Next on my whirlwind European tour is London (perhaps it should have been first, as Heathrow would probably have been my first stop). Last time, I lived in London for a few months before youth-hostelling around England, Wales and Scotland. I adored seeing the Elizabethans at the National Portrait Gallery and the Rothkos at the Tate, attending free classical concerts in the crypt of St Martins in the Field church, walking through Regents Park, browsing through and spending up in WHS Smith. Again, food was not an obsession; in fact, I was feeding myself for the first time and missing my mother’s home cooking.
I worked for a little while at a posh chocolate shop just around the corner from Sloane Square and a quick skip to the Kings Road shops. Before working here, I wasn’t too fussed about chocolate. Now, I was surrounded by violet soft-centred bon bons and candied orange segments dipped in dark chocolate and hot chocolate made from shaved, real chocolate and dusted with cracked black pepper (apparently as the Russians do). And, dear reader, all of this chocolate heaven was Valrhona chocolate. To say it’s the good stuff is an understatement of epic proportions.
We were encouraged to eat chocolate, for how else could we sell it if we didn’t know what it was like? When a new goodie came in, or if a customer wanted to try something we hadn’t yet tasted, we put on our white cotton gloves, opened the glass-fronted cabinets, slid out the trays and popped a chocolate onto the wooden cutting board and cut it in two: half for me, half for you. And then took on an appropriately serious and connoisseur-ish demeanor until the verdict was reached.
I had a system for this all-day chocolate consumption. I made sure I had a good breakfast and a solid sandwich at lunchtime (usually from the nearby Pret a Manger); I drank lots of tea throughout the day. I would start the morning on the dipped candy fruit, progress to the cocoa-dusted almonds or filled bonbons, and finally eat the darkest truffles. To deviate from this system — to, say, throw yourself at a hunk of dark stuff before midday, to skip the sandwich — would cause sugary havoc and definite queasiness.
The upshot of that glorious time (apart from temporarily and convincingly adopting the plummy vowels of my Chelsea manager) was that my view of chocolate changed forever. My tastebuds changed for ever. I cannot eat milk chocolate, supermarket Easter eggs sicken me, and I’m a sucker for dipped orange segments (I stock up when I visit Haighs in Melbourne). I’ve never seen Valhrona here in Hobart (but please correct me if I’m wrong), so Lindt 70% is the closet substitute.
So to visit London this week, I’m not going the traditional route of Yorkshire puddings, toad in the hole, Victoria sponge or spotted dick. Because they are not my edible memories of London. Chocolate is.
PS What’s your best of British food?
Adapted from the chocolate book that accompanied the Australian Good Food magazine of August 2009. As this makes two cakes, you could always just serve one and freeze the other for an emergency.
- Prep two 20 cm cake tins and preheat your oven to 180.
- Melt 75 grams dark chocolate - I prefer to melt it gently in a bowl over pan of simmering water.
- In a food processor, whizz up 1 and 1/2 cups SR flour, 1/2 cup cocoa, 1 and 1/2 tspns baking powder, 1 and 1/4 cups brown sugar, 250 grams soft butter, a pinch of salt and 1 and 1/2 tspn vanilla.
- Then add 4 eggs and the melted chocolate. At this stage, my small food processor reached capacity and began to protest, so I heaved the lot into a mixing bowl and gave it a good stirring. If the mixture is stiff, add a little liquid to loosen it; the recipe specifed water but I thought that was a wasted flavour opportunity and added a dribble of Tia Maria instead.
- Divide the mix between the two tins, then bake for 30-35 minutes or until done.
- Remove from oven and while the cakes are cooling, melt 150 grams dark chocolate, and then add a few blobs of thickened cream, stirring continuously over the heat. It may seize up on you but persevere and it will smooth and thicken. I didn't measure my cream, but I probably blobbed out about 1/4 cup all up.
- Sandwich the two cakes with a little strawberry or berry jam and some of the chocolate, then spread over the remaining chocolate.