I have a Thing for hot chocolate. Food-lovers in particular will know what I mean: every one of us has something we are extremely particular and even pedantic about, a certain hang-up or obsession (or perhaps more than one) that we cannot be blase or nonchalant about, but must take absolutely seriously. Perhaps you like your meat done just so, or your pizza base must be crisp and crunchy but never spongy, or your soup must always be scaldingly hot.
Well, one of my Things is hot chocolate. I have drunk a lot of hot chocolate in my life, and I cannot abide the watery, bodyless, insipid swill that involves dissolving some "instant" hot chocolate powder in hot water to produce a very disappointing brown liquid that is unappealing and characterless. It seems like a crime to debase something as glorious as chocolate in that way.
For me, true hot chocolate is thick, rich, brimming with an earthy, deep, dark and enticing aroma of ground cocoa. Made with milk or water I make no bones with, but it actually has to taste like chocolate (not as obvious as it sounds - try ordering any hot chocolate in Singapore).
In Europe, this form of hot chocolate is very common in France, Spain or Italy, which makes it all the more baffling that it is almost completely absent from the UK. Thankfully, however, I found a TimeOut guide here which points the way to some of the places in London which stick to the true hot chocolate philosophy.
So I decided, after my exams, to take a hot chocolate tour of London, ambitiously making a list of a number of places that I knew or heard made the real stuff. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time or opportunity to sample hot chocolate from all these places, and there are a few that are not on the TimeOut list that I have tried but didn't manage to get a photograph of. Still, what follows is a list I hope to build on when I next return to London, which I hope will be of interest to anyone who takes hot chocolate fairly seriously.
Apostrophe is one of these newish chains that have sprouted up, specialising in boulangerie and patisserie (baked goods and desserts).
They've got outlets all over London, so it shouldn't be hard to find one at all, especially not when the stores are eye-catchingly black and pink.
Unfortunately, the hot chocolate was not as pleasing as the decor. It certainly was very thick; the skin from the scalded milk rapidly forming across the surface of the chocolate, and you'd probably need a spoon to finish it all. Nor was it very expensive: 2.50 GBP for a decently-sized cup of hot chocolate.
The real problem was the taste of the hot chocolate. It lacked any real blossoming of cocoa flavours in the mouth, and the taste of the starchy thickener they used was very obvious. If you're just looking for something to warm you up during winter, this is fine, but if you're looking for a true chocolate fix, Apostrophe's hot chocolate is sadly not quite it.
Too many to list; see here for locations.
I've been to Paul's so many times that I've never taken a photo of the hot chocolate they sell, which I suppose in its own way is a testament to how good it is.
Paul, like Apostrophe, is a boulangerie and patisserie, but I rarely come here for anything other than the hot chocolate, and I've heard complaints that their other products are rather expensive.
Unlike Apostrophe, however, Paul's hot chocolate is the real deal. From the first sip, the chocolate flavours dance across your palate and warms you up, not just from the heat of the drink alone, but from the warmth and comfort of the cocoa. This was my favourite morning pick-me-up when I was interning in London last summer.
The best thing about Paul is that for 5 GBP, you can take away a 1L tetrapack carton of hot chocolate to enjoy at home, and all you have to do is heat it up in a saucepan or microwave yourself a glass. A good DVD and a glass of hot chocolate beats a night out in a London nightclub any day.
Too many outlets to list; see here for locations.
Melt is a boutique chocolatier in the heart of chic Notting Hill, not far from the equally trendy Ottolenghi.
It's not quite operational in this picture, but under the lime-green umbrella Melt sells its own ice cream, which I imagine must be cold comfort for the denizens of London in the current heatwave.
The aroma of cocoa powder and tempered dark chocolate tempts you into the shop, and you'll find not just the usual pyramids of pralines and truffles, but also a workspace where all the finnicky tempering work takes place, and where chocolate workshops are run on weekends.
The actual hot chocolate, however, is somewhat unglamorous and ungenerous. For 2 GBP you get a small disposable cup's worth of liquid dark chocolate. But that little cup definitely delivers an impressive hit of intense richness.
59 Ledbury Rd, Notting Hill, London W11 2AA
Tel: 020 7727 5030
Caffe Nero induces mixed feelings in people: I know some who are there almost religiously, while others claim their coffee is actually repulsive.
While I can't vouch for their coffee (though I did have some rather poor latte), they do a fairly credible hot chocolate, which is better than none (or hot cocoa water), but is somewhat too sweet for my tastes.
Outlets all over the UK; look for one near you.
Continuing the Italian theme, Antonio Carluccio's chain of cafes, although they offer pretty little by way of food, do sell a small espresso glass of thick, unctuous cioccolata fiorentina.
Like Apostrophe's, I find this to be somewhat lacklustre (figuratively, not literally, as the chocolate does have a nice sheen to it), missing the depth and intensity and power that a true cup of hot chocolate should have.
Outlets all over the UK; look for one near you.
This was, due to some rather unfortunate circumstances detailed below, the last cup of hot chocolate I managed to sample, and thankfully it delivered in spades.
I believe only the flagship store in High Street Kensington sells hot chocolate, as I don't recall the Knightsbridge branch having any when I dropped in for a look. But that is not, however, the only thing Hotel Chocolat sells.
Hotel Chocolat sells almost every chocolate product imaginable: from chocolate liqueurs to cocoa nibs, from grand cru chocolates to gift scrolls.
But what I've come for is the hot chocolate, and Hotel Chocolat offers three: one made with 50% chocolate, one made with 72% chocolate, and one made with 100% (!) chocolate.
I'm very curious as to what the 100% chocolate tastes like, as I imagine it must be terribly bitter, which is why I went with the 72% chocolate.
Unlike all the other hot chocolates pictured here, you can see that the one offered by Hotel Chocolat is much thinner and lighter in colour. At the same time, however, look at how magnificently it catches the light - a smooth, glossy, gleaming bowl of hot chocolate. That's right: for 3 GBP you get an absolutely enormous bowl of hot chocolate, to be slurped up just as the ancient Mayans did. I would strongly advise coming here on an empty stomach.
Hotel Chocolat's hot chocolate trades texture for taste: since they use water instead of milk (resulting in a thinner hot chocolate with no "skin"), the bitter sweetness of the chocolate really shines through, unadulterated by any additional sweetness from the milk. This is something you can sit down and enjoy the entire afternoon, so grab a friend to join you.
163 Kensington High Street, London W8 6SU
Tel: 0207 938 2144
Things started to go wrong from here, as places like L'Artisan de Chocolat inexplicably ceased serving hot chocolate, while Paul A Young apparently don't do hot chocolate over summer.
So what follows is a list of places I'll be going back to when I'm back in London to try out the hot chocolate they offer, and if you've been to any of them, I'd love to hear about it!
L'Artisan de Chocolat
89 Lower Sloane Street, London SW1 W8DA
81 Westbourne Grove, London W2 4UL
400 Oxford Street, London W1
59 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6CF
Tel: 07939 574315
3 Varnishers Yard, Regents Quarter, London N1 9AF
Tel: 020 7841 7331
36 Elizabeth St, London SW1W 9NZ
Tel: 0207 259 9222
Konditor and Cook
22 Cornwall Road, London SE1 8TW
Tel: 020 7261 0456
10 Stoney Street, London SE1 9AD
Tel: 020 7407 5100
71-72 Burlington Arcade, Londond W1J 0QX
Paul A Young
33 Camden Passage, off Upper Street, Islington, London N1 8EA
Tel: 020 7424 5750
20 Royal Exchange, Threadneedle Street, London EC3V 3LP
Tel: 020 7929 7007