10 February, 2019
I don’t want to sound like an arrogant Frenchman,” the three-Michelin starred chef Alain Ducasse says. “But my chocolate is the best in the world.”
The 62-year-old – who launched his first British chocolate shop in the new Coal Drops Yard area of King’s Cross, London, last October, now joined by a café next door – makes a claim worthy of Willy Wonka. But he is the second most-decorated Michelin-starred chef in the world (behind Joël Robuchon and in front of Gordon Ramsay), and you only have to try a Ducasse truffle to feel like Charlie Bucket.
Peanut-butter pralines crunch with fleur de sel, a salt that forms on seawater and tastes of the beach; circular, almost black chocolates are revealed to be segments of orange when you bite into them, and ganaches burst like cherries on your tongue. What sets these apart from a box of Roses is the intense cocoa hit, which is as high as 75 per cent and makes you pucker your lips to absorb the acidity. If you are searching for a Valentine’s Day gift idea, you could do worse than one of Ducasse’s exquisite boxes of truffles (from around £30).
The chef ‘s obsession with making chocolate began in 1976, he says. “I was a 20-year-old cook when I discovered the universe of chocolate,” he explains. “What fascinated me was the provenance of each bean; the variety of cocoa; the technicality of the process – with the cocoa rested and fermented before it reached the chocolatiers.
“We make 15 single-origin chocolate bars and we know the story of every farm and every farmer. Each cocoa bean tastes different in the same way that grapes in wine have a different terroir, and we want the original flavour of each bean to remain, so you can taste the story.”
Cuba, Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico and Vietnam are among the countries you can “taste” in the single-origin bars, partly because the cocoa content is up to 75 per cent, but every ingredient is chosen with “huge care”, he says.
“The reason it’s the best chocolate in the world is that every single ingredient is the best in the world,” he adds. “We use cream from Paris; milk from a small farm in Normandy; almonds from Sicily; citrus fruits from Corsica.
“When I was a boy, I loved bonbons, hot chocolate, chocolate cake, but the chocolate available then was nothing like what you can get today,” he says, sitting opposite me at a chef ‘s table at Le Meurice, his two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. “Our chocolate is very fresh, very natural, organic. There is less sugar, salt, no preservatives.”
A lot of attention is paid to the sugar level so it’s never too sweet – something that is increasingly fashionable in the world of pastry on the back of a mass of health-conscious trends. When Albert Adria (often described as the best pastry chef in the world), opened his dessert-only restaurant, Cakes & Bubbles, in London last year, his signature dish was a cheesecake that tasted more of brie than white chocolate. Elsewhere, The Olive Tree in Bath, which recently won its first Michelin star, is already becoming known for a dark chocolate fondant topped with green olives that is as much savoury and salty as sweet. Ducasse himself has removed 20 per cent of the sugar from his desserts in the past few years.
Everything for Le Chocolat in King’s Cross is made in Paris, at a laboratory on a cobbled street near the Seine, then loaded on to trains and transported to London. The truffles, bars and slabs are made with the precision you’d expect from chef who has won 21 Michelin stars over the years.
Firstly, the walnut-sized cocoa beans are put into a washing machinelike roasting device for between 25 and 28 minutes (depending on their origin), which gives them a very nutty, toasted taste. They’re then moved into a winnowing machine, which removes their husks, splintering the beans in bark-like shards. What remains are the cocoa nibs, and the husks “go to the garden to make it live longer,” says Philippe Urweiller, Ducasse’s head chocolatier. “Some brands use the husks in the chocolate but ” he shakes his head disapprovingly.
The nibs are then ground and mixed with sugar, salt and milk powder (for milk chocolate) in a large KitchenAid-type device, then the chocolate is rolled into a consistency like Play-Doh and an overwhelmingly chocolatey smell fills the room. It’s when the chocolate becomes swirling liquid in a conch that I want to dive into it like Augustus Gloop. Pistachios, hazelnuts and Italian almonds are added to the mixture if the chocolate is to become a praline or truffle.
“To give you an idea of the difference between this and supermarket chocolate, this is 45 to 75 per cent cocoa,” Urweiller says. “Mass market chocolate is usually around 20 per cent. That long ‘chocolatey’ taste some brands leave in your mouth is actually the cocoa butter, not the bean. The only way to tell what is high-quality cocoa is the price of the chocolate, because a brand that says it is 75 per cent cocoa could be five per cent cocoa and 70 per cent cocoa butter. Currently no law in chocolate production says you have to separate them in the list of ingredients.” Cocoa butter, which looks like lard, is cheaper, and used to bulk up the “cocoa” in mass market bars.
From Paris, Ducasse’s chocolates are sent all over the world if ordered online (lechocolat-alainducasse.com), with the Madagascan milk bars and huge, beautiful slabs covered in dried figs and apricots (£125), among the most popular. They made 110 tons of chocolate last year on the site, next door to a small, perfect-looking shop where rows of pralines gleam in cabinets like Cartier jewels.
“The most impressive thing about Ducasse is that he prepares his chocolate from scratch,” says Alexander Haebe, head pastry chef at the Fairmont St Andrews hotel in Scotland. “That means he can decide on everything: texture, viscosity, sweetness. And that’s crucial when trying to balance the end result. You need to keep the emphasis on the cocoa bean, ensuring the sugar and milk do not overpower it. In his pralines you see that perfect balance between the acidity and that intense bitterness from the cocoa, lifted by floral notes. They are masterpieces.”
Ducasse himself says he “doesn’t listen” to what other people think or say about his cooking, or his chocolates: he knows it’s the best. Yet he finds his phone and holds out a picture of the queue outside a Le Chocolat pop-up in Tokyo, where hundreds stand in line waiting for it to open. He shrugs. What else does he need to say?
Le Chocolat, Coal Drops Yard, Stable Street, London N1C; lechocolat-alainducasse.com