Bin Fox Food History Tours: Hot Chocolate Test Run

The test run of the Bin Fox Hot Chocolate History Tasting Tour got off to a wobbly start as I discovered that my hasty formatting for the scorecards didn’t hold up over the two separate instances of MS Word it’s apparently necessary to use in my house in order to print things, and my even hastier cobbling together of tour guide text was, it must be said, somewhat lacking in stylistic consistency and grammatical sense.

THE TOUR

“I promise there’s a good reason for this,” I told an amused cashier at Wasabi on Oxford Street, having thrown about ten sachets of pickled ginger onto the floor in my desperation to purchase them and nothing else. I was not being entirely truthful. My reason – not necessarily a good one – was that a few months ago I decided that the history of drinking chocolate in London as distinct from the turbulent history of coffee, tea, and gin consumption (all also remarkable), was fascinating in its own right and that our proliferation of chocolatiers in the city deserved celebration.

Like many of the ideas that I have around 3.20am at work, I announced my intention to my friends and promptly forgot all about it, in this case because I was trying to combine writing a book, learning to belly-dance, learning basic Turkish, and getting swole  (adj).

Thus it was that on the eve of the test tour I found myself desperately skim-reading Wikipedia and some articles by the indispensable Dr Matthew Green, and making impassioned pleas for categories by which to score hot chocolates – at an hour best described as “a little late in the day for this preparation work”.

But the next day I slogged to The Ship on Wardour Street with determination, printed scorecards, a head full of recently-acquired knowledge, a pack of Bic biros, several sachets of ginger for palate-cleansing and a bottle of fizzy maté as cleansing backup, there to meet my test audience, Mim and Al.

Besides enthusiasm for history, learning, and chocolate, Mim and Al brought differing palates (Al has a preference for the bitter and Mim for the sweet), and touring capability (Al lives in the gym, Mim has EDS). This, I thought, would provide a good test of the route, intended break times, and probably also the limits of my pancreas.

The notion that we were going to share out drinks at a ratio of about one between three had already been agreed upon, and turned out to be absolutely and utterly vital to our survival. I cannot stress how totally and utterly I would no longer have blood running through my veins if we’d had one drink each at these places.

Paul A Young

At the first stop on our tour we learnt about the overall history of hot chocolate, its origins as a drink in South America, and the propensity for adding spices – an option still available to patrons of Paul A Young today, with their array of additional flavours available for the connoisseur at no additional cost.

Price: £3.95

SWEETNESS: Mim 2, Al 4 – some discussion was had over how to rate, with Al going with “I ranked it highly because I like that it wasn’t that sweet” and Mim going with “I ranked it on objective sweetness level”.
CREAMINESS: Mim 2, Al 4, revised up from 3 at the end of the tour after some discussion.
THICKNESS: Mim 1 Al 4, also revised
RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4
SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4, also revised
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 4, also revised
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4

OVERALL SCORE: 28 (revised up from 24) out of a possible 35 from Al, while Mim presents a mode score of 4, an aggregate of 20/35.

COMMENTS: Mim: “customisable: add own spice”, Al: “Pick own spice”, shorthand for their belief that the option to create your own spiced blend is a strong selling point here. Historically, too, as we discussed, spices have been added to hot chocolate since its inception. Mim ranks this as her 3rd favourite, Al didn’t provided number rankings.

SAID dal 1923

A London institution and murderously difficult to get into to sit down most of the time, SAID is a wildly popular provider of Italian-style chocolate drink, and rightly so. At this place – and this place only – we had the capability to buy a “small” size, equivalent to an espresso shot. Trust when we say this is all that you need, and even that may prove to be too much, It is a dauntingly rich experience, available in dark, milk, and gianduja (hazelnut).

Price: £2.50 for a small.

SWEETNESS: Mim 3, Al 4
CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 5, Al 4
RICHNESS: Mim 2, Al 4
SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 5
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4

OVERALL SCORE: 29 / 35 from Al, mode 4 and aggregate 24/35 from Mim. The differing scores on “richness” may be related to the choice in hot chocolates (see below).

COMMENTS: Mim: “Om nomm nommmmm”, Al: “Milk also nice”; Al and I plumped for dark chocolate as this is our default, and Mim took on milk chocolate, but was kind enough to let us try. The majority of other comments amounted to visceral noises and trying to lick the inside of the cup. It was not dignified, but it was heartfelt. Mim ranks this as her number one of the chocolates reviewed.

Possibly addled by this experience, and possibly just very bad at reading Googlemaps, we got briefly lost and did a loop through Kingly Court. This is unnecessary – the next place is very close to SAID DAL – but perhaps worthwhile, as it gave us the chance to recover from the intensity.

