I am normally tucked up snuggly in my bed by the time traditional lock-ins take place in a public house, so I cannot claim any knowledge of the etiquette for these types of experiences. Nevertheless I overcame my apprehension and on the last Thursday in October I braved a chill autumn evening and approached the small crowd waiting quietly outside the Hotel Chocolat on Albion Place in Leeds.
Well, when I say crowd there were no more than eight of us and we are like true Yorkshire folk wearing clothing appropriate to the weather so there was no discomfort and as always, when Yorkshire folk wait there was some polite sussingout of the others and genial greetings.
It was not long before the allotted hour and the doors to the Hotel were opened by our hostesses Emma and Victoria allowing us to enter what would be for the next ninety minutes or so our own private slice of chocolate paradise.
You can visit the Hotel Chocolat during the day and you enter a shop, but this evening it feels more like entering your favourite friends home. Coats are hung, and glasses filled, and it is not long before people are sneaking a peak under covers at what we will be sampling later.
And that is what a Hotel Chocolat lock-in is all about, sampling, taking you outside your comfort zone and trying something new or different and discovering that there is much more to chocolate than you’d ever thought.
Now before we can sample anything there was a health and safety explanation. No fire alarm test is planned so if the alarm does sound we must leave calmly and collect ourselves down near Briggate. There is, unfortunately no details of how much chocolate we should aim to rescue from the potential inferno should it occur, but I resolve, not for myself you understand, but if the need arises to do my utmost for the chocoholics of Leeds.
Now the educational part, and fascinating part of the evening commences as Emma and Victoria take us on a leisurely journey through the chocolate making process. These are people who are obviously working in Hotel Chocolat for a reason, they are as bonkers, in a good way, about chocolate, as their enraptured audience.
There is much more to chocolate than you would expect. We learn about the plants and the plantations, the harvesting process and how the raw cacao bean becomes chocolate. It is fascinating how the taste changes at each stage of the process. Yes! The sampling has commenced.
Commercial branded chocolate is created by blending different types of cacao from around the world to create the consistent taste, in much the same way that a blended whiskey or branded tea is made. Just as with every other food what the original cacao bean and therefore the chocolate tastes like is influenced by the way in which the cocoa plant was grown. Wet weather, dry weather, what is grown in the next field, the type of soil, all of these affect cacaos in just the same way that grapes or carrots would be affected.
At Hotel Chocolat getting the blend of chocolate right is a process that no one talks about, seriously it is done in silence every Monday morning. But it’s Thursday evening and the bubbly has been flowing so we are allowed to try.
Although chocolate makers have a language all of their own, the tasting process is done in silence for a reason, nothing must distract us from assessing and appreciating the chocolate.
There is much more to this than simply piling it down your throat. First, we have to look at each of the samples we are presented with. Assessing the level of sheen. Then there is the feel of the chocolate. It’s alright I washed my hands before we started. Next, we are smelling the chocolate. What surprises me is that we then have to listen to the chocolate. It doesn’t have much to say for itself to be honest. What we are listening to is the sound it makes when we snap a piece in two. This is an essential stage in the process, don’t worry we are not preparing for sharing.
Only when we have made all of these assessments are we permitted to put the chocolate in our mouths and even then, we have to follow quite detailed technical instructions to be able to do it correctly.
Embarrassingly I get this process wrong more than once and have to illicit an additional sample.
Through this sampling process Emma and Victoria are explaining what we are doing and how it impacts the tasting experience. We are given detailed descriptions of the plantations that the single variety chocolate bars that we are tasting have come from and ideas about why they taste different to each other.
At the start of the evening we were a collection of small family and friendship groups brought together for a chocolate experience. From the first taste it is like we have known each other for years as we share our assessments of the different single origin bars of chocolate that are presented to us.
Some are melt in the mouth delicious others would be best described as a taste I will have to acquire. We are talking about the best one to add to a chilli, the best to grate over ice-cream, which would be most suitable to have after a dinner with coffee. The discussion is changing my perception of chocolate and in many ways just how much I have been missing out on by simply grabbing the special offer multipack off the supermarket shelf.
Slowly but surely it seems that I am becoming convinced that there is much more to chocolate than I had thought and after an evening’s entertainment and education I now know that a true chocaholic invests in quality rather than quantity, and that is exactly what I do before I return to the autumnal evening and my journey home.