum to make a liqueur (this in itself is enough to keep you going?).  However, there were lots of fragments mixed in to the nibs and we needed to winnow them out.  The HB oracle suggested a hair dryer and without really thinking about it – I thought the skins would be lighter and just blow away – I started to ‘mimic’ winnowing I had seen in Africa and Nepal; pouring the grain from one container to another but from a height  so that the wind would carry the lighter stuff away and the heavier would fall into the waiting vessel.  Only the wind was replaced by a hairdryer – clearly my first mistake – a bit like winnowing in a typhoon!  The skin did fly away, but so did the nibs!  The workshop covered in cocoa nibs and skin – after all that tedious peeling!  So, I turned to the fan, but this was not strong enough to blow anything away.  I looked on the internet for more advice and read about the ‘dogbowl’ technique.  A deepish bowl, blow air into it and the lighter stuff comes up over the edges.  This worked to a degree but I still found that the smaller nib pieces were as light as the shells and I seemed to be losing a lot this way.  ‘Winnowing’ never has such a simple concept been so misleading.  NO wonder those winnowing machine cost so much!


After all that – the rest is actually simple and straightforward; the machine takes over.  The machine is extraordinary – I could not believe how well it worked – it just kept going – whirring away in the corner of the room in a quiet competent way.  I am in love with it – machines that do what they are supposed to and don’t make a fuss, after all that peeling and winnowing, calm was restored and we just had to wait and see.

Within a few hours the chocolate paste was a little gritty but very liquid and a beautiful colour.  I had to keep checking the temperature and using the hair dryer to bring it back up to over 45C.  I positioned table lamps over it in an effort to warm it but of course modern low energy light bulbs do not give off much heat!  I dug out an old heat lamp that we had used to nurse some chicks with – but the heat was too low to make much difference to the chocolate, but did keep it between 45 and 50 – and gave a beautiful glow.  At the end of the first day, after about 4 hours of grinding – we had a light gritty and a little unpolished tasting chocolate – but it felt like it was on its way.  I did not want to leave the machine on overnight so turned it off and emptied the chocolate out.

We set it to grind again at 8 the next morning, and by mid morning was amazed to discover that the grit had gone – it was smooth!  I knew that  it would need considerably more grinding and tried to increase the temperature as much as I could to ‘conch’ the chocolate, but could never really get it any higher than 55C, and that was with holding the hairdryer which I could only do for a limited time!  The chocolate kept warmer if I kept the lid on, but I thought I would not get any of the loss of off notes that I had read should happen in the conching process – so even though I could not get the temperatures – just the warm, constant turning and open to the air might do that.

We did this through to day 3, another 12 hours in the machine and then I was eager to get on with a second batch and decided to call it a day.    From 1500g of beans, we had created 1000g of chocolate – an 80% having added only a small amount of sugar.  I tempered it and moulded into small 5g caraques and 30g bars.  And could barely wait the few hours till it could be turned out and eaten.  Our very first made from scratch chocolate.

It is the most transformative process; on subsequent days that week, I was able to offer people the original unroasted bean and then a taste of the chocolate made from it.  It is hard to bridge the gap between the two – how did one transform into the other?  We made two more batches that week, experimenting with roasting times and also with the degree of winnowing.  The second batch we meticulously peeled and separated; the third batch was much more slapdash.  I have subsequently had conversations with others about peel and indeed the ‘stalk’; the peel contains any contaminants, it has some fat but not much and so reduces the ratio of fat) it has many of the off notes.
But on the whole I am pleased with what we did; I love the chocolate itself – which is full of flavor and not too bitter and is a lovely texture.  I took samples of it to Olympia (see The Chocolate Show post) and tested it on some of the experts, who were nice enough to try it and give me feed back;  we all agree the beans are wonderful, the temper was good (one thing I can do!), a little over roasted maybe – but on the whole – a good start

The Chocolate Show, Olympia October 2015

A fairly last minute decision to take a stall at this annual festival of all things chocolate, led to a couple of weeks of intense chocolate making preparation, long days polishing, tempering, wrapping; falling into bed in the small hours exhausted, only to wake an hour or two later fretting about whether I needed another batch of Smoked Heb Sea salt and Java; how much would I need?  I had no idea. 