ChoccyWoccyDooDah

The little cup contains marshmallows. Full-sized ones.
The marshmallows in action

CWDD is best-known for intricate chocolate sculptures in astounding forms and a pantomime wonderland interior, It is flashy, over-the-top, theatrical, and overwhelming; the branch in Brighton’s Lanes has frequently taken me by surprise as it looms out of the narrow alleys like a fairytale rendition of chocolate heaven or Willy Wonka’s deranged chocolate factory. The Carnaby Street branch, also tucked away down narrower roads, is much the same. The queue here was also enormous and there was a little confusion in communication but in mitigation we’d like to add that the staff here were beyond delightful, friendly and engaging and determined to make accommodation for Mim’s needs in particular, leading to the spectacularly indulgent experience of sipping hot chocolate while reclining on a chaise longe in a towering hallucination of sugarcraft. Definitely one for children and the festive season.

Price: £3.99

SWEETNESS: Mim 5, Al 2 – sticking to his previous “do I like this” scale
CREAMINESS: Mim 3, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 2, Al 2
RICHNESS: Mim 1, Al 3
SCENT: Mim 1, Al 2
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 2, Al 4
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 2, Al 2

OVERALL SCORE: 19 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 2 and aggregate of 16/35 from Mim.

COMMENTS: Mim: “Very, very sweet”, Al: “Teeth-meltingly sweet, great spectacle [but] basically a high street hot chocolate”. Mim ranks this sixth.

Exterior to ChoccyWoccy and over the sound of mysterious fireworks, we enlightened ourselves as to the introduction of chocolate to London in 1657 under the guise of a panegyric (of course), and some of its subsequent development.

History

The route through Soho has taken us in the opposite direction from the rest of the Central London tour so far, but there is a good reason for this. A large chunk of the history of “chocolate houses” revolves around St James’s Street, which we duly walked down before turning back through the bottom of Soho, with a brief stop to weep longingly over crisps – salty food! SALTY FOOD!

Where is Rococco?

While the majority of my inclusions on this list were based on observations either by myself or by other tour members, Rococco was included after perusing an official list of Best Chocolate Drinking Establishments on one of those infernal listings sites.

As it turned out this was a mistake. Rococco: Earlham Street, said my notes.

No such place, said Earlham Street, which indeed contained not a hide nor hair of Rococco.

Hotel Chocolat

While this extremely well-known chocolatier has many, many branches this is the first I had encountered which was selling hot chocolates. Rather brilliantly my introduction came when a man pounced on me with a tray of samples and then instead of muttering shut up when I asked about how the recent cocoa bean glut had affected things on a business level, eagerly told me all about the plantation/company relationship and price-setting structure used with their partners in Ghana.

This joy in all elements of the chocolate industry continued with our visit on the tour; additional cups were provided – as they were in many places – but already pre-poured, and once we had settled in some of the staff came over to ask us about the tour, the scoring and how they were faring so far. Hotel Chocolat has an almost intimidating variety of options, but after the intense sweetness of ChoccyWoccy the team were pining for something bitter, and plumped on this occasion for their 85% dark.

Price: £3.95

Pre-shared, and on a tray. The napkins bear a diagram of the anatomy of a cocoa pod. Fascinating stuff.

SWEETNESS: Mim 1, Al 4 (revised from a 3, sticking to the “I like it so I will rank it higher” approach as compared to Mim’s “objective sweetness level” approach)
CREAMINESS: Mim 1, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 3, Al 3
RICHNESS: Mim 3, Al 3
SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 2, Al 3
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 3, Al 3

OVERALL SCORE: 24 / 35 from Al, with a mode score of 3 and an aggregate of 16/35 from Mim.

COMMENTS: Mim “80% dark”, Al: “Overall better than individual score”, referring to his enjoyment of the drink as a whole but less so in the individual categories. The gestalt 85% dark Hotel Chocolat was held successful, despite Mim’s low score, and ranking of it in 5th place.

While comfortably located and taking a much-needed bathroom break, we also continued our education on the history of drinking chocolate with the infamous chocolate houses of St James Square, and in particular the notorious and infernal Tory hangouts, Ozinda’s and Whites.

Godiva

Another multi-branch institution, Godiva in Covent Garden is short on space and in the lead up to Christmas short on patience, so they did admirably to accommodate our indecisiveness in choosing between four or five flavour options (including praline!). For a larger group it would certainly be necessary to phone ahead in order to avoid placing excessive strain on a diminutive chocolate heater. We optioned for the Viennoise Praline, on the grounds that variety is the spite of pancreatitis (this is not medically accurate) and that the saltiness might save us from total meltdown.

