I’ve known Jen for some time now, she’s part of a collection of friends I class as ‘Twitter friends’, although in reality most of my real friends are increasingly this, as older friends drift into obscurity, a black hole of differing interests and incomparable social structures. I actually met her before I had my personal account but she still comes under the banner of friends I’ve chosen rather than those that’ve been foisted upon me. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that despite always knowing she’s run these wonderful sounding chocolate tours around London, I’d never delved further, they seemed almost to be a figment of a too good to be true dream. So when trying to arrange an afternoon of girly frock shopping, she suggested I start by joining her Saturday tour I had to stop myself from leaping on her with keen delight.
If you’ve ever had the chance to see a friend work, outside of your usual social situations, in our instance that’s usually chocolate tastings or cocktail and drinking gatherings, it can be quite an eye opener. Of course I *know* Jen’s great but she’s also really bloody good at her job, and it’s rather lovely to see as I did a few weekends ago. Having recently left a full time job in a product development role and completed a short term project, she’s now focussing her full attention on her faintly fantastical sounding tours that she started around seven years ago – come on – who wouldn’t want to be a full time chocolate tour guide?!
It was with a sense of pride I watched Jen breeze through a three hour tour, her small party (myself included) rapt, devouring every word uttered from her lips, she nonchalantly slipped in nuggets of London town history as we navigated the streets of the West End. I enjoyed the Mayfair tour, but there’s also a Chelsea one, an evening, and even a full day extravaganza that would surely satisfy even the most ardent chocoholic. Groups are small and intimate meaning no-one misses out, chocolate sampling is abundant but not ridiculous, and the group is encouraged to take advantage of the discounts available to enable an extended chocolate appreciation.
After some train issues (I know, it was a weekend, I should have learnt to expect this by now) I meet Jen and the rest of the group at Sketch where we cover introductions and some chocolate facts in the sumptuous surroundings of the parlour whilst sipping their luxurious hot chocolate and apple pastries. I’m not going to lie, I had the fear anticipating a morning full of chocolate gorging and so wrapped up my pastry, tucking it away for later, but when I did sit down that evening to taste it, wow, simply stunning and definitely a reason to return for that afternoon tea I’ve been meaning to indulge in. After an exploration of the rest of the building, we pass an enchanted forest and a vast dining room that is uniform in it’s mismatched eclectic way, and, with trepidation, I use the spooky pod-like toilets that whisper to you, we move on.
We don’t go far, next stop is the East India Company and a shop that’s rammed with beautifully packaged gifts. We taste a huge range of chocolate covered fruits and nuts and sip gorgeous, exotic and aromatic teas.
Walking onwards across Regent Street and through Soho, we pass Choccywoccydoodah and Liberty’s chocolate shop and bump into Paul a Young with his heart breakingly adorable miniature daschund before piling into his shop just around the corner on Wardour Street for a browse and a taste. The height of innovation and sophisticated taste, Paul’s shop embodies the very best of what London has to offer. From imported bars of high end bean to bar chocolate to Paul’s own highly skilled and creative work, you really can’t go wrong. I’ve written about his chocolates many times so I’ll leave it there for now. As you can imagine, many of us couldn’t resist treating ourselves…
Back down towards Picadilly, we’re amazed at the range of dried fruit and nuts at Carpo. Chocolate slabs take a bit of a back seat to the vast, varied and rather beautiful array of dried things, I’m particularly taken by dried hibiscus, something I’ve not seen before, it looks like crystalised squid but disappointingly just tastes very sweet. Better and more flavoursome are the dried berries, figs, peel and stone fruit flesh, I also try a delicious fig and walnut filled chocolate.
Next we visit Roald Dahls favourite, Prestat, a shop vibrant with all the colour and character you can imagine springing to life from the pages of a Dahl story. I choose a champagne truffle from their range, rich, crumbly and indulgent. Chocolates here are mainly very traditional and filled, although more recently they’ve added bars to their repertoire. I’ve always had a fondness for their banana fondant which I’ve never seen elsewhere.
An amble through Burlington Arcade, past macaron emporium Laduree, we tear ourselves away from decadent jewels and expensive cashmere and exit close to our final stop on Old Bond Street, just doors away from the bauble one upmanship of Tiffany’s. Charbonnel et Walker is lovably old fashioned, favourite of the Queen, it flaunts it’s Royal warrant proudly. The chocolates themselves were one of my personal first forays into the world of fine(r) chocolate; the sweet fondants, pralines and marzipans a complete treat for my developing sweet tooth. A proffered tray of classic rose and violet creams have a marmite effect on the group, some complaining they taste of soap and old ladies. Clearly they are missing their perfumed charm, but then I’ll happily munch on rolls of parma violets and used to sneak handfuls of talcum powder as a small child. Really. The truffles are whopping gobstoppers of joy, the famous pink champagne truffles with their powdery strawberry pink shell crack to reveal a booze rich filling. I have a fondness for the banoffee truffles, sweet and sickly in the best way possible.
Despite being more than a little familiar with not just the locations but the shops themselves that we take in on our tour, it’s still different enough an experience and eye opening coming at them from a different angle. I came away from the tour with a new found respect for my friend, a refreshed view of our wide range of chocolate shops and a desire to send everyone I know on one.
The tours are very reasonably priced for the experience and would make a superb and unusual gift. Buy tickets here www.chocolateecstasytours.com