At the risk of sounding like a true snob, let me tell you about a pet peeve of mine - supermarket chocolates and people who give you supermarket chocolates. Don't get me wrong, I love supermarket chocolates, stocking stuffer chocolates that take me back to wonderful childhood places of delight (a Violet Crumble for example, when you bite into that honeycomb, yum, or a Cadbury Top Deck comes to mind, or even Kit Kat, Yan Yan or those hugely nostalgic Japanese biscuit mushrooms with caps of chocolate). What I'm referring to are those seemingly omnipresent boxes of mixed chocolates that always have eponymous names and colours, the swirly gold decor or the European-esque-sounding names, the kind you can buy at NTUC or Tangs.
It's because sometimes I do something nice and I'm not expecting anything at all in return, but then I get a box of those. Or for some reason, I get one and I think to myself, well, they are like carnations, yes, they are lovely in some way, for example, carnations are very nice in a pomander and similarly, seashell chocolates look very nice topping buttercream frosting on cupcakes, and I appreciate the thought, I always appreciate the thought. But I'm not really a chocolate person and these seahorses don't taste like chocolate. At all.
Because when we get down to it, these seashell chocolates are neither white chocolate nor milk chocolate. They aren't smooth, or raw, or textured, they just, kind of taste like a very monotonous and heterogenous vegetable oil content and some of the shapes (usually, as I have learnt by unpleasant experience, the ones wrapped in red aluminium foil) are filled with pretty rank, nasty-tasting alcohol.
I've been recycled these for Christmas. Long after Christmas itself. And in those instances it does make me feel rather bad. Sort of in the spirit that I'd rather not have received anything, which I had not asked for, then something that no one else wanted, or something generic to fill the need-gap. I'd rather received almost anything else from a supermarket. A candy bar, a box of tissue, a jug of milk or orange juice, a bag of flour (always useful!) or a bottle of dish washing soap. You know? Just anything simple and common and immediately gratifying. I care about people, I have never cared about presents and I really believe it's not about the price, it's the thought, that someone you knew and cared for thought of you as not chocolate seashells.
The reason I'm saying this thought aloud, is that a week ago, I came upon a beautiful counter-example, the anti-example if you will, of supermarket chocolate. This is beautiful, rich, sinful (or sin-cleansing, depending on how it affects you)) chocolate, melded with clever design and packaging. I think the photos are fairly explanatory but let me just say that I am not a natural chocolate person and I was so excited to see this masculine-smooth creamy brown box enveloping a thin plastic film and wrapped with a suede ribbon. Even the card, stamped with vintage botanical drawings of the cocoa bean, suggested a really special treat in store.
Imagine my surprise that the store location was a skip and a hop away from the office, tucked upstairs behind the Ocean Fishhead Curry stall next to Amoy Food Center. Hurray for Singapore, modernizing and maturing into this growing phenomenon of the rise of the independent food entrepreneur. By this, I don't really mean the Breadtalk chain or some expat-come-early like Emmanuel Stroobant but rather, home-grown local, commercial coffee cafes, bakeries and chocolate shops that really meld design with culinary skill, technique and dedication. These little homages to craft remind me of New York and the kind of specialized stores one can find there.
I have great memories of living in Soho and wandering from bread shops to chocolate stores; tiny little hole in the wall places that only did one thing but did it really well - chilli chocolates or down-south pecan pie or freshly-baked onion rolls - at 5am in the morning. I think it's really a sign of maturity that the Singapore market is so quickly going down that path, where people are willing to travel to buy these and chefs are willing to stake their reputation and their business on perfecting their small product offering. Of course, the flip side to this is that Singapore is likely to become more and more expensive a place to live - after all, the returns to specialization are a close corollary to luxury inflation!
This shop was no different: it was a cosy, spanking-new lab with a gorgeous carrera marble table top for rolling truffles and tempering chocolate. The owner, Teng Ei Liang is passionate about chocolates and left both his finance degree and job at the Singapore Tourism Board to pursue a Cordon Bleu course. His specialty and love turned out to be the traditional art of truffle-making and so now he juggles a full-time job with this new venture, which was borne out of making gifts for friends.
Truffles are so named for their visual similarity to the truffle fungus, and a chocolate truffle is traditionally made with a chocolate ganache center coated in chocolate or cocoa powder, usually in a spherical, conical or curved shape. The first truffles were cast in France in 1895 and later gained popularity through Prestat of London in the early 1900s. Other fillings may replace the ganache: cream, melted chocolate, caramel, nuts, berries, assorted sweet fruits, toffees, mint, marshmallow, and, popularly, liquor.
Ei Liang was telling me that despite several requests, he has tried to keep the purity of the truffle and his French ingredients alive by restricting his product to four varieties, the 55% Equiteur, the 66% Antilles, made of beans from the Carribean, the 70% Honduras, a rich, slightly bitter chocolate from Criollo and Trinitario beans and the sugarless truffles for diabetics, made with a small addition of artificial sweetener. Apart from the rise of dedicated food craft and local single-product food entrepreneurship, there is a second trend in food represented here - as people become more affluent and more concerned about what they eat and where it is from, there is a greater focus of harvesting and advertising around pure origin, single estate sourcing in ingredients, particularly in dairy and meat products.
It is a 2 day process to make truffles and they have to be kept at cool temperatures, as anyone who has taken the time to craft these will have found out. The pricing is not cheap, at $24 for a box of 9 or $48 for a box of 18, but that is partly because of the cost of making and storing them. They are like rock explosions of deep, textured notes of dark and light and forgetfulness and personally, I could eat one of these and keep the memory of that chocolate for weeks.
It's a bit like things that may not be great for you, maybe the right way to enjoy it is you eat a little bit and that's it. Not a lot, everyday. These are not for everyone or every time, I know, but I hope that everyone can experience them in some way. To me, they hit that mark of being a little luxury, having luscious quality but helpfully small proportions and it's a plus that they make great gifts for your special loved ones.
I'm well aware that I've now ruined my current Christmas gift surprise but I did think that it would be fairer to let you all know that Truffs is now taking Christmas orders and that you can take a visit to explore this little lab on your own - call Jo-lin to order your fix today!
179a Telok Ayer Street
Mon - Fri : 12pm - 7pm
Sat : 12pm - 4pm
T: +65 9088 2736
* As advised by my better half, I should clarify that:
(1) The post is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, I am not suggesting that people who buy chocolate assortments are not sincere or that you judge people by their gift-giving (or lack thereof) or what the gift is and what it costs.
(2) I am saying that I personally don't like them and have received a disappointingly large number of these from people that I would have considered to be closer than a quickie trip to the supermarket aisle. I have given these to other people before as well, but after thinking about it and the other more practical and personalized gifts that I could have purchased or made, I don't anymore. But, you are free to disagree with me!