A busy few weeks of classes here at the Halo Baking Emporium and Chocolaterie in Moseley Birmingham UK. As well as attending a few local classes at the wonderful LOAF community bakery in neighbouring Stirchley, I’ve also been up and down the country to attend a chocolate making course at Banbury Chocolate Academy, and just returned from an intensive day class at the River Cottage HQ too.
First things first, a mini review of the Banbury Chocolate Academy course. Upon arriving at the factory and teaching academy the unmistakable smell of chocolate wafted through the gates before I’d even driven in. I spent a very full two days soaking in the aromas and an absolute wealth of theory and practical experience. For me the most useful part of the two days was seeing and using the machines that I simply can’t buy for myself at the moment. (Tempering machines costing above £3,000. Each. And you really need three at least.) I can’t think of another way I would have gained the experience I did in using these beasts, so that was fantastic.
Although seeing and using the huge machines was interesting, I did stick to the bain maries as I know that’s what I’ll be using for a good few years as they are a few zeros less than the big boys! I also stuck to my guns and shunned using thermometers and such throughout the course, relying instead on feel, eye, and lots of little bits of testing paper. (You can have your chocolate at the exact right temperature, but over or under crystallised. So if you become reliant on the gadgets telling you the temperature you can still mess up the temper, and there’s no gadget as yet to help with that!)
We made filled and dipped truffles, various pates that we also hand dipped, shells with several fillings, lots of different lollipops, and a medium size moulded bunny. We also went through the life cycle of chocolate, and taste tested a huge variety of different cocoas, at all stages of the process. After the first few hours I did feel a bit like a wine buff fraud desperately trying to find the “hint of blackcurrant and liquorice” as everything was melding into one big chocolate tasting sugar and caffeine overload, but refreshed on day two I really could notice some subtle distinctions between plantations.
One element that surprised me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have, came when I looked through the thick catalogue they gave us at the end. Included in this book of wonders were not just the basics that I might use, just as freeze dried petals and the like, but basically everything you might ever need to just run an assembly line for chocolates. It did amaze me to see that with enough initial outlay you could just buy in everything you needed, assemble it with naff-all skill, and flog it as “artisan” chocolate when it was nothing of the sort.
It linked to the shelf life discussion we had. My ganaches and other fillings are made with fresh fresh fruit and cream or butter. They have a shelf life of about 2 weeks tops. The stuff you could buy had shelf lives of years! You could make chocolate today and sell it next Christmas. I know that’s the way to work if you’re a huge retailer, but the perfectionist and real food aficionada in me rebelled against this hyper processed method of chocolate creation.
I was delighted that everything I made turned out well, as the last few years have been a lot of trial and error on my own with a good few very thick reference books, which I was pleased to find out had not been wasted effort! An interesting mix of people on the course too, from those who are just setting out, to others who owned chocolate shops already. A very inspiring two days.
The sheer scale of the undertaking involved in a professional set up however has led me to think that for now I will keep the chocolate making a much loved hobby and experimental side line, and focus instead on the gluten free baking and teaching. Space and finance means it has to be one or the other at the moment, and the chocolate requires more space and more initial outlay to succeed professionally. (Things like fridges or cool rooms that keep chocolate at the right 11C temperature etc, none of which are easily affordable.) I absolutely loved being in a professional kitchen making all the delights that I did, and will work towards having one of my own in the next few years.
For now I will continue with the gluten free baking and teaching, and am delighted that I have secured the relevant insurance and am in discussions with LOAF regarding renting out their teaching kitchen for a few preliminary classes. Exciting times!
Speaking of artisan chocolate, after attending the class I also had the great pleasure of meeting Neil and Gaelle from Kneals Chocolates at the Moseley Farmer’s Market. Neil has attended a few classes at Banbury too, and we had a good old natter about the steep learning curve and the experience you gain. Obviously I had to sample some of Neil’s chocolate (any excuse), and if you live in Birmingham and haven’t tried the chocolates he makes, I want you to sit down, take a few deep breaths, and re-evaluate your life. They are DELICIOUS, with my personal favourite being the Rose Bar. Kneals Chocolates are at a number of food markets and fairs around the area so look out for them and their delights, well worth your custom!
Over the next weeks I have a few more classes at LOAF booked, and will let you know how I get on at those, and of course fill you in on my day at River Cottage HQ!