Price: £3.95`

SWEETNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 (revised from a 3)
CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 1, Al 2
RICHNESS: Mim 3, Al 3
SCENT: Mim 3, Al 3
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 3, Al 4
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 2, Al 4

OVERALL SCORE: 22 / 35 from Al, mode score of 3 from Mim and aggregate of 20/35.

COMMENTS: Mim: “Viennoise Praline – nutty”, Al: [N/A] none on the sheet but the saltiness was remarked upon favourably. Mim ranks this 4th.

Venchi:

Close to defeat we joined the queue at this Italian wonderland for another thick and intense hot chocolate and were presented with three clear plastic cups and the beginnings of a sugar headache, an experience I do not think I’ve ever had before and am not keen to repeat. Happily Venchi’s hot chocolate is so good that we laboured on past the pain and consoled ourselves with lemon water; one to undertake by itself for full enjoyment, although it speaks well to the product that even after that much chocolate it stood out.

Price: £4.00

SWEETNESS: Mim 2, Al 4
CREAMINESS: Mim 2, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 4, Al 3
RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4
SCENT: Mim 4, Al 4
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 4
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4

OVERALL SCORE: 27 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 4 from Mim and her aggregate is 24/35.

COMMENTS: Mim: “RICH” which is certainly accurate, Al: [N/A] none on the sheet, mostly because we were too busy chasing the last remaining drops out of the glasses with the plastic spoons and making animal sounds, Bin Foxes to the bitter end. Mim ranks this in joint second place with the next establishment.

“I just want to sit down,” Mim said, as we reached our destination, “and have a cup of tea. Something that isn’t chocolate. Maybe some food.”

We were all in hearty agreement by now. Daydreams of lapsang souchong, and very salty chips danced through our heads. We waited half an hour for a table, because Sunday evening is not a good time to get to the head of any queue in Covent Garden, but at last we were there: jammed onto a sofa, possibly pre-diabetic, ready to take our sweet time.

Ladurée

A French affair, this company is better-known for its macarons and patisseries than for its attachment to chocolate, but the secret is out: they serve Viennese-style hot chocolate in pre-Revolutionary decadence in an attic in Covent Garden, and this is the perfect way to end a tour, in my opinion. We fortified ourselves with bitter teas, prepared our mouths and enjoyed the last of the hot chocolate.

Price: £3.95

The Viennese chocolate comes served in a silver jug, and accompanied by a small pot of whipped cream for adding to taste. The macarons and tea were an antidote.

SWEETNESS: Mim 3, Al 3
CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 4, Al 3
RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4
SCENT: Mim 4, Al 4
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 3, Al 5
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 3, Al 5

OVERALL SCORE: 28 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 4 and an aggregate of 25/35 from Mim.

COMMENTS: Mim: “Luxury. Poured. Creampot niceness”, Al: “Appearance reflects surroundings”, and indeed the attic tea room is a wonderful spot to end the tour. It was judged “perfect” in conversation, which must certainly count for something. Mim ranks this joint second with Venchi and was in raptures over the curtained chaise on which she was seated for the experience of the remaining tour text:

At this concluding juncture the remaining medicinal claims were debated, and the future of chocolate-drinking hinted at. There may have been a little hint that hot chocolate can cure depression; I like to think the company helps to elevate the mood as much as the beverage.

Aftermath

Over steamed rice and frantically consumed salty rice crackers we totted up scores (an aggregate, rather than the originally-suggested mode), and compared notes on the tour as a whole as well as the individual chocolatiers.

Conclusions:

  • In future we will need napkins and possibly spare cups
  • More lemon water for palate-cleansing
  • SALTY SNACKS, we shouted in unison. DEAR GOD SALT.

While ChoccyWoccy received a drubbing here, we acknowledge that different people have different tastes; Al and I in particular have a fondness for the bitter and the rich respectively which leads the very sweet and milky to a disproportionately poor score. And regardless – it’s good to have a “villain” as a point of comparison or contrast, For others, Paul A Young’s spices or uberthick SAID’s rich headache brew, or the admirable pretension of our Parisienne conclusion may fulfil that role – the more tours we have, the more chances there are for receiving improved scores!

There are a number of other well-regarded chocolatiers in London who would be included on a broader-ranging tour – Dark Sugars, Melt, Konditor & Cook among others – and I am eager to give this a spin when my headache and incipient diabetes have worn off.

