Why, you may well as ask, did you go to a chocolate workshop? You did a full culinary diploma, mate! Shouldn’t you know all this by now? Was this just an excuse to eat lots of Paul A Young chocolate?
Well. yes. And no. I received broad and extensive culinary training, but because we had to cover everything in one very intense year, we didn’t focus with laser precision on every single technique. While we had a chocolate-making dem and a session on petit fours, we didn’t go into the art of chocolate in huge amounts of detail. I am keen to keep learning and sharpening my skills, and I want to make sure I continue to progress as a cook. Plus, you know, chocolate.
And thus I came to find myself, with my mother, in the basement of Paul A Young‘s extravagantly purple artisan chocolate shop in Soho. We’re wearing excessively sexy blue hair nets (hygiene first, people), but yes, my mother’s hair is also blue.
The basement kitchen where the class took place is where the team at the shop make the chocolate that is sold there. Each of the three Paul A Young shops has its own kitchen where the chocolates are made fresh daily, to prevent them being transported all over London, and possibly contaminated or damaged. There were seven of us in the class group, and we were led by two female chocolatiers who work in the kitchen day to day. They were friendly, professional, and clearly very knowledgeable and confident in their chocolate skills. Everyone in the class was already familiar (in my case, too familiar) with Paul A. Young and his products. We learned a little more about how the shops actually function and were given one of his books to work from before we launched into the first practical job of the day: making water ganache.
I’ve made ganaches before, but the method was clearly explained and would have been completely accessible to anyone who was less familiar with the concept. We used a beautiful dark couverture chocolate and got to work, whipping up silky-smooth and rich ganaches destined to be transformed into truffles. We were then given the choice of a selection of beautiful NHR Oils to flavour our ganaches, as well as an explanation of the best way to create a harmonious flavour profile. Starting with something citrussy and complementing it with something herbal is a good way to go – who knew!? I went with fennel and mandarin in the end because basically I will put fennel in anything. Including, apparently, truffles.
While our ganaches set, we were treated to an extensive chocolate tasting, starting with a mellow 38% blended milk chocolate and working our way up to a hardcore 100% dark chocolate. It reminded me a lot of the wine tasting we used to do for the WSET course at Leiths. We were encouraged to really taste each variety of chocolate thoughtfully, looking for flavour profiles and scoring each chocolate based on how much we enjoyed it. We were taught about the difference between blended and single origin chocolates, and introduced to some new brands that even I hadn’t heard of before.
The real skill of the day was tempering, using the tabling method. Paul A Young staff are obviously excellent at this. Me, not so much. I have tempered chocolate before, but never on a marble slab (marble slabs being in short supply in my minuscule kitchen). I have also always stuck religiously to using a sugar thermometer when tempering, bringing the chocolate up to a certain temperature, then down, then up again… We were quickly informed that the real chocolatiers need no such technological aids, and can tell if chocolate is tempered correctly simply by look and feel. I found this incredibly impressive, and imagine it takes a lot of practice. I am a long way off being able to tell if melted chocolate is at 33 degrees or closer to 31 by feel alone.
We all got to have a go at marble slab tempering – and were given lots of help, thankfully – before we made our own flavoured chocolate bars and covered our truffles in two thin layers of tempered chocolate. We then had the fun of decorating them with beautiful edible lustre dusts and coloured cocoa butters to make our creations individual and, in my case, very sparkly.
Overall, I enjoyed the class hugely, and am thinking of going back to Paul A Young for the intermediate session. The staff are expert and passionate, and we got to work with fantastic ingredients. We also ate a huge amount of chocolate. When the class was over we each got to take home about fifty of our own hand-made truffles, as well as the slab bars we’d made, so we left with a decent stash of very high quality product.
However, as someone who has studied at culinary school, attended lots of enthusiasts classes, and now teaches cookery herself, I did think there were a couple of things about the logistics and structure of the session that could be improved. Firstly, a simple thing: name labels! We were only told the instructors’ names once at the beginning of the class and I have unfortunately forgotten them. Plus, it was a bit odd to be working closely with six other people for five hours and never be given an opportunity to introduce ourselves or learn the others’ names. I suppose I could have gone round the circle and asked everyone, but I am too British for that.
Secondly, it would have been nice to have had stools that we could sit on while listening or tasting, to rest. Five hours standing and leaning over low counters is a long time. It’s fine when you’re moving around but difficult if you’re still for long periods or if, like me, you have a messed up back. It would also have been helpful to get a heads-up in our booking email that we’d be working in a highly air-conditioned space: obviously that’s necessary for working with chocolate, but as it was a warm summer’s day I hadn’t thought to bring layers, and it was freezing.
Finally, we did the whole 10am to 3pm session with no breaks! I had expected that we would get a lunch break. Obviously weren’t starved because of all the chocolate, but it’s a long time to focus on something without any chance to rest (even for me, and I am used to working in kitchens and doing long teaching sessions). If there was too much to do to allow us some time to go out and get lunch, it would have been good to have a couple of ten or fifteen minute tea breaks to give us a chance to rest our brains after taking in lots of information, and maybe to sit down for a moment.
I realise this sounds like quite a lot of criticism, but I really enjoyed the class and learned a lot. I only note these things because I think that there are simple changes that could be made to make the courses more logistically accessible and enjoyable for all, and I’d really love to return myself. I’d definitely recommend the classes as a special treat or present for someone who is interested in making their own chocolates. And if you’ve not been to any of the Paul A Young shops before then they are well worth a visit. Please bring me back some of the salted caramels. And maybe some of that popcorn chocolate. Perhaps some almond praline. And also a crane to get me out of this chair.