The Willy Wonka Dream

Ganaches, pralines, and truffles from the chocolate magician Alain Ducasse

Posted: Friday 19th October 2018

Making chocolate was Alain Ducasse’s childhood dream… this autumn he will open his latest vision for Le Chocolat in King’s Cross. Lucky London, says Rebecca Seal

A love affair with chocolate

It was impossible to write this without a steady supply of posh chocolate close at hand. If you can get through the rest of today, after reading this, without caving in, then I salute you… From his time as an apprentice, Alain Ducasse’s fascination for chocolate never left him and took shape in the form of Le Chocolat, where chocolate is hand-made, from hand-selected beans, using vintage confectionery machines, in a small workshop located in central Paris.

In October, Ducasse is bringing that chocolate — as well as decadent Ethopian coffee-infused ganaches, candied Corsican oranges and almonds wrapped in rich dark chocolate — to London, when he opens his first British shop in Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross; the chocolate will arrive by train, of course. Ducasse is the holder of an incredible 18 Michelin stars worldwide, including three for his restaurant at The Dorchester, so, presumably, he’s no slouch as a boss.

Five years in the making

In 2006, Alain Ducasse started his quest for a new kind of chocolate. It took him five years to develop the product and find the perfect space to sell it in: he opened his Manufacture and first shop in 2013, on Rue da la Roquette, in an old Renault garage in the 11th Arrondissement in Paris.

“It’s been a long time since I wanted to do this kind of project,” says Ducasse, with sparkles in his eyes. “I wanted to go from the very beginning of making something, to the very end. Now, I see more and more people who want to do beans-to-bar, but at the time it was not well known at all,” says Ducasse, whose knowledge of chocolate and its creation goes well beyond encyclopaedic. He had found that as his portfolio of restaurants grew in size, his chefs were having to buy in more and more of the ingredients they needed. “After a certain point, chefs don’t have time to do everything themselves, so they have to buy things like almond paste or praline. You have to buy it from big companies, and of course you buy very good quality products, but everybody does the same thing, so at the end, all the products look the same [as everyone else’s] and taste the same. There is no more singularity.”

Ducasse is obsessed with quality and provenance — although not just with chocolate. “I like everything,” says Ducasse passionately. “I want to know everything, I want to see everything, so of course I like chocolate — like I like asparagus, or the milk for the cheese… for example, when I am cooking asparagus, I need to know where it was bought from, who grew it, I need the whole story.”

Ducasse had long had a love affair with chocolate — he has called it “a terribly sensual and bewitching substance.” He had been strongly influenced by the extraordinary chocolate made at a family-run pastry shop called Bernachon, in Lyon, where Ducasse did his training stages as a young chef. “I understood chocolate when I tasted Bernachon’s chocolate,” says Ducasse. “When I was a young apprentice cook to Michel Guérard, I learned about pastry, during the winter closure, from Gaston Lenôtre, who introduced me to Michel Chaudun. That’s when I discovered that pastry fascinated me more than I could ever know. From there, I began working for Alain Chapel in Mionnay, devoting my days off to work beside Maurice Bernachon, an artisan chocolatier from Lyon. I just remember the chocolate from Bernachon.”

What really made that chocolate so exceptional was that it was — is still — all made in the shop itself. Almost all chocolatiers buy ready-made couverture chocolate which they melt and use to make their own chocolate products. Couverture can be extremely well made, but because the fermenting, drying, roasting, crushing and conching (a mechanical kneading and warming process) is done before the chocolate reaches a chocolatier, much of the flavour and texture is already determined, which didn’t leave Ducasse with the control he craved. Ducasse wanted to follow Bernachon’s remarkable lead and make his from scratch — even though Ducasse was not, yet, a chocolatier.

“Our difference is that we buy our own beans and we make our own chocolate,” says Ducasse. “I have somebody who is running around the world to select the varieties, the beans, the farmers, so that I can have… well, I don’t know if they are the best beans, but I can have very high-quality beans.”

