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Tastebuds tantalised

A new reference book on chocolate shows the fundamental skills needed to work with one of nature’s wonders.

OLIVER ROWLAND

CHOCOLATE is “powerful and mysterious”, says chocolatierpâtissier Frédéric Bau, who has put together the definitive guide to Cooking with Chocolate (Flammarion, €35 or £29.95).

Mr Bau is the founder of the chocolate cookery school L’Ecole du Grand Chocolat Valrhona, at Tain l’Hermitage in the Rhône-Alpes, based at a long-established chocolate firm, and also owner of a restaurant – Umia in the same town. He formerly worked with pâtissier Pierre Hermé at Fauchon.

The book is a joint effort between himself, experts associated with the school, and other stars in chocolate and desserts, such as celebrity chef Cyril Lignac, or Plaza Athénée pâtissier Christophe Michelak.

Have you always been passionate about chocolate?
Yes, it’s been my trade for nearly 30 years, and for 25 years at Valrhona I’ve dedicated myself to chocolate in all its forms. I am both a chocolatier and pâtissier, which are complementary trades.

Chocolate is one of those ingredients people have a very emotional relationship with. It’s not just something brown and sweet, it offers an extremely varied palette of tastes and sensations. More than just caster sugar or egg yolks, it’s a means of expression. It’s like [Italian quickchange artist] Arturo Brachetti, an extremely versatile ingredient with a lot of character but which at the same time has to be worked with a lot of delicacy – we work to the precise degree celsius. It’s very powerful and very mysterious.

The book is a collaboration with colleagues?
I decided to do a multi-talent book. I got together colleagues and friends who I invited to take part and together we went faster – and better – than a single author. I wrote a lot of text as well as coordinating.

I did photos and videos, with the whole team from the school.

The book comes with a DVD - which is silent, a bit like The Artist, because our job is all about getting the actions just right.

Your school is at Valrhona, but the firm has existed for longer?
It was founded in 1922. I left Fauchon in Paris to work there and created the school in 1989.

Through that I discovered the pleasure of passing on what I know. I started with a tiny lab and a few dozen trainees and today we have schools in Tokyo and Paris as well.

We have more than 20 pâtissiers and I believe we now set the standard for chocolate schools. That’s what the publishers Flammarion said when they came to me because they wanted to do a chocolate cookery encyclopedia. It was good to hear that and quite a responsibility.

There are few schools in France specialised in chocolate...
There’s no other that has so many students and works chocolate in all of its forms – restaurant desserts, sweets and chocolates, pâtisserie. In fact we are the only one so specialised in chocolate; others are more generalist. There are few others like us even abroad and we aim to be the best.

Do you also specialise in chocolate at your restaurant?
Not specifically, though I try to do good chocolate desserts, but we do have chocolate-themed nights. My book is mainly about sweets, it’s about great classics of chocolate cookery, however, I also have one called Fusion Chocolate, specifically about chocolate in savoury dishes.

What are some examples of your savoury dishes?
Langoustines with American sauce – foie gras, chocolate and black cumin. For the chocolate, one I use a lot is guanaja from Valrhona that is 70% cocoa solids, and araguani, which is 72% cocoa, from Valrhona’s private estate in Venezuela; it’s magnificent. I also do some sweet and sour dishes with milk chocolate.

The book goes into detail about many techniques. It looks quite complicated for a beginner… It’s an encyclopedia, not just of beautiful recipes, but of key techniques: how to make an emulsion [to achieve smooth, creamy textures, reducing the sensation of fat on the palate] for ganaches [a thick chocolate coating, usually made by mixing it with cream]. It gives you all the basics. It’s a real education, not just about nice photographs.

What are some other essential techniques – learning how to melt chocolate, for example?
Yes, and sauces and mousses, or tempering. These are the ABC. When you know the basics, the book goes on to more complex things.

What is tempering?
It means melting it at quite a hot temperature, and then cooling it in a very precise way which allows it to recrystallise in a very organised way, that makes it hard, shiny, brittle and melt-in-the-mouth. That’s why pastry chefs all use marble – it gives a cold temperature and that’s why you find marble tables in all chocolate laboratories.

So, you need specialised equipment?
No, we explain in the book that, for example, you can replace the marble with a bain marie of cold water.

Are there techniques that you especially enjoy?
I like doing plated desserts. Chocolate can be hot, cold, liquid, moussy, creamy… It’s ephemeral, and I like that. It’s different from making a cake that will go in a shop window for eight hours and must be transportable. A restaurant dessert lasts five minutes and it’s dead – it’s eaten! It allows us to make pretty amazing textures and structures.

You say in the book chocolate shouldn’t be more than 75% cocoa solids?
Yes, we explain that you can’t tell the quality from the percentage. It’s not just because it’s 75% that it’s good, it could be very bad. There’s a lot of marketing around chocolate.

There are brands on sale at 95%... It just gives a funny, wrong taste. It’s just a gimmick and not interesting. For balance it should be 65-75% for dark chocolate.

Do connoisseurs always prefer dark to milk chocolate?
Dark, milk or white can all be good. Pierre Hermé [pastry chef, who wrote a foreword] is fanatical about milk. But if it’s just sugar, milk and a tiny bit of cocoa, it’s not interesting. If it’s cocoa bean with a little bit of sugar and milk it can be remarkable.

White is a magnificent aromatic medium; it’s made from cocoa butter, milk powder and sugar, and a bit of vanilla bean. Cocoa butter comes from the cocoa plant too – no one says olive oil is not good – it is a noble kind of fat, expensive and a bit sweet and milky and can give a very good chocolate but with less character because it doesn’t have the dry bean extracts.

Is it hard to find good chocolate?
Few chocolates really have character and difference. Some say Valrhona is the best. I don’t say that – it is a matter of personal taste, and it would be very pretentious – but I say it is the most “different”. People can always recognise it in blind tests. To me that’s the most important characteristic. I find the market very standardised.

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