They had me on the word chocolate, but when I heard that Chocolate Ecstasy Tours’ Notting Hill tour also included a discovery of the finest coffee in West London, it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
I met the Chocolate Ecstasy Tours leader and chocolate expert Jennifer Earle underneath the Westway, amidst the hustle and bustle of Portobello Road market. The sun was shining and as advised, that morning I’d had a light, savoury breakfast, plus as little caffeine as possible. My sweet tooth and java cravings were ready to be fully satiated…
Jennifer was already armed with a flask of filter coffee from small-batch coffee roaster Golborne Deli. And to kick start our day of culinary delights, she presented us with some Portuguese pastéis de nata from the Lisboa Patisserie on Golborne Road.
As I hadn’t eaten one of these scrumptious custard tarts since my recent trip to Porto, it immediately put a smile on my face.
The attractive thing about Chocolate Ecstasy Tours is they’re focused on delivering bespoke, intuitive tours with a personalised touch.
As a result, they clearly have a growing fan base, because I was joined by two ladies who’d been doing Chocolate Ecstasy Tours for eight years.
Coffee and pastries down the hatch and it was a minute’s walk to one of my favourite discoveries of the day, Talkhouse Coffee, on 275 Portobello Road.
This place is run by award-winning baristas and works with the best in small-batch coffee roasters, so is the real deal when it comes to quality independent coffee shops.
The interiors lean towards the pared back Scandi style, and you need to learn the lingo because they don’t serve lattes and cappuccinos here.
Instead, order an espresso and you’re then presented with the option of three quantities of hot milk, measured in ounces.
To start with, we tasted two very different samples of coffee: the first; a coffee from Nueva Llusta in Bolivia, roasted by James Gourmet Coffee, and the second; a coffee bean from Santa Lucia in Brazil, by Square Mile Coffee Roasters.
The difference in flavour was fascinating. The first was full of malty, almost Marmite-like flavours and the second was fruity, with notes of melon and raspberries, but quite smooth to drink.
We then tried ‘cascara’, which could mark a new wave of brew about to sweep across London. It’s actually made from the fruit flesh, or pulp, that surrounds a coffee bean and is described more as a tea. Here, we drank it cold which was incredibly refreshing. We also tried some cold brew coffee, which is already increasing in popularity among java enthusiasts.
Jennifer has travelled widely to coffee plantations around the world, and as we slurped our way through our various beverages, she gave us a master class in the coffee-farming process, throwing in various facts for us to take home.
- There are three different ways to prepare coffee beans: washed, natural and pulped natural and most espresso coffee is a variety of more than one of these varieties.
- The phrase ‘a cup of Joe’ derives from the First World War when US Navy secretary Josephus Daniels banned soldiers from drinking alcohol. Their answer to that was to drink the next strongest drink they could get their hands on within navy ships. Which was of course, coffee. They then began nicknaming it a ‘cup of Joe’.
Meanwhile, we delved into yet more cups of Joe in the way of a straight espresso, and then the same espresso blended with milk in the typical Talkhouse style (complete with lovely latte art). If only I could pick up this little place and plonk it near me in South London. The coffees here is oh so smooth and delicious. And it really god me in the mood for the London Coffee Festival happening this weekend.
Jennifer also shared her wisdom on the fascinating world of cocoa production. It really took me back to when I visited the Rabot Estate in St Lucia last year, learning about the cultivation of the Trinitario Bean – a hybrid between the Criollo and Forasterio trees which originated in Trinidad.
Fascinating stuff, and even better when you’re devouring some of the most incredible milk and white chocolate brownies as you listen. You have to try these.
After Talkhouse, it was a short tootle down Portobello Road while we listened to some interesting stories on the history of the riots, Notting Hill’s most famous serial murderer and on a lighter note, the origins of Notting Hill Carnival.
We also stopped by a famous film location – that blue door that was the home of William Thacker in Four Weddings and A Funeral.
It was then on to the first chocolatier of the day, Akesson’s Organic – an exclusive place on Blenheim Crescent whose founders source their cacao from plantations in Madagascar, Indonesia and Brazil.
The really unique factor here though, is they enhance much of their chocolate with pepper and exotic spices from these regions.
I’ve tried chili chocolate before but this was a first for pepper infused chocolate. It was really quite distinct.
We also got to understand just how much the species of cocoa bean (Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero) affects the end product in terms of flavour notes and texture. As well as peppered chocolate, you’ll find coconut blossom sugar in some of their bars. Akesson’s really is as organic as it gets.
With our noses and palates slowly becoming attuned, we took a walk further up Portobello Road. Past the jewellery stores and pop-up stalls, we turned down the rather plush Westbourne Grove.
Our next stop was Alexeeva and Jones.
Step into this rather luxurious shop and you’ll find it caters for a variety of chocoholics’ needs as they sell handmade products from 20 of the world’s finest chocolatiers. This includes artisans from Italy, Sweden, France, Ecuador, Denmark and Madagascar, to name but a few.
If you’re a true chocolate enthusiast, you might be interested to know that you can join the Alexeeva & Jones Connoisseur Tasting Club. (Find more info here). But we were here to sample some of the truffles, ganaches, pralines, and range of exquisite chocolate bars that lay before us. If the last shop was a lesson in niche chocolate flavouring, Alexeeva and Jones was a lesson in the wonderfully varied chocolate artisans you can get around the world. And they very handily bring the best together in this Notting Hill hot spot.
