In the foodie world, we’re all connoisseurs now. Everyday staples have morphed into status symbols with specialist bread, coffee, olive oil and even salt becoming markers of superior taste and increasing affluence. This is a different sensibility from the old concept of luxury: it’s more democratic, young, energetic and enquiring, and it’s coming to stores and markets near you.
We have measured out our lives – apologies to T S Eliot – with Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and Kit-Kat wrappers
Chocolate has always been on the cusp of luxury and mundane: both a Valentine’s Day standard and a snack for hungry school children. (We have measured out our lives – apologies to T S Eliot – with Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and Kit-Kat wrappers.) What is new is the rise of the Celebrity Chocolatier in London. At the turn of the millennium, Gerard Coleman of Artisan du Chocolat was supplying high-profile clients such as Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Concorde as well as enthusiastic shoppers at Borough Market. The real turning point was in 2003 when Coleman created the genuinely iconic liquid salted caramels, which made his name and built an empire.
Ever since, a flood of books, press coverage and new openings has drawn the general public into the specialist chocolate world. Arcane information about cocoa solids and percentages, techniques, health benefits and single estate beans are common knowledge.
If you want to develop a taste for chocolate you can go online or into a department store but that’s not much fun. Instead, head for a cosy boutique in London’s Notting Hill to sample the starriest names in the chocolate world.
Alexeeva & Jones opened in October 2012 and has rapidly built up a loyal clientele drawn from prosperous locals and the hoards of bargain hunters converging on Portobello market each weekend. Rather than featuring a single owner/chocolate maker, the company showcases a wide range of handmade chocolates from artisan chocolatiers and a range of chocolate bars from eminent names in Ecuador, Madagascar, Vietnam and the USA as well as Britain and Europe. When has education ever been so agreeable?
Take a seat in their Salon du Chocolat at a chic mirrored table, order a rich hot chocolate in a porcelain cup and consider your options. All around are glass vitrines with a seductive range of individual chocolates, tables stacked with boxes and bars, and shelves packed with beans, books and Gianduja, that irresistible chocolate and hazelnut spread from Turin. There are truffles under gleaming glass domes and slabs of chocolate studded with almonds or a scattering of pistachio. Where to start? Fortunately the staff are very helpful and you can experiment for just £1.50 a pop for any that take your eye. Be warned: one is simply not enough.
As well as Alexeeva & Jones’ own distinctive chocolates and truffles, you can chose from about 20 different suppliers such as Damien Allsop’s brand new Aigu de mar chocolates made with sea water instead of dairy for an extra kick and reduced fat content; Ocumar Dark Milk or Honduras Indio Rojo bars from Duffy’s; the Asian-influenced flavours of Laurent Gerbaud or Leeds-based Lauden’s punchy fruit ganaches encased in dark chocolate. There’s Centhos from Belgian master Geert Decoster and the Italian Domori famous for using highly-prized Criollo cacao.
There are truffles under gleaming glass domes and slabs of chocolate studded with almonds or a scattering of pistachio
Many of these chocolate makers have fascinating back-stories, quite different from the artisan food world. Natalia Alexeeva is a highly educated businesswoman with a career in California and Moscow before training as a chocolatier and moving to the UK in 2012. Similarly her husband Gareth Jones had a successful international career before opening this luxury retail outlet for the highest quality chocolate from around the world. Together they constantly hunt out outstanding individuals and companies to add to their roster and hold regular tasting sessions in the boutique to introduce new lines. Gareth feels that chocolate is essentially all about pleasure not “authenticity” or “purity of ingredients”. “The best”, he says firmly, “is the one you like.”
If Notting Hill is outside your comfort zone, the website takes orders for destinations as far apart as North America, Riyadh and the Far East. What are you waiting for? C
Alexeeva & Jones, 297 Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill, London W11
020-7229 1199; alexeevajones.com