My tongue is having the best time lately. I’ve been rolling it in cheese, bathing it in tea and dousing it in wine, and now it’s been tickled senseless by the glorious cocoa bean at Hotel Chocolat’s School of Chocolate. Honestly, it’s been utterly spoiled. I may have to go and force down some gruel so it doesn’t start getting ideas above its station.
The School of Chocolate is a fairly new venture for Hotel Chocolat, the fast-growing premium chocolate chain with its own cocoa plantation on St Lucia. It holds two kinds of classes in the intimate basement cafe of its flagship Monmouth Street store: the Bean to Bar experience, which takes chocolate fiends through the process of making their favourite confection (with nibbles aplenty!) and the Chocolate Tasting Adventure, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
We arrived at 3pm on a Saturday for the Bean to Bar class and were greeted by Bethany, one of the chocolatiers, and two glasses of delicious pink Prosecco. My Prosecco policy is usually to get whichever is on offer at the shop, and this stuff was much smoother than the fizz I usually glug, so that’s basically ruined for me now.
The class started with a tasting of some of Hotel Chocolat’s many 70% varieties. We tried the ‘house’ blend, which is a mix of beans from several different places, and then a sample made from Ecuadorian beans, and another from Madagascan ones. We were given a leaflet with a tasting tree, which included a lot of words you might use to describe wine – floral, buttery, nutty, woodsy, earthy – but also a lot of words that should definitely never be associated with food, like mothballs and petrol. Bethany explained that this is because cocoa beans are super-sensitive to their environment, and will subtly pick up the flavours of their surroundings. Madagascar, for instance, grows a lot of bananas, so its cocoa beans might take on a slightly bananay flavour. (The petrol notes might come from, for example, a farmer who doesn’t have much space to dry his beans out in the sun, so lays them out on the side of a road. Sensitive creatures, beans.)
We also tried the mushed up pulp of the cocoa fruit – I always forget it’s a fruit! – which tasted curiously of lychee, and not of chocolate at all.
Next we visited the kitchen to see how the bitter cocoa beans – which we tasted, crushed in our hands – are made into chocolate, via this hot swirly grindstone apparatus. Those who were taken to Cadbury World as children will remember the swirling vat before you go into the live factory bit with samples. Once, aged nine and dressed in the absurd yellow sweater and turd-brown culottes of the Brownie Guides circa 1998, I pressed my nose against the plexiglass and told the guide that the swirling chocolate was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. She replied that the stuff in that vat had been there for five years as an exhibition item, so I was welcome to try it if I wanted to, but it would probably give me an upset stomach.
This stuff, though, was the real deal. I know because we were allowed to PUT STICKS IN IT AND LICK THEM. Yes.
The chocolate stays in the hot swirly grindstone thing for 45 hours, becoming smoother and sweeter as the sugar and cocoa butter is added to the bean mixture.
Then it was time to have a go at making our own chocolate, which required a surprising amount of welly. Not advised if you, like me, have the upper body strength of a small child.
Once we’d liquified our ingredients and poured them into moulds, Bethany gave us a demonstration of tempering, pouring the molten chocolate directly on to a marble worktop (my mother would have a fit) and using a laser thermometer to get the chocolate to the correct temperature.
I’d brought my sister along, so she had a bash at tempering too.
She was alright, I suppose. I mean, she didn’t get it on the floor, which was the main thing.
We even tried some chocolate tea, which is really just cocoa bean shells left in a tea strainer for a bit. I wasn’t impressed, but Charlotte took a huge bag of cocoa nibs home with her. She’s going to look mental in the office, but there you go.
Finally, we were given goody bags with our packaged up chocolate slabs (and some proper ones, which looked, erm, a little more professional), and sent on our merry way. Except our merry way involved going through the actual store.
The diet’s going really well, actually. Thanks for asking.
The Bean to Bar course lasts about two hours and costs £65 per person, which includes a glass of bubbles. This is definitely the course for purists; you’ll learn a lot about the chocolate-making process and most of the chocolate we tried was over 70%. If you’re less of a dark chocolate person and would rather concentrate on the eating rather than the making, the Tasting Adventure may be for you, which covers lots of different flavours and costs £50 per person. It’s a brilliant gift for the chocoholic in your life, especially as they occasionally run 241 offers, which are fantastic value. You can find the School of Chocolate at 4 Monmouth Street, WC2H 9HB or book places online.
Full disclosure: we visited the School of Chocolate at the invitation of Hotel Chocolat, but, as ever, opinions are 100% my own.
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in East London and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.