My overflowing suitcase was crammed with more chocolate than clothes.
Over eight days in London, I had managed to accumulate an astonishing amount of chocolate: truffles dusted in icing sugar, delicate chocolate-dipped fondants topped with candied flower petals and plain dark chocolate bars made from highest-quality cacao beans. Each came in bespoke, branded packaging, but even without the stickers and ribbons, I could have matched each product with its maker. As I’d learned on my trip, London is a city rich with chocolate shops, each with its own distinctive style.
I arrived the previous Tuesday, at the start of an unseasonably warm spell in early June. It was my second trip to London in three years. I’d been there in October 2013 to judge the world finals of the International Chocolate Awards, which entailed three days of silent tasting in a dim room – without any time to explore London’s chocolate scene. (Cue the sound of tiny violins.)
The trip was a highlight in my career as a chocolate taster, educator and author, and its brevity convinced me I had to return. So when my husband, Hamish, announced a London business trip, I jumped at the opportunity for a working holiday.
From the outside, the Sanctum Soho Hotel looks every bit like the twin Georgian townhouses it used to be, with its stately gray stone and oversize potted plants. But the inside is all rock ‘n’ roll, with a stained-glass Jimi Hendrix triptych in the lobby, a black-and-white photograph of a leering Mick Jagger down the hall and our outlandish gold room outfitted with wet bar, Iron Maiden beer and condoms, but no iron or ironing board. Apparently, rock stars don’t need to iron their clothes.
In our jet-lagged state, Hamish and I don’t, either, and we change into the least-wrinkled clothes from our suitcases. Tourist chic. We emerge from the hotel’s curved glass doors into bright sun and are confronted by a catwalk of women in bright trousers and stacked heels and men with artfully folded pocket squares.
We wander into the neighbouring district of Mayfair, and soon we find ourselves outside the rounded glass window of Charbonnel et Walker. Pushing the glass door open, I hear the soft whoosh of heavy door on plush carpet and enter the rarified air of one of London’s oldest chocolate shops.
Rococo Chocolates, located on Motcomb Street in London. Image: Rocco Chocolates
Friends in the know have told me that Charbonnel et Walker 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 flavoured with essential oils, dipped in chocolate and decorated with candied flower petals. That they aren’t actually creamy only adds to their curious charm. Amid the jewel boxes of chocolates on glass shelves and stubby pyramids of truffles on frilly gold trays, I quickly spot what I’m looking for.
“One each of the violet and rose creams, please,” I say to the very pale, very blond girl behind the counter.
Hearing my North American accent, she pauses and tips her head. “Have you had one before? Would you like to try one first?”
Into my outstretched palm, she places a dark chocolate rose cream: a chubby oval with a glimmering pink rose petal on top. I take a bite. The aroma of roses floats up the back of my throat, reminiscent of drawer sachets, but stopping just short of soapy. The inside is stark white fondant, with the texture of a peppermint patty. I like it.
From there, a five-minute walk brings us to Piccadilly, a strip of London that connects Hyde Park with Piccadilly Circus. Past the glittering windows of Rolex, Gucci, Tod’s and DeBeers, we arrive at Fortnum & Mason – Fortnum’s, as the locals call it. Outside it’s a bustle of commuters and double-decker buses; inside it’s dark oak paneling and dense red carpet.
Founded in 1707, Fortnum’s appears, at first glance, to trade in the traditional. On the ground floor, one wall is lined with pastel urns of tea and gold-trimmed canisters of coffee. There’s a station with all things sugary: loaves of nut-laced nougat, tiers of marzipan fruit, whole candied pineapples. But this is also the department store that first sold saffron and baked beans in a tin, when such things were novel. So it’s not a complete surprise that the confectionery section displays every notable trend from the past decade: marshmallows and macarons; cupcakes, cronuts and canel’s.
The chocolates are in a busy alcove jammed with people. I finally catch the eye of George, a young man wearing gray, wide-striped pants, a coat with tails and a name tag in the store’s signature shade of pale robin’s-egg blue. He walks me through the chocolates: the in-house line, made exclusively for them, as well as smaller selections imported from France, Belgium and Switzerland.
He gestures toward a tall glass case stocked with rose creams, lavender creams, mint, raspberry and more. “These are made for us by Audrey’s,” he says, referring to a chocolatier in East Sussex. In George’s accent, it sounds like “Aldrey’s,” the opening vowel set so far back in his mouth it comes out like an L.
When I ask about the rose and violet creams, George knits his brow and offers me a sample. The Fortnum’s rose cream is similar in style to Charbonnel et Walker’s, but with a gentle pink tinge to the fondant. It’s also sweeter, with a deeper, more complex rose flavour gestures toward a tall glass case stocked with rose creams, lavender creams, mint, raspberry and more. “These are made for us by Audrey’s,” he says, referring to a chocolatier in East Sussex. In George’s accent, it sounds like “Aldrey’s,” the opening vowel set so far back in his mouth it comes out like an L.