By the time I got to the sleeper to travel down to London, I was almost too tired to fully appreciate the way traveling on the sleeper always makes a journey seem like such an adventure.  I slept well, and woke to London, beautiful in autumnal crispness.

The Show was being held at Olympia, a first time visit for me and a revelation – we were in the National Hall; a huge space with beautifiul glass curved roof, and a deep wide first floor balcony all around it.  I was a few hours early – but to my amazement, the place looked extremely unready!  Some stalls were up but few were dressed or occupied.  There were crews of people all over the place focused on their own part of the busy ant hill that was getting it all ready.

I found my stall – as always in the ‘dark corner’ – furthest corner of the show, tucked away.  Not really, we were in good company - The International Chocolate Awards Winners Zone (lots of very lovely chats with Beverley), with their stand opposite, and The Highland Chocolatier across the way, and next door to Gustolato, both multi award winners.

My stock and display materials were being brought down from Scotland by Ali and Freddie of The Chocolate Tree and Julie of The Highland Chocolatier, both coming in vans.  This was such a blessing – and a tangible benefit of the collaboration we are fostering through the Scottish Chocolatiers Network.  As the afternoon progressed they both arrived and we helped unpack and then I set about ‘dressing’ my stall.  My lovely sister in law Anna had come to help me and was slowly initiated into the world of chocolate and bean-to-bar;  she grew to be haunted by this phrase over the weekend and told me that she woke up in the night with the mantra ‘bean-to-bar’ running through her head!

Slowly other chocolate making friends arrived over the afternoon – it is a smallish world, but growing fast. People I knew already – Duffy and Penny Sheardown (always so generous with time, advice, moral support, battery charger thingies, and just all round loveliness), Aneesh, Neena and Kirti Popat, Spencer from Cocoa Runners – all of whom who have at different stages of my own chocolate journey been significant ‘wayfarers’.   One of the aspects of the weekend that really excited me was meeting many of the names I had become so familiar with through my regular internet and Twitter voyeuristic trawls of what is new on the scene.  Omnom, Original Beans, Doble & Bignall, Marou, Damson, Ika, Seaforth, Forever Cacao, Chocolat Madagascar, Choconord, Paul A Young (another sea buckthorn fan), Mathieu du Gottal… to name but a few.

The weekend was extraordinary – exhausting in many ways and by Sunday I thought I was going to lose my voice;  in addition to days spent explaining my own particular take on chocolate and answering the continual questions ‘ooh, what is a Charlotte Flower?’, my evenings were spent talking cocoa; conversations about $100 chocolate bars, barrel aged cocoa, nib-to-bar, bean-to-bar, perfect roasting times, off notes, my white chocolate dilemma

I have come away feeling very much more connected to this scene, and hope to have found some new customers along the way.  I am indebted to two extraordinary women – my sister Jessica and sister in law Anna, who both with boundless energy and good humour offered chocs, answered questions, encouraged people to try something new, became fluent in this bizarre world of fine chocolate and were just all round wonderful.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A flavourless summer?

Summer has been a challenge this year!  The Met Office have announced that Scotland has had the coldest summer for 43 years, and this lack of sunshine and warmth has had a real impact on the natural world.  Everything has been late coming into flower, but most significantly for me and the chocolates, these flowers have very little aroma and scent.  Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) looked magnificent – fulsome and waxy – but carried little flavour; meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) is out everywhere at the moment – fields of it – it absolutely thrives in damp places so this is a great summer for it – but as with the elderflower, there is little of that characteristic aroma as you walk past.


We persevere though, and just have to adjust recipes and accept that this year our flavours may just be a little subtle and understated.  I am exploring using fruit jellies more this year – and used a gooseberry jelly to counter the sweetness of an elderflower white chocolate ganache – which worked really well.

I have been trying to capture some new flavours this year; gorse flower (Ulex europaeus) and Sweet cicely (Myrrhis oderata) are two that I have been attempting for a number of years and I hoped I would crack them this year.  Gorse was everywhere this spring – we had clear sunny weather in April and the gorse loved it, whole hillsides were vibrant with its yellow flowers.  However, even picking in bright spring sunshine, the air temperatures were cool if not cold, and again no aroma – we should have been bowled over with that gorgeous coconut scent – but nothing.   Sweet cicely has proved as elusive, although I did manage to make some ganache in early summer that was lovely, with a delicious delicate aniseed taste lingering in the mouth after eating them.  Timing though seems to be important and the younger plants with flowers and green seed heads seemed to be the most effective.  We even tried the root – which seems to have a powerful aroma, but as always with Sweet cicely, heating seems to destroy that.

