My overflowing suitcase was crammed with more chocolate than clothes.
Over eight days in London, I had managed to accumulate an astonishing amount of chocolate: truffles dusted in icing sugar, delicate chocolate-dipped fondants topped with candied flower petals and plain dark chocolate bars made from highest-quality cacao beans. Each came in bespoke, branded packaging, but even without the stickers and ribbons, I could have matched each product with its maker. As I’d learned on my trip, London is a city rich with chocolate shops, each with its own distinctive style.
I had arrived at the start of an unseasonably warm spell in early June. It was my second trip to London in three years. I’d been there in 2013 to judge the world finals of the International Chocolate Awards, which entailed three days of silent tasting in a dim room – without any time to explore London’s chocolate scene.
The trip was a highlight in my career as a chocolate taster, educator and author, and its brevity convinced me I had to return. So when my husband announced a London business trip, I jumped at the opportunity.
Our first stop is Charbonnel et Walker one of London’s oldest chocolate shops.
Friends in the know have told me that Charbonnel et Walker is one of the best places for the quintessentially English sweets called violet and rose creams. I’m fascinated by these fondant-based confections, which are flavored with essential oils, dipped in chocolate and decorated with candied flower petals. That they aren’t actually creamy only adds to their curious charm. Amid the jewel boxes of chocolates on glass shelves and stubby pyramids of truffles on frilly gold trays, I quickly spot what I’m looking for.
“One each of the violet and rose creams, please,” I say to the very pale, very blond girl behind the counter.
Hearing my American accent, she pauses and tips her head. “Have you had one before? Would you like to try one first?”
Into my palm, she places a dark chocolate rose cream: a chubby oval with a glimmering pink rose petal on top. I take a bite. The aroma of roses floats up the back of my throat, reminiscent of drawer sachets, but stopping just short of soapy. The inside is white fondant, with the texture of a peppermint patty.
I like it.
From there, a five-minute walk brings us to Piccadilly. Past the glittering windows of Rolex, Gucci, we arrive at Fortnum & Mason.
Founded in 1707, Fortnum’s appears, at first glance, to trade in the traditional. On the ground floor, one wall is lined with pastel urns of tea and gold-trimmed canisters of coffee. There’s a station with all things sugary: loaves of nut-laced nougat, tiers of marzipan fruit, whole candied pineapples.
The chocolates are in a busy alcove jammed with people. I finally catch the eye of George, a young man wearing gray, wide-striped pants, a coat with tails and a name tag in the store’s signature shade of pale robin’s-egg blue. He walks me through the chocolates: the in-house line, made exclusively for them, as well as smaller selections imported from France, Belgium and Switzerland.
He gestures toward a tall glass case stocked with rose creams, lavender creams, mint, raspberry and more. “These are made for us by Audrey’s,” he says, referring to a chocolatier in East Sussex. In George’s accent, it sounds like “Aldrey’s,” the opening vowel set so far back in his mouth it comes out like an L.
When I ask about the rose and violet creams, George offers me a sample. The Fortnum’s rose cream is similar in style to Charbonnel et Walker’s, but with a gentle pink tinge to the fondant. It’s also sweeter, with a deeper, more complex rose flavor.
The English have a knack for balancing the twin values of tradition and change – sipping tea while exploring new lands. I wonder: If floral creams were the height of fashion in 1875, when Charbonnel et Walker was founded, what are London’s chocolatiers doing now? I head west to Chelsea to find out.
Rococo Chocolates smells like glorious air-conditioning and chocolate. There are three shops in London, but this is where it all started, in 1983, when this section of King’s Road was considerably less desirable. Back then, owner Chantal Coady stippled the walls fluoro-pink to match her hair. These days, her hair is dark brown, and the walls are candy-lemon-yellow, accented with frescoes and mismatched chandeliers.
According to the Rococo web site, when Coady opened, she swore off rose and violet creams, but the ladies of Chelsea kept asking for them. I ask Chris, the 20-something behind the counter, what he thinks of the sweets. He considers his words. “They remind me of my grandmother.”
Unlike the firm fondants that I tried before, the Rococo creams have a softer, almost creamy consistency. Violet and rose also show up in Rococo’s flavored bars, which Chris offers tastes of. They’re chocolate-forward and less sweet, Victorian-influenced but firmly rooted in the present.