Future

Personally I find the history portion of my tour currently scant, and as I cribbed a great deal from Dr Green it needs revisions in style so it stops being outright bloody plagiarism. I’d like to make more, too, of the role of slavery & conquest in the provision of chocolate to Londoners and the subsequent association with decadence and depravity, as well as its complex global connections and lingering exoticism. I want to talk about when it acquired its current gendered, feminised associations when as recently as the first half of the twentieth century “a mug of hot cocoa” was considered as much a cure for one’s ills as the true elixir of joy of the Britons: tea.

But on the whole the itinerant Bin Foxes scavenged up a very enjoyable Sunday on International Men’s Day!

I’d like to thank in particular the good-natured staff at all the chocolatiers we visited for their tolerance and in some cases outright enthusiasm in the face of our increasingly hyperglycaemic nerdy bellowing and requests for additional cups like a bunch of misers. With a larger group this should be less of an issue.

I’d also like to tip my hat to Al and Mim for being good sports and risking their bodily health on this absurd pilgrimmage, and to Al for making such a fetching backdrop to my chronicle photos above.

Coda

I returned home with a single chocolate ganache profiterole from SAID DAL because I’d happily knife a man in cold blood for choux pastry on any given day and on this given day all I had to do was pay money.

As I was furtively sticking it into my face in the kitchen, the Resident Australian appeared behind me and stared, aghast.

“How,” cried the horrified Antipodean, “can you possibly eat more chocolate after all that?”

I think it will be the last for a little while.

Quite fancy some chips though.


If you have enjoyed this post, why not toss me some coins to pay for a coffee?  Definitely coffee and NO MORE CHOCOLATE.

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How to Birthday:

Two days of birthday food in photos with accompanying recommendations:

A Sunday Dinner

Sourdough boule, bangers and mash (and watercress and jus), chocolate brownie with hazelnut ice-cream, from The Starting Gate in Alexandra, North London.

A Bombay Cafe breakfast

Chocolate Chai (unlimited), date and banana porridge (unlimited), bun maska, and sausage and egg naan roll from Dishoom in Kings Cross, N1C.

Drinks and small treats from wanderings

A limited-edition Halloween Vampire Frappuccino from Starbucks; takoyaki mini portion and a green tea soft-serve taiyaki ice cream from Hawker Street in Chinatown.

Afternoon tea

Warm strawberry bubble tea, and matcha azuki on brioche toast with flaked almonds, spray cream, and a dipping bowl full of honey.

Decor and dinner theatre
Strange dining

Dinner at Archipelago, a rightfully multiple-award-winning restaurant that provides an entirely unique culinary experience. Starter: “Burmese Embrace” features python carpaccio; Main: “Rajasthan Snap”, curried crocodile meat with jasmine rice (alas, no bugs. I was promised bugs!); Dessert: “Pharaoh’s Treasure”, a chocolate pudding with excitingly powdered and smeared sweetnesses, a pleasantly spicy ice-cream and some gold leaf; digestifs of Cà phê sữa nóng (Vietnamese coffee) with chocolate “sticks and stones”. The place does a wide and very interesting array of cocktails but as I was somewhat Feeling It after an excessively successful Halloween Party on Saturday I frankly never wanted to see alcohol again at this point!

Is everyone ready? I’m not!

It’s nearly time for NaNoWriMo again! I’m definitely on top of this:

Whose stupid idea was it to be a writer

Definitely.

I think it would be foolhardy to claim that I’m “ready” to write this blasted book but I’ve at least finished cutting and pasting the reference material I have so far

Entirely on top of it.

I mean I may have been stress-baking 2kg Christmas cake until midnight and I may have had to run away to Leighton House Museum to catch the end of their exquisite Alma-Tadema exhibition and then sort of … refused to come home and deal with my planning document and kind of… stayed in Holland Park stalking peacocks in the sun instead of actually doing any preparation prior to the aforementioned CAKE PANIC…

But I’m ready now. In the sense that I’m NOT ready, but all my reference materials are in one place.

Also this post is scheduled to arrive before you on my 35th birthday. Happy birthday me, you are presumably not dead yet! INCREDIBLE.

[Publishing] Pick Your Poison by Owl Hollow Press

Alright yes I promise I shall, at some point, make blog posts when I’m not saying “I wrote something, buy it,” but I’ve been (altogether now) busy. Busy trying to fit work, frantic book research, belly dancing classes (no, really), bodybuilding (again, yes, really), beginners’ Turkish lessons (why), and occasional social life (ukulele singalong down a shaft in Rotherhithe, attempts to gain personal low-earth orbit via a swing at the Tate Modern, etc) around each other.

Fortunately then this particular book was handled by professionals as opposed to solely by me.