Clove root (Geum urbanum) was suggested to me by Mark Williams at Galloway Wild Foods and this is still a work in progress.  The roots are delicately clovey, but also delicate in size and hard to clean off all the soil!  Another member of the Scottish Wild Harvest Association has suggested I try again in the autumn, so watch this space!

Friday, 22 May 2015

Ooh la la: those Parisian chocolate shops!

Le muguet du 1er mai, son année de naissance, les événements de Mai 68…tant de sources d’inspiration pour Patrick Roger en ce printemps …

In late April I was treated to a couple of days in Paris, and what a treat!  The capital of chocolat in spring was heavenly, and I recommend navigating any city by chocolate shop – but most especially Paris!

The wonderful thing about these shops is that they are as much a feast for the eyes as they are for the taste buds – shops so overwhelmingly chic and cool that it takes a while sometimes to realise that they are selling chocolate.  The sound of swishing drawers opening and shutting, the white, silver or black surfaces – you would normally associate with a jewellery shop or high class dress shop.  This almost seems to be the purpose of the exquisite style – to the extent that the shop assistants seem determined not to mention the word chocolate either; or answer any questions about flavours or price.  Don’t bother the assistant with mundane questions of ganache or praline, dark or milk, cinnamon or raspberry.  These delicacies have been made by the Maître – that is really all that needs to be said about it. I have to say I did find this a bit frustrating in the end – but maybe I am too obsessed with detail?

And they are all so different – expressing such difference in character that often but not always comes through in the chocolates themselves (were we getting chocolate blind by the end of day?).  Solid tradition in Michel Chaudun classic corner shop (oh to have a corner shop like this on your street) where he himself works creating his confections; perfect elegance in Jacques Genin  - the absolutely chicest shop, beautiful honeyed stone walls that are almost fudge-like – with chocolates and pate de fruit dispalyes as if treasured jewels ; bright clarity and knowledgable assistance with Richart, wild expressionistic art from Patrick Roger, calm quality and competence from Michel Cluizel, tradional sweety shop detail from Chapon, funky multicoloured and flavoured macarons in Pierre Hermé

In fitting with the elegance of these shops, there are no samples sitting on the counter;  a taste was offered reverentially, presented to you on a small plate or tray.  Conversation was minimal – language not really being an issue – most of the assistants spoke excellent English.  I was most excited to be early enough one morning to find Michel Chaudun in his shop, before he needed to head off to his workshop to make chocolates for the day.  He was charming and patient and forgiving of my poor French.  He was the only maker I met in all the shops

Many of the shops had Muguet; May 1st is a national holiday (international labour day) and also Lily of the valley day – traditionally people gave those they loved a small bunch of these gorgeous flowers.  Still do I am sure – but now they can also give a chocolate variety.  We saw these in many of the shops, and each followed a similar theme of a chocolate flower pot, filled with praline and then topped with a Lily of the valley leaf and flowers.  Most of them had false greenery – but the Patick Roger (picture above) was an artful interpretation. 

We have slowly been eating our way through the many (oh so chic carrier) bags of chocolate that I brought back.  In the end the one that really stood out was a simple box of Pavés from Michel Chaudun.  These are perfect little cubes of ganache, dusted with cocoa powder rather than a chocolate shell, and fashioned on cobblestones; he created them in the 80s when the road outside his shop was dug up and there were piles of cuboid stones outside his shop.  His chocolate versions are small, simple and perfect and definitely a lesson in ‘less is more’.

Back in Perthshire and at my market stall I am a far cry from these palaces of style!  Especially recently – it has been hard work keeping cheerful in relentless rain and wind.  However, I have taken a few lessons from my trip; I offer samples rather than leave them on the front of the stall; I am going to slim down the range a little – it has got a bit out of hand; and produce some better promotional material.  And I have lots of inspiration for the September Perthshire Open Studios art work!  And I ask myself, where are the women chocolate masters of Paris?

