An interview with a Clapton chocolatier

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Photos by Martina Tomasello.

Wily Badger blogger Emma Trotter talks to Phil Landers about his late night chocolate crafting habit

I heard you made the chocolates for musician Lucy Rose’s wedding?
Lucy is a good friend of mine. I’d started making quite a few batches of chocolate, so she asked me if I’d like to do the wedding favours, which meant making 94 bars of chocolate. I decided to experiment and make three bars in one, and I had to make the three different batches of chocolate separately – plus I included a milk chocolate, and I’d never made milk chocolate before.

It sounds like you gave yourself a bit of a task.
There was a lot of late night chocolate making; a lot of me going crazy at 04:00 in the morning, covered in chocolate! The bars were all hand wrapped too. This is what made me realise I wanted to keep doing it, and I now have a few more weddings lined up.

And you’re cooking it up all from your home in Clapton?
Yes, it all happens here. I’ve slowly collected the equipment or had to improvise; my grinder came from India and is technically supposed to be used for grinding spices. I currently do my “winnowing” – in laymans terms, that means separating the shell and the nib of the beans – in my garden with a hair dryer!

When I get the cocoa beans, the first thing I do is roast them in my oven. The roasting is one of, if not the, most important part of the process in terms of developing flavor. I do roasting tests to find out what the best flavour profile of each batch of cocoa beans is. When I first get a batch I’ll take a handful to roast, and test them at minute intervals to see which flavor is the most interesting. I generally do quite light roasts.

Is it relatively niche, what you are doing?
Yes. There are a lot of chocolatiers around but they don’t actually deal with the cocoa beans. Strangely enough, in terms of chocolate makers there are only a handful in the UK. And out of that handful, there are only two that I would say are making really good chocolate at the moment.

You do also have the chocolate makers who source the best beans. They are making pure bars of chocolate. It’s one of those things that not many people do anymore. When I say a real chocolate bar, I mean it should just have cocoa bean and sugar for a dark chocolate bar, and if it’s a milk chocolate bar you just add powdered milk – that’s the only added extra. If you treat them well these cocoa beans have incredible flavours, potentially 400 flavour notes.

Would you say a chocolate revival is happening?
There is something going on in America called the ‘bean to bar’ movement, much like the craft beer and coffee movements, which it’s now making its way over here. There are a lot of parallels between coffee, beer and chocolate. People care a lot more now about where the ingredients come from, and how the chocolate is made.

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How did you get started?
I worked in radio at the BBC for about 5 years. I got to a point that I had to move on and do something else, so I decide to go travelling and found myself in Guatemala working on a cocoa farm. That was my first introduction to cocoa beans. I was pretty fascinated with the whole process. When I came back I started working at Paul A Young, a chocolatier in Soho. My interest has been growing, and I’ve been doing lots of research too. It’s still very early days.

How did the first bar of chocolate you made turn out?
It was around February or March 2014, and it was bloody awful. I’ve still got it! I managed to get some beans from Madagascar, and they were the first beans I used. I was aiming for a fruity-acidic chocolate, but it didn’t go down well.

Did you not think at that point this maybe wasn’t such a good idea?
As soon as I had done it I realised where I had gone wrong, so I made another batch the next day and it was so much better. I was fascinated by what it was that needed to change. It’s small changes that really determine whether or not you get a good chocolate or not.

Is there quite a science to it then?
Sure, so a chocolate maker that I’m in contact with used to be an ex Formula 1 racing engineer, and I’ve discovered other chocolate makers in the US that have scientific backgrounds too. It boils down to a nerdy obsession with precision, timings and procedures involved.

Do you think you’ll keep making chocolate in Clapton?
I think so, yes. It was quite exciting to move here as there is a lot going on. There are a lot of people starting out here, so there’s a nice community feel in which everyone is looking out for each other. There are more and more places like Palm 2 on Lower Clapton Road popping up selling a variety of local products from local sellers, which is really encouraging too.

What’s next?
I plan to do the markets first, and also start supplying restaurants and cafes. I genuinely do believe that chocolate is the most popular food in the world. If you make good quality chocolate people will invest in it.

For chocolate enquiries contact Phil by email at beantobarmaker@gmail.com or on Twitter @phlands

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