Poisons come in all shapes and sizes, often resting in that murky, gray area between too much and too little, between right and wrong. Some poisons help; some poisons hurt. Some do both in the proper doses. But one thing is certain—whether good or evil, figurative or literal, fact or fiction—we can’t escape its potent charm. Throughout this anthology, poison takes many forms, both literal and metaphorical, in a wide variety of genres and styles. And they’re all yours to enjoy. So go ahead. Pick your poison.

Featuring: George BrewingtonJason RubisLawrence SalaniDiane ArrelleKatie ShermanLeigh StathamNichole CelauroMichael Harris CohenDerek Des Anges (Meeeeee), Leslie EntsmingerChristine EskilsonTom HowardCara FoxSharon Frame GayCharlie HughesAaron Max JensenKevin LankesFrank OretoCary G OsborneColleen Quinn, and Angela Raper.

Pick Your Poison is published by Owl Hollow Press and available in paperback and as a Kindle eBook.

Continue reading “[Publishing] Pick Your Poison by Owl Hollow Press”

Heavy

It’s here, it’s here. There’s fewer pigs in it that the cover leads you to believe.

When I was researching and writing The Next Big One the world “helpfully” cooperated by giving me the chance to observe responses to a terrifying epidemic of a deadly virus in real time, as Ebola resurfaced in West Africa and one of my friends went out with Save The Children to test blood samples in the field, work for which she was rightfully awarded a medal. Let us hope then that the events of this book remain firmly fiction, dealing as they do with an alternate past, the long aftermath of partial nuclear destruction, and the opportunism bred by lengthy global conflict; the kind of things that become normal, and the horrors that float to the surface…

What if not only everything you knew about yourself was wrong, but everything everyone else knew about you was wrong too?

Pig is in hell.

He’s been in hell for the twenty years since half a continent was atomised; since his own ignominious and contentious escape from a fate that never came; when a face from his past comes offering alleviation, he inadvertently drags behind him a young revolutionary, an extracted spy, and an admin assistant way out of her depth on an unexplained mission that will take them across the world, and which may well solve nothing at all…

“I’m always pleased to see Derek Des Anges writing, with his acute understanding of the horror we do to each other and the tactics we take to survive it.” – Kieron Gillen (Wicked + Divine, Darth Vader)

Heavy is available in print and as an eBook from Lulu.com, from all international Amazon sites in print and on Kindle (US | UK and other regional Kindle sites too), and will shortly be available in eBook format from iBooks, Nook, and Kobo also.

If you’ve read and enjoyed my (or anyone else’s) work, here’s an article on why it’s important for you to say so in public: beware of monsters: why you should review books you love.

Love the cover? Buy art products with it on here.

Want to see the book physically? No problem:

London Riverside

The last few touches are being gently hammered out with a brick on publication of Heavy, but in the meantime, here is a lovely digital artwork of the Eastern end of the Thames in London, which took me absolute months and made Photoshop shit itself more times than I care to swear about.

If you’d like to see it at a larger size (and I advise that), go here and also look at the stuff you can buy it on, because I have to go and pay someone to drill more holes in my wretched teeth and my bank account is crying.

Heavy times fall upon us.

Would you like to know why I spent a large part of yesterday stalking the streets of London in search of a pig’s head, before finally alighting upon the kind people at Godfrey’s of Highbury, who allowed me and my glamorous assistant (the author behind Transrealities and mistress of multiple musical instruments) into their chopping room to take photographs and refused payment for the same?

Well, you’ll have to wait a little longer. Heavy is on its way, but a few more activities, including some with the pig’s head, await prior to publication.


Recently, the author has: cried a lot in a theatre, had a gazebo lobbed at him by God in the middle of a seaside thunderstorm, cried a little bit in a cinema, and got slightly too drunk watching a childhood movie in a park with a bunch of similarly drunk Millennials who finally get all the innuendo we missed when we were seven. He has also been hard at work editing Heavy, planning a new book, and submitting short stories willy-nilly to some remarkably accommodating small presses, and this is why he hasn’t been updating his blog. It’s definitely not because he temporarily forgot that it existed. That would be madness.

Normal service may or may not resume soon

In the meantime enjoy the snazzy new blog layout.

I’ve been off being Loudly Gay in the middle of London in my small gold pants, with additional Loudly Gaying in a railway tunnel for a few hours afterwards; I hope everyone else had a nice Pride, except that douchebag who was squirting people with a water gun regardless of whether they wanted it or not, I hope he had a terrible Pride or at least had real trouble getting glitter out of his contact lenses.

Highly Professional Adult Individual, signing off to try to massage some life back into overworked limbs and probably have another nap.