We don’t know whether the Aztecs were correct in their belief that cacao was a gift from the gods, but either way, we are grateful for it! Chocolate holds a special place in the hearts of many, which is not surprising given that it is scientifically-proven to provide a serotonin-fuelled burst of joy to those who eat it. Put simply, it is one of life’s simplest pleasures.
Forget Cadbury’s and Mars (or perhaps Hotel Chocolat if you’re extravagant). This Easter we want something a little more special. Isabelle Alaya – founder of The Chocolate Museum and Melange Chocolate – is just one of a few specialist Chocolatiers in London who truly puts the art in artisanal chocolate making. Stop eyeing up that big Malteser egg, we have something much tastier in store for you.
Isabelle’s passion for chocolate arose early on in life; “it’s a childhood thing,” she says with a passionate exuberance as she stirs a thick, creamy hot chocolate that is promptly devoured. “As far as I remember, everything is about chocolate for me.” Every holiday would see her return with cocoa-based souvenirs, constantly on the lookout for new and inventive products. She also regularly found herself making cakes, truffles and other morsels that utilised chocolate simply for her own enjoyment – and consumption. It was only thirteen years ago that Isabelle finally realised her talents warranted turning professional and, after enhancing her already-impressive skill-set with a short period of study and a year spent trading from market stalls, she opened Melange Chocolate in 2008.
As far as I remember, everything is about chocolate for me.
Isabelle’s knowledge of the chocolate-making process is fascinating; after the farmers pick the cocoa beans they are passed onto the ‘makers’ who process them into the main ingredients: cocoa powder and cocoa butter, the latter of which – also the main ingredient in Isabelle’s artisanal products – is incredibly important. A large percentage of cocoa butter is needed to make ‘couverture’ – chocolate in an evening dress – and this is what sets mass-produced cheap chocolate that sticks to the top of your mouth apart from artisanal chocolate that you can savour.
Getting the beans from their raw form to one suitable for chocolate-making is a sticking point for many independent brands. “In France and Italy you have a lot of chocolatiers who are also makers by family tradition, who’ve been doing it for one-hundred years or so,” she notes. In the UK, though, it’s another story. “Cadbury’s – they took over and the market was industrialised, which really killed the industry at that time for small chocolatiers.” The monopoly that such large companies gained over the British chocolate market was devastating for the hopes of anybody looking to gain a foothold as an independent chocolatier. As a result, much of the chocolate sold in the UK is not particularly high in quality.
Whilst the industry has, since the major brands first enveloped it, made room for independent manufacturers such as Isabelle, most consumers are content with cheaper products due to the tastes they have developed. “People are very happy with a Cadbury’s bar at one pound,” she bluntly states. “So why would they buy a bar for five?”
This dynamic has resulted in a divide within the industry between luxury and standard-quality chocolate. The pricier, higher echelon of chocolatiers – instead of catering to casual customers – tend to find their products being bought primarily as gifts. The larger, cheaper brands market themselves far more towards the day-to-day consumption of chocolate that the UK, the second-largest consumer of the confection in the world.
The reason for the price difference is simple; because chocolatiers like Isabelle source chocolate from smaller makers who cannot afford to buy in the same bulk as giant multinational brands, their supply is unavoidably more expensive. Isabelle gets hers ready-processed from a Belgian maker – one whose product is much purer than the likes of Cadbury’s, containing no traces of nuts or milk. After melting this down she is then able to craft her unique and delicious range of creations. The Willy Wonka of Peckham, if you will.
People are very happy with a Cadbury’s bar at one pound, so why would they buy a bar for five?
“I have eighteen flavour combinations in my bars.” The passion she exhibits for her work is abundant and rather inspiring. When asked which combination is her favourite, she notes a full five (and still sounds like she is being forced to choose between her children): coffee and aniseed, raspberry and rosemary, coriander and grapefruit, vanilla and white pepper, and – finally – bergamot and cinnamon. Such unusual ingredient blends don’t sound like they’ll be gracing Dairy Milk’s packaging anytime soon, but Isabelle has refined them over her career into bars that not only taste divine but distinguish themselves from mainstream brands in more than just quality.
Easter is her busiest time of year, of course – no other time of year promotes the giving of chocolate as a gift to the same extent. Her themed products include the usual eggs and decorated chocolate animals, the latter of which are her favourite to make. The actual crafting of these items is performed solely by her – and every one of them is directly related to the unique landscape of flavours that Melange utilises. It’s a romantic image, really – when considering the rows and rows of identically-packaged products in the average sweets aisle. The idea of a lone and intensely-passionate chocolatier lovingly handmaking her wares sounds rather appealing. It certainly makes their higher price point seem justifiable.
Knowing that food has been made with affection always seems to enhance its taste. There’s a reason everyone’s always going on about needing a homecooked meal, after all. Whatever Easter means to you, the giving of gifts ought to be a loving act – so this year, instead of grabbing some mass-produced chocolate bunny, why not spend a little more on a homemade artisan one? You’ll know that it’s infused with passion and care, and you’ll be supporting a small business. And mark our words –it tastes loads better too.