9 Jan 2017

Cocoa Planet

What difference does it make whether the chocolate you eat is in squares, Puddles, Slabs or Santas? The answer could help you enjoy yours even more…

“I like to whack mine on the corner of a table – there’s something really satisfying about smashing it to pieces!” chocolatier Rhona Macfadyen says with relish – she’s talking about one of our Giant Slabs. “Some people break it up by hand and some even use hammers and chisels!”

As anyone who has ever tried one will know, there’s something visceral about the experience of breaking those 500g into irregular chunks and then picking the best-looking bit.

“We wanted our Giant Slabs to be personal and interactive,” Rhona explains. “They’re big enough to share with friends and family, and everyone chooses the right-sized piece for them, with more of their favourite bits in it.”

If you ask us, squares are boring – so we broke the mould and started sculpting. Why? Because the shape of your chocolate really can add another layer to your enjoyment. We’re often so concentrated on the flavour of our favourite recipes that the shape goes unnoticed, but it’s something a good chocolatier will have thought about in depth – Rhona explains what difference it makes, and how you can make the most of it.

Chocolate artistry

“Beautiful chocolate creates anticipation,” Rhona says. “It sets a certain expectation. The important thing then is whether the chocolate itself lives up to it or lets you down– and we’re confident that ours follows through!”

In particular, our single-origin Rare & Vintage chocolate uses some of the best cocoa on the planet, the nuanced flavours teased out in our small-batch roastery, so it was important that the bars were as beautiful as the range is special – miniature works of art. Rhona took the brief seriously, even imprinting the ‘Hotel Chocolat’ name in full and on a slant to recall the way artists sign their paintings.

“I opened a fashion magazine and was immediately inspired by the pleated fabric,” she says of the initial spark of inspiration. “When I applied those pleats to our individual Slabs, I loved the contradiction of rigid lines and the flowing border, the way the pleats catch the light and emphasise the shade.”

We went on to wrap those bars in matte, semi-opaque paper so that all Rhona’s careful sculpting would get the big reveal it deserved, along with a flood of cocoa notes as you breathe in. Then when you break the bar into its shards, another sense is engaged.

“The thin and thicker parts make different sounds,” says Rhona. “I love that about them. There’s something similar with the other Slabs, too – part of the satisfaction of breaking them comes from the ‘snap’!”

Coming over all emotional

Of course, we couldn’t talk about the look of your chocolate without mentioning hollow shapes – seasonal favourites from Santa to the Big City Bunny.

“The first thing we want to create with our hollow shapes is an emotional connection,” says Rhona. “You might think how cute or quirky they look and want to reach out and touch them.”

A perfect example of playing on that natural desire to interact with chocolate that gets you right there has to be Mr Nibs, the now-iconic British bulldog that Rhona sculpted out of chocolate for the Salon du Chocolat in 2015. Now taking pride of place at our Roast+Conch restaurant in Leeds, when he was first sculpted he was a hit with visitors to the event.

“Everyone else’s chocolate sculptures were behind velvet ropes,” Rhona remembers. “We wanted to encourage people to come up to Mr Nibs and stroke him, pat him, have their picture taken, so we created a big backdrop and gave him a lead so people could pose holding it. They loved it!”

How to enjoy chocolate

Of course, what all the beauty, emotional connection and reaching out and touching your chocolate are leading up to is the all-important eating. So what difference does the shape of your chocolate make then?

“Some of my earliest memories of eating chocolate are of hollow Easter shapes,” says Rhona. “Because they’re spun you get the variance between thick and thin bits, curved and straight bits that makes it so much fun: you might get a bit of a foot, the bobble of Santa’s hat might have collected more chocolate – each bite is different.”

And what about those Rare & Vintage shards?

“They’re best taken as two small pieces in succession,” chimes in couverturier Emma Cope, who worked on the recipes for the bars. “The first one coats and prepares your mouth, the second really reveals the flavour and lets you appreciate it.”

Then there are our filled chocolates, for which Rhona also suggests a two-step experience.

“Some of our recipes, like fruities or something with a very strong flavour, we’ll often put in a smaller mould, like a baby bombe, so you get one short, powerful bite,” she explains. “But many of our other recipes are in larger moulds for a reason: it makes them two-bite chocolates, lengthening your experience and giving you the chance to look inside the chocolate once you’ve taken the first bite.”

Next time you sit down to enjoy your favourite chocolate, follow the experts’ example: take a moment to appreciate the appearance, engage with your anticipation or emotional connection, breathe in the cocoa notes and listen for the ‘snap!’, then savour each bite, sneaking a peek inside and losing yourself in your curiosity. “I love doing that,” confirms Rhona. “I think, ‘Doesn’t that look like the dessert it’s based on now you can see the layers? I wonder how they did that…’”

Experience beautiful chocolate

Try Rhona’s lovingly sculpted Rare & Vintage chocolate bars for yourself – then let us know all about your experience at @HotelChocolat