The world’s best chocolate? Sunday, Feb 19 2012 

I had been busy extolling the virtues of Valrhona chocolate to friends on Facebook when one of them, a bloke named Chris, asked if I had ever tried Amedei, an Italian brand of chocolate which is often heralded as among the world’s most expensive. I hadn’t, but made it my mission to do so.

This turned out to be surprisingly easy. With retailers all over the world, and the chocolate’s high reputation, I was astounded to have not come across it before. A selection from Harvey Nichols was therefore soon winging its way to my parents’ address in the UK for our delectation (French retailers of this brand are strangely lacking in spite of the country’s close proximity to Italy; we tried one Parisian establishment, da rosa, only to be met with a surly reception and to find they no longer stocked the brand anyhow).

We had ordered three 50g bars – two of the Toscano Black (63% and 70% cacao respectively), and one of the Gianduja (32% cacao). In addition, we’d also plumped for a 180g box of 16 Amedei pralines. This order came to a whopping £34.80 before we’d even thought about delivery.

The selection box struck us as being the worst value for money. While the chocolates within it were delicious, provided a good range of flavours, and gave us a better idea of what types of Amedei we would consider purchasing in future, the Valrhona equivalent box (180g of a selection of praline chocolates) comes in at more like £15 – which, for many, is significantly more affordable than £23 for the same amount of chocolate. Put another way, the Amedei chocolate is 53% more expensive in this regard.

To compare the bars was trickier. While the Amedei bars are possibly more refined, there is relatively little of them: each 50g bar costs £3.95, whereas Valrhona’s versions are around £3.55 for 70g. So it seems you get a little bit more bite from the Valrhona bars – at least financially (although by Keeper’s reckoning they have more bite taste and texture-wise too). Taste-wise, the Amedei bars are perhaps creamier, whereas the Valrhona bars are more tannic, but that doesn’t necessarily make one ‘better’ than the other – just different.

The expense of Amedei’s chocolate certainly makes us consider carefully whether or not we would purchase again, but as far as I can tell, it’s not enough to stop us completely – otherwise why would I be trawling the internet now, ahead of our trip to New York next week, looking for places where we can buy and drink the stuff?…

Where can I purchase Amedei?

As mentioned, Harvey Nichols is a good place to begin for UK buyers. Other retailers include The Chocolate Trading Company and Kings Fine Food. For American purchasers, Chocosphere gets rave reviews as an online retailer. As for us, we’ll be heading to Food Emporium, Worldwide Chocolate, and/or to MarieBelle’s for our fix in New York next week.

The chocolate of the stars: Valrhona Saturday, Jun 4 2011 

As far as I’m concerned, if it’s good enough for the great Heston Blumenthal to use in his recipes (which he does), it’s definitely good enough for any home cook. Furthermore, it’s almost certainly among France’s best-kept secrets, despite having an international presence.

Founded in 1922, the shop and factory in the company’s birthplace of Tain l’Hermitage aim for and attract a curious mixture of tourists and world-class chefs: in spite of its Godiva-style price tags, the brand is one of the world’s foremost chocolate-makers, making ‘vintage’ chocolates from one single year of harvest from plantations in Madagascar, Trinidad and Venezuela.

Its dark chocolate is intense without being bitter, while its milk chocolate, too, has depth without being sickly. The range available is also staggering, providing something to suit every taste: as well as traditional dark and milk chocolates, there are ganaches and truffles, dark-chocolate enrobed slivers of orange peel, and chocolates flavoured with warm spices for those wanting something not only excellent, but a little bit different as well.

Even if you don’t want to splash out, you can still enjoy a Valrhona treat, with hot chocolate and chocolate sauce both coming in at under £10 (the latter under £5). If you visit the shop in Tain, you can also try before you buy, minimising the risk of wasting your cash. However, don’t make a spectacle of yourself by treating the shop like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

If you can’t make it to Tain, fear not – plenty of boutiques, online and in London, sell the stuff, so that all of your gastronomic needs can be met. Lamentably, I don’t work for them, and nor have I been sent any for free (…yet…), so I have to content myself with only occasional tastes of it (unless I feel like paying the Printemps’ extortionate prices in Paris). Probably better for my waistline all round, though.

Regional specialities Sunday, Jul 25 2010 

I’ve had quite a time of it during my little tour of France this summer. As well as seeing lots of towns and cities that were hitherto unknown to me, it’s also been a great opportunity to add to my knowledge and collection of local gastronomic specialities.

Earlier this summer, before the main holiday, we visited Rouen, which yielded Calvados (read: apple liqueur) chocolates, as well as barley sugar made with apple juice (yummy but messy).

In many places along the west coast of France you travel through some of the most famous wine-making areas in the world (chiefly Bordeaux) so of course the focus is on these. As you move further south, though, things get more interesting. We discovered mogettes, which are nougat chocolates that resemble green stones, and seem reasonably priced even if ordered online (see here). They are similar to the more widely available but still nonetheless different cailloux, which we found in Annecy: sweets made with chocolates or with almonds and then coated with sugar to more authentically resemble stones. Weirdly, though, the chocolate cailloux taste more like sugar than like chocolate. Available at $15/lb from FavorOnline, they are obviously much cheaper actually in France.

On the savoury front, we also went to the region of Savoie (near Annecy and Chambéry), which is very close to Switzerland and Italy and of course is fairly mountainous. This means they specialise in mountain food, which basically means fondue 😀  I had a ‘marmite savoyarde’ one lunchtime, which basically involves layers of melted cheese and meat. Couldn’t finish it all! Very rich but completely worth it.

In the Drôme and Ardèche regions, there is also much to be had in the way of local specialities (going back to sweets this time). Montélimar attracts plenty of foreign tourists not only for its castle but also for its most famous export – its nougat. This means there are nougat shops everywhere, and of course I bought some. It comes in chiefly soft and hard varieties, but also exists in a few other variants too (orange, chocolate…). All traditionally made and very yummy. There is also a nougat museum (!!!) – the Palais de Bonbons et Nougat – but I didn’t get to visit (this time).

I have still a few more days left down here, but also a few stops remaining on my gastronomic tour. I have visited them before, but perhaps this is just testament to their wondrousness. The first is Tain l’Hermitage, which plays host to the Valrhona factory. Valrhona is delicious local chocolate, which is even more delicious than Jeff de Bruges (reviewed in my previous post), and which is deemed to be so good that it is used by Heston Blumenthal (owner and head chef at the Michelin-starred Fat Duck) in his recipes. Despite being known worldwide (as shown by the queues of tourists that flock to the shop attached to the chocolate factory), it is actually not always that easy to find in physical shops, with it being almost easier to buy online. They probably do this to try to maintain their air of exclusivity, but no matter how hard you have to look, it’s always worth it.

Finalement, something even more difficult to find. Like the mogettes, the copeaux are a near-damn impossibility to buy anywhere, even online (they are fragile and don’t always travel well). Originating in the town of St-Péray, the copeaux de malavieille (to give them their full name) are delightful twists of biscuit flavoured with orange flowers. Incredibly moreish, they are rendered somehow even tastier by their secretive aspect. Made nowhere else in the world, the only chance you will have to taste them is if you go there or if someone brings you back some. I go there every chance I get 😀