My next stop, a 25-minute walk away, is William Curley, where we find a staff member posting signs for a special Wimbledon afternoon cream tea (£6.50 for a scone with clotted cream, or £15 with a pastry and glass of champagne seems reasonable until I remember the exchange rate: $22 for that champagne meal).
Curley is the least obviously English of the chocolatiers I visit. To begin with, he’s Scottish, his wife is Japanese. Here are familiar flavors – such as Earl Grey tea, lemon curd and whiskey – but also chocolates flavored with Japanese black vinegar and black sesame that sound stranger than they taste. Remarkably, the fillings melt on your tongue at the precise time the chocolate shell disappears. Curley’s also known for his sorbets, such as the familiar rhubarb or raspberry, and a revelatory white chocolate-miso ice cream.
Finally, I head back to Soho to Paul A. Young. In the center of the room, a wooden table bears glass pedestals, each flaunting a cluster of truffles. Here are truffles inspired by distinctly English foods: an addictive banoffee pie, an herbaceous Pimm’s Cup, a subtly savory Marmite truffle. They mingle with classic caramels and French rochers.
Bean to bar
The English may have colonized the New World, but it was Americans who kicked off the trend in bean-to-bar chocolate – that is, the craft of making chocolate directly from the bean, typically in small batches. Since about 2006, the bean-to-bar buzz has mostly been stateside, until murmurs from overseas chimed in a few years ago.
The murmurs lead me to Notting Hill and the black-and-white tiled patio of Alexeeva & Jones. Opened in 2012, the shop curates confections from England and other parts of Europe, as well as a selection of plain (mostly dark) chocolate bars from some of the industry’s most respected bean-to-bar makers. Some of the bars feature on the shop’s drinking-chocolate menu, where they’re blended with milk and served with a gentle froth on top.
As I nurse a pink teacup of dark drinking chocolate and contemplate its suggested “zingy, morello cherry and smoky” notes, Natalia Alexeeva explains that the English have an affinity for sweet, milky treats. On cue, a woman clatters into the shop and orders a hot chocolate. “Milk or dark?” Alexeeva asks. The woman shudders. “Oh, milk. I can’t handle dark.”
From there, a five-minute walk turns into an hour-long meander down Portobello Road until finally, I arrive at Bertil Akesson’s shop.
The Paris-born, Swedish-blooded Akesson is an icon in the craft chocolate world. He owns cacao farms in Madagascar and Brazil and supplies many of the world’s small-batch chocolate makers with beans. In addition to his own private-label chocolate, he carries bars from his customers. The selection spans the globe, from the United States to Iceland to Hungary. Rounding out the mix is a shelf of peppercorns, in more varieties than I knew existed, also from Akesson’s farms.
Bean-to-bar may be new to London, but it’s not just the new kids jumping on the bandwagon. Rococo Chocolates has long supported the Grenada Chocolate Co. and owns a small cacao plantation in Grenada. And two weeks after I visited, Paul A. Young launched a chocolate tasting bar to accompany the shop’s selection of craft chocolates. Even venerable Fortnum’s has bean-to-bar chocolates as part of its ground-floor attraction.
▪ Charbonnel et Walker
One The Royal Arcade, 28 Old Bond St.
Best known for its violet and rose creams and its champagne truffles.
▪ Fortnum & Mason
181 Piccadilly, London
Don’t miss the Parlour on Level 1, a 1950s-style ice cream shop.
▪ Rococo Chocolates
321 Kings Rd., Chelsea
Don’t miss the award-winning caramels.
▪ Paul A. Young Fine Chocolates
143 Wardour St., Soho
Award-winning chocolates with cheeky English references.
▪ William Curley
198 Ebury St., Belgravia
Chocolates, pastries and sorbets in an exclusive neighborhood.
▪ Akesson’s Chocolate & Pepper
15b Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill
Peppercorns, spices and chocolates from Bertil Akesson’s farms in Madagascar and Brazil.
▪ Alexeeva & Jones
297 Westbourne Grove
Curated chocolates from around the world and exceptional drinking chocolate.
▪ Chocolate Ecstasy Tours
Chocolate-focused walking tours of Mayfair, Chelsea and Notting Hill. Tours run for three hours and longer. From $60.
Yuh is the author of “The Chocolate-Tasting Kit.” She blogs at thewelltemperedchocolatier.com.