Monday, 9 March 2015

Kingussie Food on Film Chocolate Tart

We had a stall at the fabulous Kingussie Food on Film event in early February, and were asked to do a cooking demonstration on the stage with Pennie Latin.  Decided to do a simple chocolate ganache tart; infact we did two - one flavoured with amaretto and decorated with little biscuits and the other flavoured with Raspberry Gin from Berry Good. 

(No picture of the tarts I am afraid as they got eaten before anyone could get a photo!)

Pastry case

For a 23cm flan case:

  • 150g plain flour
  • 25g icing sugar
  • 125g butter (soft)
Mix until comes together as a dough.  Wrap and put in fridge of 20 mins.  Roll out and line the flan tin.  Prick the bottom with a fork, chill for another 20 minutes.  Preheat oven to 190C/Gas mark 5; line the pastry case with paper and fill with baking beans. Bake for 15 minutes.  Remove beans and paper and bake for another 15 mins.

Remove from oven and leave to cool

Ganache filling

  • 200g double cream
  • 300g 70% chocolate or 350g milk chocolate
  • Fruit for decoration or inclusion, fresh berries, crystallised roses, ginger, nuts
  • Liqueur for flavouring (eg Amaretto, whisky, ginger wine)

Place the chocolate in a mixing bowl; if it is a bar of chocolate, break into small pieces, cutting if necessary so that the pieces are the size of small chocolate chips

Warm the cream in a saucepan to just under boiling, and then pour over the chocolate in the bowl, ensuring that all the chocolate is covered in warm cream. Leave for a couple of minutes, and then take a whisk and slowly stir to mix the cream and melting chocolate.  There is no need to beat the mixture, just slowly stir until all the bits of chocolate have melted.

If you want to add a liqueur or flavoring, do so once the ganache is made and still warm and liquid.  Use the whisk to slowly stir it in, and add enough to get the desired taste.

Immediately poor this mixture into the pastry shell; knock gently to ensure the ganache levels out in the shell.  Decorate the top if desired.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Summer time and the chocolate making ain't easy..

Chocolate is a demanding medium, temperamental in lots of ways and very sensitive to temperature and humidity.  Our workshop is on the whole over the year a little too cool than is ideal for chocolate work - around 18C is supposedly a perfect temperature; I remember visiting a chocolate shop in Cambodia - air conditioning kept the shop itself cool, but behind a glass wall  you could see the chocolate making workshop - with the staff in coats and woolly hats as this area was supercooled to 19C! 

In winter, the workshop can be as cold as 5C in the morning and with heating on it can get to about 13C.  In the summer usually the average temperature is about 14 or 15 - so we have become used to working with chocolate at these cool temperatures - they are not ideal but we have found for each chocolate that we use, the little idiosyncrasies that will get the result we want.    For example, we used to have an annoying issue with our popular Smoked Hebridean Sea Salt bars; for some reason the edges of the bars would stick to the mould and they would never look great.  We found that by warming the moulds a little before pouring in the chocolate, the bars came out cleanly and perfectly when cooled; hurrah!

It has been a glorious summer and rare indeed for the sun to shine quite so often, so unobscured by cloud and quite so effectively for so long.  It has meant that, for the first time since we started making chocolates, the temperature in the workshop has crept up to the perfect 18C and we found ourselves uncharacteristically working in 'ideal temperatures'.  But of course, all our chocolate making tricks have been developed to cope with the cooler workshop and we have had to adapt again.  As the temperature has risen (once to a heady 22C!) we have occasionally just abandoned any attempt to make thins or bars - the chocolate has just taken on a mind of its own and we cannot get conditions right to keep it tempered or help it cool.

Sending chocolate orders through the post has been nerve wracking as well!  I have been studying weather charts, judging the optimum time to take parcels to the post office to minimise the time they spend in the back of a warm van.  For the last box scheme, always sent mid month, I ended up splitting the order - making one batch for 'the north', which according to the weather forecast would be coolish over the weekend, and a second batch for the following week for 'the south' when a small dip in the summer temperatures was forecast.  I delayed sending an order of bars last week till the weather cooled a little, and supercooled the chocolates in the fridge for 24 hours before I sent them just to give them the best chance possible of arriving still tempered.