Ducasse’s beans come from places like Vietnam, Indonesia, Trinidad, Madagascar, Venezuela and Peru, and are made up of about 20 sub-varieties of the three main types of cocoa tree: Forastero, Trinitario and Criollo (the latter two are lower yielding and generally thought of as higher quality). There are hundreds of varieties of cocoa worldwide, many created by chance cross-pollination. “Chocolate making has a lot in common with winemaking. The variety of the beans, the type of soil in the country, the weather, all these things will change the flavour of the beans a little bit,” says Ducasse.

His bean-finder, Nico Regout, works closely with each farmer to ensure they are doing exactly what Ducasse needs. “The drying and fermentation is always done by the farmers. They pick the pods from the tree and take only the beans, leaving the shells in the forest,” says Ducasse. “The beans are covered in a very, very sweet and tasty white pulp, which is very sugary. As soon as this sugar is in contact with oxygen it starts to ferment. It ferments for three to eight days, with natural wild yeasts which eat the sugar and turn it into alcohol. Then there is a secondary fermentation, an acetic fermentation, so it starts to smell a little bit like vinegar. Depending on the fermentation, the beans might be very acidic and so later on we have to adjust the roasting and conching process.”

If you are lucky enough to visit the Paris workshop, one of the first things you will see are sacks and sacks of beans, tightly packed with tiny, dark pearls of cocoa. And the first thing you will smell is the scent of roasting beans mingled with freshly made chocolate — smoky, earthy, almost sweet. “I wanted to have the workshop in Paris alongside the shop so that when people come in, it’s the whole experience. They can see the action behind the windows and before anything, they can smell the chocolate. And it’s a good feeling from behind the window because we can see that people are happy,” smiles Ducasse.

“Our first step is the torréfaction, the roasting, which is extremely important for the taste of the chocolate. And then there will be the recipe, and the recipe will be not too much sugar, not too much fat, not too much cocoa butter, and that will also be our difference. And at the end, the last stage of the chocolate process is the conching stage. During conching you are developing certain flavours, or, depending on the type of conching and the temperature, you can add more acidity or make a chocolate which is much more round in flavour.”

The end product is so different to the sticky, greasy mass-produced stuff that it deserves to have a different name. Ducasse is cheerfully humble about the almost unbelievably delicious results. “I would not say it’s better or its worse than other chocolate. It’s not my place to say that, it’s just different. And we are lucky enough that our customers seem to like it. It’s not enough to be unique: you have to be good.” You also have to be good if you’re going to charge anything from €19 for a pretty little box of 12 chocolates to €95 for a giant one-kilo bar, which comes with a small French-made wooden mallet to smash it up (75g bars are from €8).

One area where Ducasse struggled a little was finding machinery. “Our equipment is pretty old. It’s not because it’s better than brand new, it’s because when we started this project, there was not much equipment for small-scale chocolate making,” he explains. “If we wanted a winnower, say, to make 100kg of cocoa nibs an hour, we couldn’t find it, but if we wanted to make one tonne per hour, we could have it tomorrow. It’s very hard to find equipment for small capacity compared to industrial scale.” Their solution was to seek out second-hand mixers, winnowers and roasters, mostly from Italy, sometimes adapting machines used to make coffee, or to roast nuts or seeds. “The oldest is from the 1950s. We have an old winnower which is very interesting, you can see the parts while they are running, you can see the beans going through and it’s much more fun than a big square piece of stainless steel. We can see they had a different life before we used them and they could tell some good stories.”

It is apt that the London shop will be in Coal Drops Yard, a new-but-old shopping street sitting canal-side within the vast redevelopment of King’s Cross. Here, disused Victorian railway buildings are being restored and transformed by Heatherwick Studio architects, who have used the buildings’ shells to create shops and restaurant spaces, topping them with glass, steel and slate roofs bent into the studio’s signature swooping curves, inspired by twisted strips of paper.

Will there be anything different about the chocolate Ducasse offers to the UK market in King’s Cross? “We already have a little shop in Gare du Nord in the Eurostar area and we have been trying to see what British people like when they buy from us. The person in charge says they ask for milk chocolate! So we will have the same range as in Paris, but we propose a little bit more milk chocolate.” You will find me in Coal Drops Yard on opening day, nose pressed up against the window. In the meantime, I’m off to book a train ticket…

This article first appeared in the autumn 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below. 

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