If there’s one thing that’s more of a waste of time than another, it’s those taste tests where people go through a list of dud comestibles, and finally emerge with one or two five star winners. I propose to cut to the chase and bring you two and a half stonking recommendations for high-quality chocolates available from supermarkets. The rest, we won’t bother with.
My brief was to find chocolates from mass retailers of a quality that would pass muster with an independent chocolate maker, with a particular brief to look out for the flavour that has taken over the twenty-first century palate: salted caramel. There’s a lot of really decent chocolate around.
My tests were done under the aegis of one of London’s finest chocolatiers, Paul A Young, whose little chocolate boutique in Soho is a veritable occasion of sin; if you can pass it without nipping in for a truffle or a hot chocolate, your moral fibre is something else. His salted caramels have the most awards of any chocolate maker, anywhere.
He’s also really nice. So it was thither I went with a bagful of supermarket chocolates, from the biggest retailers with the brief to find the finest. He got me to put on a hair net and we set to work in his workplace below decks in Soho. And since we were on the premises, we were able to compare the entire flavour spectrum of Heston Blumenthal’s Edibaubles with the same flavours of his making: gingerbread, stolen and eggnog with a weird candycane flavour. No comparison.
There were three that did pass muster though. And two of them came from M&S’s The Collection. The salted caramel pine cones, £6.99, are fabulous: thick chocolate pine cone shells around molten salted caramel centres. ‘The look is very good, the chocolate good and thick. Any chocolatier would want to make a version of those’ said Paul. ‘You could play around with them, and have one of them, say, beside your place name.’ Actually, the only criticism was that the caramel could have had just a touch more salt – but that’s the mass market for you. The box has a solid-feeling gold base; it felt expensive. The other M&S salted caramels were good: The Collection Cocoa-dusted Liquid Salted Caramels but they fell short of perfection because the shell was just too thick. The other chocolates that were very good were from Waitrose: Marc de Champagne truffles, £6.50, which looked home made and had good mouth feel.
The only thing was, the box felt cheap: ‘I don’t want to have to struggle to get at them’ said Paul. ‘But the trick is to take them out of the box, mix them up in a bowl and they look really good.’ The truffles to avoid, BTW, are the Waitrose champagne ones: our reaction to those was identical: ‘Not enough champagne!’ Paul’s own ones have 50 per cent champagne – God knows how he does it – but presumably you’ve got to eat them responsibly.
Another option for a very decent, inexpensive present is to opt for the top range chocolate bars from the supermarkets – with the cocoa content prominently displayed, and from countries like Venezuela and Ecuador – and present them in a block, tied with nice ribbon. If you get about four or five with a range of flavours and origins, beautifully presented, what’s not to like? Waitrose and M&S have very good single origin bars. Paul was impressed by the M&S Ecuador 72 per cent bars, at £2. ‘I’d eat this,’ he said. ‘Good mouth feel, very good quality.’ He would have liked the 42 per cent milk chocolate too, but you know what? Reader, I ate it.