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Chocolate à la mode

Yes, it's true: nothing beats chocolate for the ultimate in indulgence. Like so many of the best things in life, chocolate has the reputation of being oh so good to the lips! Not so good to the hips –but this year, chocolate is back as THE way to get to your darling’s heart. Here are a few more reasons why this season you should not resist the urge to indulge in this decadent sweet… Especially as the hotels, restaurants and caterers are finding original ways to present it.

Chocolate is in this year, in all its forms –as a mousse, a warming winter drink or even in the shape of a female breast. Of course, during the holiday season, chocolate is the staple of the dessert table, whether it be brightly-wrapped candies or the traditional “bûche de Noël”. The famous “Christmas Log” in France is one of the most important elements of the Christmas season and chocolate with orange was the flavour of this season, quite possibly due to the influence of one of the most powerful names in chocolate. Yet Lenôtre every year asks a celebrity to create their signature bûche. Karl Lagerfeld worked with Guy Krenzer for 2007’s creation – spicy gingerbread with an orange icing centre, all covered with a luscious blend of three chocolates. Those privileged enough to have this on their holiday table had to reserve as early as December 6, and shelled out 115 euros.If the quality of the product diminishes and true chocolate lovers are disappointed, we could see a decrease in chocolate’s popularity. Of course, chocolate will never completely go away as a staple for our sweet tooth, but perhaps it might be replaced by something even more decadent. Who knows, could caramel become the next chocolate?But the rest of us may not choose to pay such a hefty price to take advantage of the latest trends in chocolate. “Chocolate bars” (no, not the ubiquitous wrapped candy in your pocket, but a lounge for sipping the beverage) are opening up in major cities all over the globe. In Paris, the Hospes Lancaster, whose “La Table du Lancaster” has been awarded one Michelin Star, recently announced their “chocolate à la carte” menu. Imagine inhaling the warming steam coming off the top of an elegant porcelain cup filled with one of 5 gourmet flavours: classic, mint, orange, cinnamon or hazelnut –all delicately blended with perfect percentages of the famed pod from Venezuela, Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, even Papua New Guinea.The Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong takes chocolate even more seriously: they have a chocolate sommelier. Boasting an extensive hot chocolate menu, the hotel’s Amber restaurant decided to train their wine sommelier, Martin Li, in the art of savouring chocolate. Apparently, the professional palate of this sommelier added to the success of the training, which was conducted by the hotel’s executive and pastry chefs. Li guides the restaurant’s guests through a plethora of chocolate concoctions, which include cocoas from Tanzania, the Dominican Republic and other choice locations, all of which can be combined with the likes of bay leaf, pink peppercorn, raspberry, coconut or just plain whipped cream.If hot cocoa can make a comeback, the old standby box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day also has the right to an image makeover. What is nice about chocolate is that it marries well with a wide variety of perfumes. Over the past few years, the over-sugary coconut or strange fruity innards of our chocolates have been replaced with imaginative, fragrant florals, like violet and rose, or exotic fruits essences like lychee or passion fruit. Exotic spices are the new tendance as each chocolatier adds his flair with curry or cayenne pepper. And of course, chocolate can cover anything from potato crisps (thanks to the Americans) to foie gras (thanks to the French). As for shapes? For a decidedly racy Valentine’s Day, you can offer the latest from master chocolatier Jean-Paul Hévin – a box of chocolates shaped like little female breasts and filled with almond milk, coconut milk and a hint of ginger.Big chocolate manufacturers need to be more and more creative in order to keep up with changing trends. Cacao Barry, one of the three gourmet brands of the international leader in chocolate Barry Callebaut, has innovated in a different way, by taking a classic idea from the wine and spirits industry and being the first ever to do it for the chocolate world: the millésime. Just as the best wines have their "vintage years", this chocolate comes from one single harvest and is characterised by a truly unique and outstanding character. The plantation, “Alto el Sol”, is hidden deep in the Amazon of Peru. Chocolate experts know that the flavour of the product depends largely on where the beans are grown. The 100% organic Criollo beans used for the 2006 vintage Alto el Sol are har vested from one plantation, which provides a completely unique, uncommonly fruity and slightly acidic flavour experience. Their "chocolate millésime" concept has been an overwhelming success. Cacao Barry has since cultivated a second plantation, the Madirofolo in Madagascar -- a chocolate with a robust, spicy flavour and rich aroma. So what's next on the menu for gourmets who wish to indulge in the subtleties of an exclusive vintage chocolate? "The next Alto el Sol millésime 2007 will soon be available, and the chocolate is more exquisite than ever," states Cédric Guillemette, Marketing Director for Cacao Barry. "We also have a third plantation in the pipeline in another completely different and magical place in the world, but which is for the moment kept a close secret." There are quite a few chocolate fans who will be waiting for that scoop.Aside of the spice trend (whimsical combinations marrying chocolate with a fiery flair from ginger, green peppercorns or Tonka beans), in terms of what else is hot, praline is out and ganache is in. According to Sébastien Autret, master chocolatier of the famed Servant chocolate store in Paris (literally THE old-fashioned candy store where one becomes the proverbial kid regardless of age), the technique of infusing a velvety ganache with the scent of gourmet coffees and teas or flavours like liquorice is all the rage.With a flair for spotting the latest craze in candies, Servant furnishes a fair amount of major companies