We tried chocolate bars made from cocoa beans cultivated in Nicaragua, Ecuador and Madagascar.
The Ecuadorian chocolate was made from 70% cocoa and was ‘raw’, meaning the bean had not been roasted. This gave it a distinct vegetable, or umami quality. The Menakao Madagascan chocolate bar was even higher up the cocoa-scale (100% cocoa) and was completely sugar-free, giving it a very powerful kick. With chocolate that’s this high in cocoa content, less is more when it comes to the chocoholics’ ‘hit’.
But eating chocolate with 100% cocoa content is an acquired taste so if you fancy introducing your palate to high cocoa-content chocolate slowly, the Nicaraguan chocolate we tried is a brilliant place to start.
To be classed as dark chocolate, it needs to be at least 60% cocoa. The Nicaraguan chocolate was 55%, so it’s just within the umbrella of milk chocolate and contains cocoa butter to give it a creamy texture. However, this cocoa-content is still ‘high’ meaning it’s still packed with flavour and isn’t overly sickly as milk chocolate sometimes is.
Finally, we tried a chocolate bar known as a ‘cremini’ which is a layered praline and tasted out of this world. Because, sometimes, you need a little bit of sugar, right?
After gazing through the glass cabinets at the beautifully decorated Lauden chocolates, fine Paul W. Gregory and irresistible looking Centho chocolates, we left Alexeeva & Jones with an understanding of how the presentation of chocolate can vary from the simplistic and traditional chocolate bars to the artistic and beautiful artisan boxes, that you associate with romantic gifts and special occasions.
I accepted the offer of one last sample by popping an Alexeeva & Jones champagne truffle in my pocket, for later. Wow, it was good.
Next stop Melt.
Melt is found on Ledbury Road (they also have a shop in Holland Park), and is an example of the contemporary and rather trendy style of chocolate shop you’ll find in London these days.
And I adore the name.
On arrival at Melt, you’ll find slabs of chocolate, chocolate blocks for dipping into milk, a fabulous array of salted pralines and peanut butter bonbons, plus imaginatively fruity flavoured treats.
Just check out these gorgeous gold leaf passion fruit and mango chocolates.
There are also macarons, hampers and all sorts of wonderful quotations on the walls.. It’s a fantastic shop.
As part of the trip with Chocolate Ecstasy Tours, we headed to the back of the boutique to meet one of their lovely bean-to-bar makers, Anne-Marie, who gave us an overview of the chocolate-making process. This includes the harvesting, conching and tempering stages.
A few interesting facts for you (you’re welcome).
– The cocoa butter is what is extracted from the bean to give chocolate that lovely glossy shine and texture. If it’s authentic chocolate, it will contain cocoa butter, not vegetable fat as many low-end chocolate bars do.
– Conching (where the cocoa is refined) is so-called because in earlier days, it was shaped like a conch shell
– Tempering the chocolate (raising and lowering the temperature to achieve the texture that allows the chocolate to snap, has to be carried out in a very controlled way. Get this wrong and the chocolate can end up being crumbly and quite ‘marble-like’ in appearance.
– The whole chocolate making process can take up to 70 hours. There’s a whole lotta work that goes into making your choccy bar.
Anne-Marie also talked through the different qualities of chocolates, such as those from Papua New Guinea, and Venezuela. And she explained how the terroir of where they’re cultivated can hugely affect how they taste. For example cocoa beans from Indonesia have often been dried using fires, due to the humid and wet climates. As a result, this can give the chocolate a smokey quality.
Well, I didn’t think my chocolate wisdom could get any better after this…
Almost sated, we just about managed to squeeze in a couple more tastings and then headed off to our final destination, Artisan du Chocolat, also on Westbourne Grove.
Not only was this the birthplace of salted caramel chocolate, this boutique chocolataria has produced products for some very high-end clients, including airline companies and TV chef Heston Blumenthal.
You don’t get much more sought-after than that.
Artisan du Chocolat has a number of shops across London but this one’s their flagship.
They have ridiculously cool chocolate bar tables…
…a beautiful wooden table made from reclaimed cocoa plantation wood, and the most amazing ‘jungle canopy’ that cocoons you while you’re sitting in the middle of the shop.
As we cleansed our palates with a good ol’ cup of breakfast brew underneath the ‘rainforest’, we had our final chocolate hit of the day: a sip of their rich and ever-so-indulgent melted chocolate drink, with a bit of Heston’s tobacco chocolate.
As the tobacco chocolate hit my tastebuds, a smokey and tingly sensation filled my mouth. It was as avant-garde and unusual as the chef himself.
Alas, every good thing has to come to an end, and I had to leave this three-hour chocolate odyssey, to get back to work.
Besides from leaving this tour with a new passion for very, very good chocolate, you may also unveil a fascinating side of London that may otherwise might have passed you by…
Until next time x
Oh So London was invited to review Chocolate Ecstasy Tours. All views are my own. For more information on the full range of London tours, visit ChocolateEcstasyTours.com, check out their Facebook page and follow them on twitter @ChocolateTours.