I’m quickly developing a taste for these peculiar sweets. But I’m getting the distinct impression that’s unusual for someone my age and with my accent. And if London’s chocolate scene is anything like its food scene, I know there’s more to discover.
The English have a knack for balancing the twin values of tradition and change – sipping tea while exploring new lands. I wonder: If floral creams were the height of fashion in 1875, when Charbonnel et Walker was founded, what are London’s chocolatiers doing now? I head west to Chelsea to find out.
Champagne, small sweets and hot chocolate at Alexeeva & Jones, located in London.Image: Alexeeva & Jones
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 mismatched chandeliers.
According to the Rococo Web site, when Coady opened, she swore off rose and violet creams, but the ladies of Chelsea kept asking for them. I ask Chris, the round-faced 20-something behind the counter, what he thinks of the sweets. He considers his words. “They’re kind of an acquired taste. They remind me of my grandmother.”
Unlike the firm fondants that I 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 flavoured bars, which Chris offers tastes of. They’re chocolate-forward and less sweet, Victorian-influenced but firmly rooted in the present.
My next stop is a 25-minute walk away, due east on King’s Road. The street is lined by three- and four-story brick buildings and punctuated by the occasional high-rise. The closer I get to Saatchi Gallery, the more opportunities there are to part with my money: pop-up clothing shops, juice bars, shoe stores hawking stilettos. I escape down a side street, just behind the gallery. To my left is an expanse of lawn that looks plucked from a golf course. To my right is the wrought-iron fence of a private garden, empty except for one woman and two Weimaraners. The dogs are running top speed, tongues and ears flapping.
At some point in my walk, I’ve left Chelsea and entered Belgravia. If Chelsea was posh, then Belgravia is sumptuous – and eerily still. Generally acknowledged as one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in London, Belgravia is a mix of stately curved buildings housing embassies with unfamiliar flags, majestic townhouses with all their blinds shut, and businesses – interior design consultancies and antique shops – that have closed for the day.
Thankfully, William Curley’s shop is open. In the foyer, a well-dressed couple is finishing tea and the remains of a chocolate dessert. One staff member is posting signs for a special Wimbledon afternoon cream tea (£6.50 for a scone with clotted cream, or £15.00 with a pastry and glass of champagne seems reasonable until I remember the exchange rate: US$22 – (NZ$39.00) for that champagne meal).
Curley is the least obviously English of the chocolatiers I visit. To begin with, he’s Scottish, his wife is Japanese and there’s no trace of violet or rose creams in his shop. There are familiar flavours – such as Earl Grey tea, lemon curd and whiskey – but there are also chocolates flavoured with Japanese black vinegar and black sesame that sound stranger than they taste. Remarkably, the fillings melt on your tongue at the precise time the chocolate shell disappears. Curley’s also known for his sorbets, such as the familiar rhubarb or raspberry, and a revelatory white chocolate-miso ice cream.
Finally, I head back to Soho. By now it’s early evening, and smells are wafting out of the snug restaurants that line the slender streets: steam and pork from the new bao spot, pungent curries from the Bombay-style Indian restaurant, brine and lemons from the oyster bar. I weave past people spilled onto the sidewalk, drawing closer to the intersection of Wardour and Broadwick streets.
Past the Day-Glo-clad mannequins in the Agent Provocateur window, past the smell of oil from a newfangled doughnut stop, I arrive at Paul A. Young. The shop is overwhelmingly purple. The storefront is purple, the walls are purple and even the glassine cups that each hug a perfect truffle are purple.
In the centre of the room, a round wooden table bears glass pedestals, each flaunting a cluster of truffles. Here are truffles inspired by distinctly English foods: an addictive banoffee pie, an herbaceous Pimm’s Cup, a subtly savory Marmite truffle. They mingle with classic caramels, typical French rochers and all-American peanut-butter-and-jelly truffles, while a sideboard features a selection of craft chocolate bars that includes Northern California’s Dick Taylor chocolate.
The English may have colonised 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, typically in small batches. Since about 2006, the bean-to-bar buzz has mostly been stateside, until murmurs from overseas chimed in a few years ago.
The murmurs lead me to Notting Hill. From Notting Hill Gate station, sandwich shops and dry cleaners fade into grand houses with topiaries, the eight-foot brick walls of the private gardens that make up the historic Ladbroke Estate and, eventually, the black-and-white tiled patio of Alexeeva & Jones.
