Petrolheads have a fetish about engine capacity. With yacht owners it’s the length of their boat. When it comes to chocolate, the boasting metric is the percentage of cocoa solids. Reasonable milk chocolate should come in above 40 per cent. Dark, plain chocolate wants to be comfortably higher than 60 per cent.
But to get your Christmas kicks from the cocoa bean this year you might be looking for something more darkly challenging, even plain aggressive. In this sampling of eight chocolate hampers there were some individual products to feed even the most extreme habit. Mast Brothers’ Madagascar Dark Chocolate (72 per cent) was adult and complex; Duffy’s Panama Dark Chocolate (also 72 per cent) was smoothly assertive; and topping these was The Grenada Chocolate Company Organic Dark Chocolate at 82 per cent. Its flavour can best be likened to chewing tobacco that’s been soaked in barrel-proof rum. And, as we shall discover, it was sourced for the winning hamper.
Three of our regulars were up for this task. The Discerning Litigator (DL), the Gourmet Celeb (GC) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP), who prudently prepared himself for the ordeal by taking an antacid tablet before he started. We also wanted a certified chocoholic – in all, we had to try about 85 products, from chocolate figs to salted caramels and from popcorn to cinnamon-sugared drinking chocolate. The FT found the perfect candidate: Jennifer Earle (JE) – the proprietor of London’s Chocolate Ecstasy Tours, co-founder of worldchocolateguide.com and chief taster for Cocoa Runners, which sources artisan chocolate bars from around the world. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of chocolate products and has been an addict of the dark stuff since her early teens. When asked why, her answer is disarmingly simple: “It makes me happy.”
It emerged fairly swiftly that three of the hampers were out in front in terms of variety and quality. But first, some other highlights. Melt’s Brown Hamper (£70, meltchocolates.com) included an attractive hot-chocolate kit: one cylinder of dark-chocolate buttons (70 per cent cocoa solids) and another of cinnamon sugar.
The two together produced an agreeable cup of drinking chocolate: “seductively mulled” (GP). Its raspberry and tarragon-flavoured white chocolate was enterprising but more of an acquired taste.
Brindisa assembled El Azucar, a box of “sweet Spanish delights” (£49.95, brindisa.com), the high point of which was a box of chocolate-covered dried figs – Rabitos Royale Bombón de Higo: “good for sharing but a pity the chocolate casing is only 54 per cent”(JE). It also threw in a bottle of Don José Oloroso sherry. A darker, richer version would have matched the confectionery even better – this one was bordering on the lighter Palo Cortado style.
Harrods sent a traditionally packaged Celebration of Chocolate (£125, harrods.com), which we enjoyed but found a trifle conservative. Oaks Hampers’ Chocolate Box (£35, oakshampers.com) included two imaginative ideas: Joe & Seph’s Gourmet Popcorn with Caramel and Belgian Chocolate – “like crunchy, creamy bubbles”(DL) – and Love Jam, a raspberry and chocolate emulsion with a number of implied uses – “sharp fruit tang with rich chocolatey flavour . . . for sharing and spreading”(GP). Finally, Partridges’ Chocolate Hamper (£110, partridges.co.uk) included a bottle of own-label champagne and a tin of Huntley & Palmers Chocolate Olivers, which, it emerged, the panel had a collective weakness for.
Now, for the two runners-up. Paul A Young’s Ultimate Chocolate Lovers Hamper (£142, paulayoung.co.uk) offered the 72 per cent Madagascar Dark Chocolate bar already mentioned (“bliss” – GC). There were also Mixed Pavés – squares of white, milk and plain chocolate impregnated with lovely spices (“for the connoisseur” – JE), a chocolate bar with Marmite in the centre (“salted caramel with attitude” – GP) and a jar of pure salted caramel. The other recommended box, a Deluxe Christmas Hamper from William Curley (£150, williamcurley.com), contained delicious if slightly leaky salted caramel chocolates and classy truffles (“serious, X-rated” – GC; “sophisticated” – DL).
Our winning Christmas hamper, though, in front for appeal, choice, flair and indulgence, came from Chococo – the Purbeck Chocolate Company. Its box of chocolates caused a sharp intake of breath when opened. As well as being eaten, it could well be mounted in an art gallery, with its riot of colour and design, from vivid green pistachio to gold fretwork to floral transfers. These visuals were allied to precise flavours and A1 cocoa: “a beautiful, fantastic assortment” (JE). There was also a Mini Marble Cake Yule Log with chewy cherries and raisins and some shrewd offerings for younger scoffers: a conical Christmas tree, a honeycombed chocolate star on a stick and a Venezuelan chocolate penguin: “mouth-watering kids’ treats, definitely not to be eaten all in one go” (GC). Chococo’s distinctive, colourful “Battenburg” packaging also appealed to the aesthetes among us – “superb-looking product” (DL). And the selection was full of wit (small chocolates designed like Xmas puds with sugar holly) and vigour (that Grenadian 82 percenter lying like an unexploded bomb at the bottom). Congratulations to Chococo.
We asked our panel one more question: of the 85 products offered up, which single one is your must-have favourite? The Gluttonous Pig, wiping his ample, choco-stained jowls, opted for Chococo’s Dark Chocolate-Covered Colombian Roasted Coffee Beans: “sensationally well-roasted beans for a crunchy mocha explosion in the mouth”. The Gourmet Celeb chose the Mast Brothers’ 72 per cent Madagascar Dark Chocolate (also offered by Paul A Young). And both the Discerning Litigator and Jennifer Earle fingered Chococo’s stunning chocolate selection.
A happy choco-Xmas to you all.
Jennifer Earle’s Chocolate Ecstasy Tours; chocolateecstasytours.com
Luxury Festive Hamper by Chococo – “out in front for appeal, choice, flair, indulgence”; £99, chococo.co.uk