Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Chocolate Festival, Oxford

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, and I lured the Ewing from her bed and onto the road with promises of plenty of chocolatey loveliness at the inaugural Oxford Chocolate Festival.   

The event has been running on London's Southbank, and in Brighton, for the last few years, but this was the first time it had made it out to the city of dreaming spires.  Such was my excitement that I even swapped my usual bacon sarnie for a bowl of pineapple and pink grapefruit so I could attempt to do full justice to the lovely treats I hoped would be awaiting us.
I needn't have worried.  As we reached Broad Street at about noon we were greeted with the sweet smell of churros and chilli in the air, and hoardes of hungry tourists and shoppers. I could also see, through the throngs, stalls laden with all sorts of sweet and savoury goodies just waiting to be sampled.  As well as tasting some sweet treats I also hoped there would be a chance to chat to a few chocolate  producers and try a few new and unusual products.

The first stall we stopped at featured Damian Allsop's chocolate alchemy and was ably presided over by the man himself.  When we arrived he was patiently explaining the flavours of his chocolate compact discs to a young customer and he genuinely seemed enthused by his products.

The first chocolate we tried was his version of a salted caramel made with a muscavado ganache centre. It has a complex flavour, with the sugar giving it a dark molasses note, and even though the centre is solid it isn't too rich or cloying. This is a chocolate I tried as part of the petit fours at the Hand and Flowers in Marlow, and until recently this is where Allsop also had his factory.  He seemed impressed I had remembered this (I rarely forget a good pud) and chatted with us about Tom Kerridge and our shared excitement about new series of the Great British menu. 

He then let us try some of his famous water ganches, including a divine basil one, and it was at this point a bystander suggested that the Ewing should help promote the stall as the chocolate was sending her in raptures! The water ganache, as the name suggests, are made from chocolate blended with water and fresh fruit, herbs and spices.  His plain chocolate truffles contain no dairy at all which gives them a clean, fruity taste that really showcases the chocolate.

We ended up buying some of his chocolate compact discs, to be reviewed in a later blog, and three bags of misshapes.  At £3.50 a bag these were the steal of the day as each bag contained over a dozen delicious chocolates in a good range of different flavours.  The mini hazelnut ganache lollipops were especially tasty.

Not only were the prices at the festival lower than on the website there was, obviously, no P&P to pay and he even gave us a little extra discount (possibly to get the Ewing away before she managed to eat everything...) It was also good to listen to someone who obviously has a lot of belief and passion in what he is doing.

The next stop was Duffy Sheardown's Dark Star Chocolates.  Unknown to me until a few weeks ago, when his name cropped up on my Twitter feed, they are one of the only British producers of bean to bar chocolates.  This means that they oversee whole production process, from sorting and cleaning the beans to roasting, grinding and creating the finished product. The chocolate Duffy's produces is single origin; beans gathered from one harvest, from one region and from one country.  Like wine the chocolate's flavour may change year on year with different growing conditions and climate changes. 

We got chatting to Duffy's wife, who explained that writing the tasting notes for the different types of chocolate could be very difficult.  Firstly because of the subtly changing flavours of each year's harvest and secondly because every one's palate is slightly different.  Apparently this has lead to a few disgruntled customers writing comments such as 'this doesn't taste like .... at all' on internet forums.  There's clearly no pleasing some people as all of the samples I tried had bright, clean flavours with that lovely glossy snap and smooth melt.

One bar that wasn't available to try was the Honduras Indio Rojo - 72% dark chocolate, the first criollo bar they have produced. (Representing only five percent of all cocoa beans grown, criollo is the rarest and the lowest yielding cocoa bean on the market and is native to South and Central America.)  This bar had centre stage on the stall next to an ominous sign saying that the bar's rarity made expensive, but with no price.  Remembering the old adage 'if you have to ask then you probably can't afford it' my enquiry was met by the pleasing answer of £5.50.  Rather a bargain and something that I will soon be blogging along with the trio of bars the Ewing bought.

Next was a refueling stop at Outsider Tart. Theirs was the best looking stall; rustic wooden crates, upturned and piled high with wonderful cakes, brownies and cookies.  This is the kind of baking that really appeals to me.  Generous slices of simple, cakey goodness with a twist on classic flavour combinations, but without all the fancy ribbons and swirls.

I would of happily tried them all but managed to show remarkable restraint in just choosing a Hepburn brownie.  Anything cinnamon is a winner in my book, but combined with triple chocolate it could only be a triumph.  The Ewing tried her first whoopie pie, a marbled chocolate number, and wasn't disappointed.
Final stop was a quick visit to the Big Yum stall.  Children of the 90's may remember a confection called  Pretzel Flipz that was available for a brief time while I was growing up.  These Flipz were small, salted pretzels coated in either chocolate or white fudge.  Sadly they were discontinued although you can pick them up at places like Cybercandy.

The Big Yum Swerve is like a souped up version of the Flipz, using a swirled white and milk chocolate coating and a maltier, crunchier pretzel.  As the recent salted caramel obsession has shown us sweet and savoury is a very moreish and successful combination.  The nuggets of salt cut nicely through the chocolate and the crispy centre contrasts with the soft outside.

Not only are they tasty, but there also based in my neck of the woods.  One of the ladies manning their stall  informed me that stockists can be found on their website,  mail order is available and any Swerve lovers in the Buckinghamshire area can pick them up, with prior arrangement, from their High Wycombe base.  After eating a whole bag on the way home I'm not sure if this is a convenience or an unwanted temptation!

As always we had to leave before we could properly explore every stall.  The savoury Mexican food, with added chocolate in some dishes, looked intriguing and it's always difficult to walk by while people are enjoying fresh, hot churros. As I still haven't got Ewing's Easter egg I will also be checking the website, with details of all exhibitors, for some inspiration.

Overall we had a great morning, eating browsing and chatting.  My only, small, gripe was with the site lay out. I'm not sure whether the council dictated the positioning of the stands, but a bottleneck had been created where Broad Street joins the very busy Cornmarket Street, while at the bottom of the street there was plenty cordoned off space without any stalls.  I hope the festival returns next year, and it would be good to see a few more exhibitors, and possibly a seating area, making use of that extra space. 
The busy stallholders and happy people I saw certainly suggested the event was on course to be a big success.  Anyone that missed the Oxford stop can also catch the Chocolate Festival in London and Brighton over the next few weeks and, chocoholic or not,  I would recommend a trip to try some tasty treats.


  1. I agree, Oxford's lovely. Looking forward to a few pints by the river this summer!