Opened in 2012, the shop curates confections from England and other parts of Europe, as well as a selection of plain (mostly dark) chocolate bars from some of the industry’s most respected bean-to-bar makers. Some of the bars feature on the shop’s drinking-chocolate menu, where they’re blended with milk and served with a gentle froth on top.
As I nurse a pink teacup of dark drinking chocolate and contemplate its suggested “zingy, morello cherry and smoky” notes, Natalia Alexeeva explains that the English have an affinity for sweet, milky treats. On cue, a woman in purple silk clatters into the shop and orders a hot chocolate. “Milk or dark?” Alexeeva asks. The woman shudders. “Oh, milk. I can’t handle dark.”
From there, a five-minute walk turns into an hour-long meander down Portobello Road. The midweek market is smaller than Saturday’s, but there’s still plenty to gawk at, from plump artichokes to vintage aprons. Finally, I arrive at Bertil Akesson’s shop. The outside is painted matte black, save for his last name in red, like a marquee. Inside, the walls are bright red, with a black “A” appliqued on the main wall. It’s new, and Akesson finds it too shiny. “I ordered a matte version,” he says in an accent that belongs to no single place.
Chocolates at Alexeeva & Jones in London. Images: Alexeeva & Jones
The Paris-born, Swedish-blooded Akesson is an icon in the craft chocolate world. He owns cacao farms in Madagascar and Brazil and supplies many of the world’s small-batch chocolate makers with beans. In addition to his own private-label chocolate, he carries bars from his customers. The selection spans the globe, from the United States to Iceland to Hungary. Rounding out the mix is a shelf of peppercorns, in more varieties than I knew existed, also from Akesson’s farms.
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 wander 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. The last time we visited, it was Hahn/Cock, a 15-foot tall, electric-ultramarine-colour rooster made of fibreglass. This time, it’s Gift Horse, a horse skeleton wearing a bracelet with a live Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 ticker, which will be on display until next fall. I look from Lord Nelson to the Gift Horse, the Gift Horse to Lord Nelson.
In London, the old, the new and the next seem to get along just fine.
WHERE TO STAY: Sanctum Soho Hotel :www.sanctumsoho.com
Georgian townhouse-turned-boutique hotel fitted with rock-star-themed art and rooftop lounge. Rooms from US$345.
CitizenM London Bankside Hotel: www.citizenm.com/destinations/london/london-bankside-hotel
Stylish hotel close to the Tate Modern and Borough Market. Rooms from US$170.
WHERE TO EAT: Busaba Eathai: www.busaba.com
A modern Thai restaurant with fresh salads and bright curries served at communal tables. Entrees from US$15.
Bombay-style Indian food; extremely busy at peak times. Entrees from US$13.
Soho outpost of Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurant empire. Downstairs communal tables look onto the open kitchen. Entrees from US$35.
WHAT TO DO:
Charbonnel et Walker: www.charbonnel.co.uk
Best known for its violet and rose creams and its champagne truffles. Open Monday to Saturday 10 am.-6 pm., Sunday noon-5 p.m.
Fortnum & Mason: www.fortnumandmason.com
Don’t miss the Parlour on Level 1, a 1950s-style ice cream shop. Open Monday to Saturday 10 am.-9 pm., Sunday noon-6 pm.
Rococo Chocolates: www.rococochocolates.com
The first location of Rococo Chocolates. Don’t miss the award-winning caramels. Open Monday to Saturday 10 am.-6:30 pm., Sunday noon-5 pm. in summer or 11 am.-6 pm. in winter.
Paul A. Young Fine Chocolates: www.paulayoung.co.uk
Award-winning chocolates with cheeky English references. Open Monday to Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 am.-8 pm., Thursday 10 am.-9 pm., Sunday from noon-7 pm.
William Curley: www.williamcurley.com
Chocolates, pastries and sorbets in an exclusive neighbourhood. Open Monday to Friday 10 am.-6:30 pm., Saturday from 9 am.-7 pm., Sunday 10 am.-6 pm.
Akesson’s Chocolate & Pepper: www.akessons-organic.com
Peppercorns, spices and chocolates from Bertil Akesson’s farms in Madagascar and Brazil.
Alexeeva & Jones: www.alexeevajones.com
Curated chocolates from around the world and exceptional drinking chocolate. Open Monday to Wednesday 10 am.-6 pm., Thursday to Saturday 10 am.-7 pm., Sunday noon-6 pm.
Chocolate Ecstasy Tours: www.chocolateecstasytours.com
Chocolate-focused walking tours of Mayfair, Chelsea and Notting Hill. Tours run for three hours and longer. From US$60.
Yuh is the author of “The Chocolate-Tasting Kit.” She blogs at www.thewelltemperedchocolatier.com.