and hotels who like to treat their discriminating clients with the best in handmade confections. “People have longer hotel stays nowadays, which means that if they are there for a week, they don’t want to eat the same chocolates every day,” observes Sébastien. This means that variety is very important when choosing their daily deliveries. Since competition is tough, when choosing a chocolatier, hotels look for excellent quality and consistency, impeccable packaging, and a personalised touch (most often the name of the hotel on the package and sometimes on the chocolates themselves).Reactivity is also important, according to Sébastien. “If a client loves our chocolates and wants to take something special home with him, the hotel will call us and we have to be ready to deliver the client’s whim, perfectly packaged, in minutes.” Most passionate about their work these chocolatiers love to share it. “Our shop was created in 1913. Because of its history and charm, we have a high demand to offer tours of the store and of the laboratory to clients and their customers, who all absolutely love it!”, says Sébastien. “It’s a delight to see seriously-dressed businessmen come in with their kids and get just as excited about all the goodies as the little ones.”One rapidly-expanding company from Belgium. Candy Card, is completely new in France by the innovative Chocoways, and produces customised quality, 100% pure cocoa butter, free trade chocolates with a twist. It may not be a new idea to print logos or other messages on candies, but this company does it in 500 dpi and in any colour or form you like. Like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the secret behind the gates is how they do what they do –in this case, how they get the images –printed in either a different coloured chocolate or brightly coloured sugar—onto the chocolate. Their patented machines are capable of capturing the most minute detail in the image one wishes to print onto the chocolate which range from 3 to 60 grammes.While others use the technique of “painting” white chocolate onto specialised moulds and pouring dark chocolate overtop, which is costly and sometimes has an imprecise result, Chocoways commercialises a concept which allows the client to decide exactly what they want and how they want it. The factory has recently doubled in capacity, and the success of the new pole in France is a clear indication of the potential in the French market and elsewhere. “We are in full expansion,” confirms Marc Compagnon, director of Chocoways in France. “Clients realise that our products are a great way to communicate not only to their customers but to the general public.” Chocoways has completely revamped their packaging concept to be even more attractive for their customers. They have also come up with a new 10-gramme tablet, which further completes their wide range of shapes and sizes to choose from.Chocolate trends also influence an industry in Europe that generates more than 21 million euros (or E51.70 per person per year spent on chocolate). People are always looking for the latest in sweet treats. The “health” trend revolutionising many food service sectors does not limit itself anymore to simply providing products with lower sugar or fat content. Nowadays, a product must really be good for you and recently, dark chocolate has celebrated to be high in antioxidants. This has started a trend of finding it on your pillow in hotel rooms and even in spas.Massages with dark chocolate and chocolate mousse masks are on the menu in many beauty salons. Yet according to some, the chocolate treatment is not the most popular, as many still opt for traditional treatments inspired by age-old relaxation and cleansing techniques. “This treatment is most popular around Valentine’s Day or for a couple’s anniversary,” according to Philippe Tréard, Spa Director for the Evian Royal Ermitage, a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux hotel chain. “People seem to be more attracted to the fantasy sensation of being wrapped in chocolate rather than its benefits.” So although it smells good and can trigger pleasure- releasing endorphins in the brain, apparently cocoatherapy does not yet have the reputation of an Ayurvedic massage as a spiritual cleanser.Also benefiting from the positive chocolate wave, Barry Callebaut has launched the world’s first probiotic chocolate produced on an industrial scale. The group collaborated with a probiotic specialist in order to make modifications to the chocolate– making process and add probiotic micro-organisms which resist the process and give chocolate a longer shelf life. Other groups are developing their own “healthy chocolate” that goes way beyond organic. One company has even created a chocolate that is supposed to increase longevity with a recipe that combines very very dark chocolate with soy milk and mango purée.Developments in the chocolate industry are making the chocolate world a little darker. The 30-year battle over whether or not chocolate manufacturers could replace a certain amount of the cocoa butter, the essential ingredient which gives chocolate that lovely velvety mouthfeel, with other vegetable fats and oils, ended for Europe in 2003 with a 5% replacement cap.Obviously, the Swiss and Belgians are not happy. And the battle has just begun in the United States, as the Food and Drug Administration debates the standards of production for nearly 300 foods. Some consider the fight to protect our chocolate one of the most important in this debate. After all, most people don’t feel that strongly about their canned milk, but chocolate lovers are chocolate lovers, and couldn’t care less about the slight profit margin gained by the substitution when it comes to the quality of the goods. As big industry players add their points of view, the debate tends to get more heated. Major manufacturers like Nestlé and Mars will accept this compromise, but other traditional industrial chocolate manufacturers like Guittard are completely against it.If the quality of the product diminishes and true chocolate lovers are disappointed, we could see a decrease in chocolate’s popularity. Of course, chocolate will never completely go away as a staple for our sweet tooth, but perhaps it might be replaced by something even more decadent. Who knows, could caramel become the next chocolate?

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