I recently undertook my first walking tour of London and it was brilliant. It not only gave me the opportunity to see my beloved city in a fresh way but it also introduced me to new things and new people which you don’t always get when you’re head down on the tube, earbuds in and tutting as bewildered tourists weave in and out around you looking for the London Eye and an Angus Steakhouse. FYI – it’s the big wheel on the Southbank and err, don’t. Just don’t.
However I can now tick the second walking tour off a list I didn’t even know I had and this one was super sweet – a tour around central London of several chocolatiers, gelaterias and high class department stores given to me as a birthday gift. Honestly, the things I go through for the sake of this blog amaze even myself at times but with a brolly in my hand and anticipation in my tummy, I set off with J and his lovely parents M and D to spend an afternoon forcing down samples and ingesting and inhaling my own body weight in chocolate.
First stop with our amazingly friendly and exciteable guide Sidely from Great British Tours was Hotel Chocolat in Soho. A British chocolatier with stores in the UK, US and Middle East, Hotel Chocolat is the only UK based company that grows its chocolate on its own plantation in Saint Lucia.
Boasting its own hotel, 2 UK restaurants and 12 stores in central London alone, Hotel Chocolat began in 1988 although it wasn’t until 2003 that it began to resemble what we recognise today as one of the UK’s leading chocolate companies. You may have also heard of their Chocolate Tasting Club which has over 100’000 members to whom brand new chocolates are sent each month…so far members of the club have trialled more than 1500 recipes!
It literally makes me happy to be surrounded by things that are so beautiful to look at and eat…fancy a taste of something small and sweet? Or a slab of something that will probably burst your trouser buttons but absolutely be worth it? Both those needs can be satisfied here.
Or how about something nice and fruity? Yes, there you go. Can’t go wrong with Blueberry Truffles, one of your 5-a-day and all that jazz. Well I’m happy to say this was the first of many samples that came our way today, all delivered with a smile by the cocoa loving staff in each location, and it was delicious. Silky white chocolate encasing a soft creamy truffle centre that packed a surprisingly intense fruity punch. Well they don’t call blueberries a superfood for nothing.
Hotel Chocolat had a superb range of chocolates to take away in every size, shape and price point you could wish for. I can’t think of anyone whose chocolate taste couldn’t be catered for here or who wouldn’t be delighted enough to throw their arms around your neck with total abandon if you presented one of those little bags to them.
A short walk around the corner brought us to stop #2 – Paul A. Young. I take a not-at-all-logical-but-somewhat-geographical-pride in this little chain as the first store was opened in Camden Passage, just minutes away from my own humble abode. Since that day in 2006, three other locations have also sprung up meaning that you can now do anything from chocolate tasting workshops to learning how to make your own salted caramel to simply scoffing in a very un-ladylike manner across London.
Specialising in chocolate after working as the Head Pastry Chef for Marco Pierre White, Paul is known as a) London’s only truly artisan chocolate maker and b) something of a fricking genius when it comes to pairing together flavours that might surprise you but that will leave you totally gleeful and possibly looking a little Augustus Gloop-like.
I completely loved this shop. Everything about it was stylish but not imtimidating and creative without being for-the-sake-of-it quirky. The staff clearly took their jobs very seriously – as well you would given the beautiful products you create and handle everyday – and were keen to share some background to both the company and the flawless chocolate globes that lay before us.
The Sea Salted Caramel Filled Chocolate was our first sample. Winner since 2010 of more global chocolate awards than you probably even knew existed, this was something special. A dark, glossy sheen of chocolate surrounded a liquid sea salted caramel centre and I’m not even joking when I say this stuff is the kind of thing you want to bathe in.
It was molten and sweet and for anyone on board with the salted caramel fetish currently taking over most of the Western world, this is something to tick off your list. In fact, eat it, then write it on and tick it off a list just for the pleasure of doing so.
You know what though? Heavenly as this was, it wasn’t my favourite in here. That honour could have belonged to the banoffee pie, the scone, jam & clotted cream, the Bakewell Tart or the peanut butter & jelly chocolates which were all enjoyed later at home but no, the title of ‘favourite’ was allocated to a truffle that will place you firmly into a ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camp – the Marmite Truffle.
Although controversially I prefer Vegemite to Marmite, I love the flavour of both so eating it in the form of a rich, silky, decadent truffle was actually like sampling a little nugget of heaven. I could have eaten one ten times the size and then some. This is definitely the place to go for unique, inventive flavours that really work and aren’t just thrown together for shock value.
Stop #3 on our scrumptious tour was tucked inside one of the little arcades that line the Strand. If Paul A. Young takes the prize for the most beautiful chocolates, Prestat takes it for the most beautiful shop. Bright and sophisticatedly brash, the words ‘pretty as a chocolate box’ could have been written to describe the front of this store with its combination of hot pink and electric blue colours and elegant swirled décor. In short, I loved it.
This flagship stores is not massive so although we had to take turns venturing in, it was worth it and really, supplier to the Queen? Who am I to argue with Liz and the two Royal Warrants that this place has.
Established in 1902 by Frenchman Antoine Dufour, the chocolate truffle was created by his family in Chambery in 1895 but only became widely available in the UK when Dufour opened his first Prestat location in South Molten Street.
The sugar hit from merely walking into the tiny space was enough to give you a free high right there. Bars and boxes and bags lined the walls, each one eliciting a bigger ‘ooh’ than the last and the dark chocolate, cocoa dusted truffle that we sampled was beautifully bittersweet, lingering on our tongues and the roof of our mouths as we were instructed by Sidely on the right way to taste, sample and eat fine chocolate…basically if you can avoid trying gobbling it down so fast that it barely touches the sides, you’ll be alright.