And of course, the fine weather is wonderful for the food festivals and farmers markets that we attend - it is grand to see everyone out and about, relaxed and unfettered by windproofing and umbrellas.  But we will be cowering in the shade, fussing over our delicate stock and wishing that we could be selling ice cream!

I ain't really complaining - it has been a wonderful long stretch of good weather.  It has kept us on our toes though in the workshop, learning new ways of doing things and being amazed at how much difference a rise of 1C in the room temperature can make!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Excellence Awards

We were very honoured and proud to be shortlisted in the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards, and on 30th May we attended the award ceremony. 

I started the day at 6am, up Kenmore Hill to collect wild flavours for chocolates for this weekend's farmers markets at Perth and Aberfeldy. It was a beautful start to the day, and as I enjoyed the magnificant early morning view, I did take a moment to wonder whether I would end the day with a covetted prize. 

A hectic day of chocolate making followed - getting everything ready for the coming weekend's two markets against the deadline of the train time. Edinburgh was gorgeous in late afternoon spring sunshine, as we made our way to the Assembly Rooms for the glitzy event. We were promised glamour and chandeliers - and there was certainly plenty of that. Needless to say I did not win - but I did meet some great people. Hebridean Sea Salt ( won their category - and it was lovely to get a chance to meet Natalie. Also met fellow sea buckthorn enthusiast Graham Stoddart, from as well as the lovely guys behind the Eat Balanced pizzas (

Needless to say, I did not win the prize, but the Tay valley did very well - our category went to The Highland Chocolatier - there must be something in this landscape! Well done to Ian and his team downstream in Grandtully!

Monday, 31 December 2012

A good year for chocolate?

I am going to indulge a little in thinking about the year past and the new year coming – forgive me; as I have not written any Christmas cards this year, this might be my only opportunity to reflect over the last year. It has been a really interesting year – full of new ideas, new connections, new people, as well as reaffirming old ones – a good year in fact.

As I write this, I wondered if I had written an end of year post before on this blog, and looking back, yes I did – two years ago!  Reading it now, much of it very adequately describes much of this  year – the uncertain economy, having to work a little harder at selling and promoting, the sector growing all the time (I am told that there are now over 40 businesses in Scotland making chocolates!).  But what was interesting was to see my two aspirations for the following year – to ‘crack marketing’ and to try and create contacts with cocoa producers.  Two years down the line I have made progress with both – although I still have some way to go with both!

So to keep this short – the highlights for the year?  Of course, the main one has to be the two trips to Indonesia and the emerging possibility of being able to direct source cocoa beans from some amazing farmers there.  Thanks to everyone who has made that possible, including the Ellis Campbell Foundation who have funded some of the work. 

I have been lucky to be working with some amazing retailers - who not only recognise good products, but work with and support the producers to promote those, and you feel part of their family.  Crannachan and Crowdie in the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, run by the amazing Beth and Fiona, and Sophie at The Cocoa Tree in Pittenweem.  Sophie organised a brilliant event in St Andrews in March this year with Chloe Doutre Roussel and I was honoured to be asked to talk about my chocolates and my recent trip to Indonesia.  We then embarked on a mini chocolate road trip to Bridge of Allan with Sophie and Chloe to meet the amazing Kate and Fiona at IQ Chocolate.

And the other highlight is our beautiful new bar wrappers - just waiting for that direct sourced cocoa chocolate!

There have been real low spots to the year though.  I have made a couple of serious errors of judgement this year with scammers that have been expensive, but more seriously have knocked confidence and trust out of me.  Small businesses are so vulnerable to this for lots of reasons, but my most recent experience led to something much more positive.  I have been really grateful to, impressed and inspired by one business who were so angry at how they and fellow stallholders had been treated that she researched and lobbied and led us all through a process of complaint.  We did not get our money back, or the lost opportunity back, but we did get some pride and dignity back.

Flavour of the year: has to be smoked Hebridean Sea salt and Java chocolate.  Addictive.  And again - lovely to feel connected to the amazing growing artisanal food sector of Scotland.  Hebridean Sea Salt is a new company on Lewis, and Isle of Ewe Smokehouse smoke the salt for us.

Next year -  hopefully our own direct sourced cocoa chocolate and a new website!