Chocolate production is one of the most complex culinary processes in the world. Aging, mixing, conching and refining require huge amounts of time and a number of technically difficult stages. Cocoa beans clock up plenty of air miles even before they enter the chocolatier’s studio to begin their next alchemic transformation. The chocolatier’s work is equally challenging, requiring precision and relentless repetition to churn out the perfect truffle day in day out. So what are the indications of expertly made chocolate confectionary? What separates the Artisan du Chocolat Couture Chocolates from the Thornton’s bargain box, if indeed there is any difference??
For the sake of argument I will use the classic truffle as the yardstick – ie a solid chocolate outer shell with a soft (but not liquid) filling.
Thickness of the Chocolate Casing
I have never eaten a truffle with too thin an outer casing. Super delicate crusts and casings are almost always a desirable quality in the culinary world – the blowtorched sugar topping of a creme brulee, the crust of a triple cooked chip, the skin of a pan fried fillet of sea bream. The best of these examples are always deliberately brittle and fragile, and always more pleasing than something thick and dense. The same can be said for chocolate truffles. As long as the shell doesn’t break prematurely, spewing liquid salted caramel down your lap, the thinner the better.
Texture of Filling
The best filling should have the texture of room temperature butter. Chocolates from your Thornton’s bargain box almost always have too firm a texture – mainly because a mixture that hardens firmly is easier to work with. A filling is essentially a combination of flavoured cream and melted chocolate. In order to gain a smooth consistency it is essential to combine the two ingredients while at the same temperature – normally around 50 degrees celcius. This creates a hot emulsion that maintains a homogenous mixture when cool. Vegetable fat should be avoided, but is often used as it increases the shelf life of a chocolate filling.
Flavour of Filling
This is probably the most important element of a nice truffle and also the hardest to achieve. Infusing fresh ingredients into the cream almost always produce better results than infusing dried ingredients. The obvious disadvantage of using fresh ingredients -herbs, flowers, spices, nuts, fruits etc – is that it is more expensive. Infusion normally happens anywhere between 50 degrees and 100 degrees. The problem with this method is that these temperatures often destroy delicate flavour compounds, a problem when infusing ingredients with delicate flavours like herbs. However there are a number of exciting technological developments that are combatting these problems. In particular a rotary evaporator extracts the essential oils of a solid ingredient by boiling in a vacuum at low temperature without damaging the fresh aroma compounds. Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and his pub The Hind’s Head use a rotary evaporator for a variety of dishes and produce some amazingly clear flavours.
So who makes the best truffles in the world? For my money it is still Artisan du Chocolat, run by the Irish Chocolatier Gerard Coleman. He also makes his own ‘raw’ chocolate, but that’s for another blog. His chocolates can be bought online at www.artisanduchocolat.com