Started in 1891, one of this chocolate company’s most well-known customers is none other than Roald Dahl, the creator of Willy Wonka, one of our beloved childhood heroes and a man whose name is synonymous with chocolate. Apparently Dahl, at times and like us all, could be a tad grumpy but I like to think a few moments spent lingering over such delights as Earl Grey Tea or London Gin Truffles would have brought the wryest of smiles to even his face and a touch of enjoyable indulgence to his day as it did to mine.
On we marched – yep, we were still marching at this point although waddling was definitely on the horizon – to Fortnum & Mason and the next opportunity to taste and learn. In all my years living in London and visiting this stalwart of the upper classes, I’ve never tried their chocolates. Jams, pickles and a heavenly rosewater éclair that I’d rate as one of the loveliest things ever to grace my tummy with yes, but chocolates no and if I’m being honest, the ones I tried probably wouldn’t make me rush back to do it again
They were very pleasant – a milk chocolate praline and a darker chocolate with freeze dried strawberry and black pepper – but sadly for both, they’d been pipped to the post by chocolates already tasted that were exciting to eat and already seen that were stunning to see so they couldn’t quite match up. Don’t get me wrong, they were very nice chocolates but they just didn’t inspire the raptures that earlier ones did.
Fortnums is always as rammed as a Beverly Hills Botox party and there was no exception here on this slightly drizzly Sunday afternoon so although we had time to wander round inside, we didn’t really get to look at their displays or talk to their staff as we had done in earlier locations. Still, free Fortnum chocolates aren’t ever going to be something I’ll turn my nose up at…
One of the few things that I love to eat more than chocolate is ice-cream so the news that a gelateria was the penultimate stop for us was greeted with a small wriggle of delight. Freggo is an Argentinian ice-cream parlour that can be found casually sitting just off Regent Street and with the promise that we could go round and round as many times as we wanted to try spoonful’s of their best-selling flavours, that’s exactly what we did.
Their ice-cream flavours are divided into Creams, Chocolates, Dulce de Leches and Fruit and you can also try other sweet and savoury Argentinan snacks inside their space-age-meets-Studio-54 purple and silver space.
The Irish Cream and Dulce de Leche ice-creams were unbelievably creamy and more-ish but the hands down winner here was the Malbec & Berries sorbet. I’ve honestly never tasted anything like it but I would be more than happy to do so again. Melting in your mouth to leave the rich flavour of wine and fruit behind, it took a second to match up a sorbet texture with a wine flavour but it was brilliant, creative and successful in both surprising and converting me. Being situated off one of the busiest streets in London, Freggo has now been filed away as somewhere to remember for when it all gets a bit much and something cool and delicious is needed to soothe a frayed soul.
Besides the obvious benefits of a tour like this, what I really enjoyed was the history of and love for London that Sidely shared in a completely genuine and relatable manner. Tailoring her delivery to the various ages and international backgrounds of her audience, she brought the streets we were venturing down to life, imparting trinkets of information I never knew – need a fourth for your local pub quiz? See if this woman’s available.
For example, do you know one of the myths behind the curly, intertwined ‘W’ and the instantly recognisable ‘)(’ that you can find on City of Westminster lamp-posts? Apparently they represent the Duke of Westminster and Coco Chanel and a love affair that began mid 1920’s and continued for a decade. As proof of his love for her, he had their initials put on lamp-posts in the hopes that when she saw them, it would sway her towards being his bride. Sadly, it did not work – the words ‘take a hint’ were probably muttered to him on more than one occasion by more than one person – but his love is left there for all to see.
Is this true? Is it a fanciful story? Who know. All I will say is that it’s a darned sight more romantic than the alternative explanation given by Westminster Council a few years ago who said that the initials actually represented them…
And so, a good few hours after we had begun, our tour drew to a close at the East India Trading Company, a store I had never been in before and was intrigued to explore. Located on Conduit St, their flagship was designed to offer the history and style of the company in a luxurious shopping experience.
Dashing through a delightfully heavy downpour we made it inside to the warm and, following the oh-so-very Britishness of Fortnums, exotic interior where our instructions were nothing more than ‘you may sample whatever is on display here’. Well really, that’s just a lovely thing to hear anywhere but in a place known for its teas, biscuits, chocolates & pickles? Oh go on then.
Pretty and elegant were its wares, somewhat eye watering were its prices but as this isn’t the sort of place I’m likely to frequent, it was interesting seeing what they had to offer from the afore-mentioned delicious foods to absolutely stunning crockery and glassware. Rosebud tea caught my eye – I literally wanted to drink it, wear it and admire its prettiness – but at close to £30 for a bag, I decided it was probably something I could manage to live without. A super cute handbag sized book detailing the history of chocolate was a much appreciated gift from the lovely M and D though and a perfect souvenir of the day.
…and this too-teeny-tiny-to-count slab of Knickerbocker Glory chocolate…
If you have any interest in London, if you have any liking for chocolate, if you fancy seeing a small and delicious slice of the city in a new way, this is definitely a tour for you. With a walking time of a few hours, it’s completely manageable for everyone and I guarantee you’ll leave feeling that there’s something quite decadently special about treating yourself to hand crafted chocolates and that once in a while, it’s worth branching out and enjoying some of the fabulous products we’re lucky enough to have here.
“We are the music makers… and we are the dreamers of dreams.” – Willy Wonka