Make mine a T'a: Chocolate breakfast at Maze with Jason Atherton and T'a chocolates
Chocolate is high on the list of essential foodstuffs in this household. Along with good bread, butter, porridge oats, yoghurt, anchovies and brown cheese, dark chocolate is always in stock. I began my love affair with the dark stuff when I needed all the help I could get for a dastardly International Baccalaureate maths exam in 1998 and scarfed an entire bar of 70% Lindt before going in for the trigonometry kill. Armed with a ruler, plenty of sharpened pencils and a nifty Hewlett Packard calculator I was as wired as a nerd could get.
Needless to say it wasn't the most brilliant idea and in the pantheon of hairbrained ideas I've had over the years this was sheer lunacy. I could Not. Sit. Still. and was acutely aware that as my mind whirled around like a demented dervish I was losing precious time. Forget Pythagoras' theorem, I could barely scribble my own name.
So maths was never going to be my forte, with or without the ill-fated inhalation of Lindt's 70%. But the kick that ensued from this act of theobromide madness was a salutary lesson: dark chocolate makes you alert. I mean, really really alert. I may not have been able to write anything for the first ten minutes of the exam, but then I suddenly nailed it. Why snort the Columbian white stuff when you can have an instant hit of adrenaline from good dark Venezuelan chocolate I say.
So when I received an invitation to a chocolate breakfast held at Jason Atherton's restaurant Maze to launch snazzy Milan brand T'a Chocolate I did a little dance. After a gloomy and illness-laden January I was ready to enter the land of the living and what better way to welcome February's arrival than with a chocolate breakfast at Maze?
It may have been a grey and damp day in foggy Londontown yesterday but I virtually skipped all the way way to Mayfair from Bloomsbury. Upon arrival, Andre Dang who organised the event as part of T'a Chocolates' launch at Selfridges introduced me to the lovely Jason Atherton. I'd heard much about Jason and how great he is to work with from soon to be Iron Chef and all-round great gal Judy Joo. Judy knows Jason from her time working as a pastry chef at Gordon Ramsay's Royal Hospital Road restaurant and speaks highly of him so I was curious to chat to Jason about the chocolate breakfast he'd concocted for T'a.
Along with the T'a chocolates on display at the tasting, there was a table replete with four delectable chocolate spreads. Some food connoisseurs turn their noses up at chocolate spread but it's a cherished part of my childhood and in recent months I have been known to slather both chocolate spread and peanut butter on Peter's Yard crispbread as a mid-afternoon snack. The good people at Peter's Yard no doubt wince at my desecration of their delicious crispbread, but trust me it's amazing.
All of Jason's chocolate spreads were inspired by his time spent cooking and training in Spain, Dubai, France and of course here in the UK which was a thoughtful approach to creating four distinctive flavours. The British ale vinegar and winter berries chocolate spread (picture above) was mellow and tangy at the same time, a real treat using the very best of British ingredients. Sampling his Middle Eastern-inspired chocolate spread with saffron, Greek thyme and Arabian honey I thought "Saffron and chocolate, it works!" and I can imagine this spread would knock the socks off regular chocolate spread on pancakes this coming Shrove Tuesday. We then sampled an Iberico ham and sherry vinegar chocolate spread which was subtle in its porcine and sherry flavour, inspired by his time at El Bulli. But the star of the spreads was undoubtedly this baby:
Holy mackerel! I had seconds. Being the incorrigible magpie that I am I may even have contemplated sneaking the entire jar into my handbag. Mediterranean sea salt, lemon and chocolate: this is the ne plus ultra chocolate spread. If it isn't on sale soon in Selfridges alongside T'a's chocolates I shall have to do a Lisbeth Salander and hack into Jason's laptop to nick the recipe. It's quite possibly the best way - other than porridge, smoothies and eggs benedict - to wake up in the morning: a light and refreshing lemon, sea salt and chocolate spread on sourdough toast. Or so I imagine. We had it with baguette.
But it wasn't all spreads and creative flavours, there was the serious business of chocolate tasting too. Selfridges has a history of launching hot-to-trot chocolate brands such as Willie Harcourt Cooze's Cacao bars, so I expect we'll see a lot more of T'a Chocolate soon enough. While it may be unknown over here, T'a is owned by Tancredi and Alberto Alemagna, two brothers who come from a long line of celebrated confectioners and patissiers in Milan. Tancredi told me Alemagna was the first place to make panettone way back when, a claim I'm not entirely convinced of but I learnt never to argue with an Italian about the origins of panettone. We chatted more about the origin of the cocoa beans in his chocolate bars and the varying degrees of cocoa percentage. Nibbling my way through the 55, 60, 72 and 80% samples I found the smoothness of T'a chocolates comforting and the flavours not nearly as intense as some artisan chocolate brands such as Michel Cluizel or Amadei. Having just reprised yesterday's sampling as I type this blog post I reckon the mellowness of the 40, 55, and 60% T'a chocolates makes for a perfect afternoon lift.
Having tasted the best molten hot chocolate ever in Cova, an old-school pastry shop and cafe in Milan's fashionable Via Montenapoleone, I have absolute faith in the Milanese brothers Tancredi and Alfredo's ability to craft fine chocolate, and one that is more accessible than some of the complex terroir-laden big guns out there.
Not that terroir is irrelevant to T'a, they source cocoa beans from single estates in Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil, Ghana and Tanzania and there's a selection of small tasting chocolate pieces, pralines and dragees to showcase the best of those countries' cocoa beans.
It just wouldn't be Milanese if it weren't stylish, and I have to confess I love T'a Chocolates' style with its vivid colours and clever packaging. It's bright, enticing and pretty. If you're looking for a gift for a chocoholic this Valentine's day then you might want to swing by Selfridges in the next week and pick up one of these eye-catching T'a Chocolate boxes:
What can I say? Good design and good chocolate do it for me. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to hack into Jason Atherton's computer for that lemon sea salt chocolate spread recipe ;-)