The new wave of Irish pastry chefs raising the bar on chocolate

They're not just chocolates, they're edible works of art, and this is the weekend to enjoy them

Paula Stakelum: ‘You don’t just have to make chocolates. You can use chocolate in different recipes to get different textures.’

Paula Stakelum: ‘You don’t just have to make chocolates. You can use chocolate in different recipes to get different textures.’

 

There was a time in Ireland when posh chocolate meant expensive imports from France or Belgium. Fancy stuff, made by someone in a tall white hat, who knew things we’d never know about getting a swirl or glaze just right.

While there’s no denying our European neighbours are still the experts in this field, it’s exciting to see a new wave of Irish-based chocolatiers begin to emerge from kitchens, workshops and even dedicated chocolate rooms around the country.

A chocolatier, in the strictest sense of the word, refers to small-batch producers who create confections using chocolate. They don’t have to make the chocolate itself fully from scratch, that’s bean-to-bar and a whole other wonderful world. But chocolatiers should create all manner of complex chocolate creations, using a high-end, less processed chocolate as their starting point.

Sea vegetable fudge bonbons at the Cliff House. Photograph: Shane O’Neill
Sea vegetable fudge bonbons at the Cliff House. Photograph: Shane O’Neill

Paula Hannigan is the pastry chef and chocolatier at the Cliff House hotel in Ardmore: “The chocolate we work with is couverture. The regular chocolate in shops is already stable, you can’t melt it and work with it. What we use is made for melting down and forming into something else, such as show pieces or bonbons.”

Hannigan has been perfecting her chocolate work over the past few years. “It’s such an art form. Making bonbons is a fun thing to do. When you’re not scared of it and you know what you are doing, it is actually very simple.”

Her recent creations have been made with a signature Cliff 10 chocolate blend from Cacao Barry in France. “You really have to taste it. It’s unbelievable to look at chocolate and think there are so many flavour profiles, just like wine.”

Experimenting

Hannigan uses it for her speciality mignardises, which are sweets served with tea or coffee, and which the Cliff House’s Michelin-starred House restaurant offers to diners from a trolley.

“I love experimenting with different colours, different designs. I am forever ordering different little moulds. They really give the wow factor. It’s like a little French pastry shop being wheeled up to you when you have finished your meal.”

And she’s not the only hotel pastry chef that has fallen hard for the world of chocolate. Paula Stakelum, executive pastry chef at Ashford Castle in Co Mayo, has been delving into the world of chocolate for the past three years, since the addition of the hotel’s dedicated chocolate room.

Paula Stakelum, executive pastry chef at Ashford Castle in Co Mayo, is responsible for chocolate desserts at the hotel.
Paula Stakelum, executive pastry chef at Ashford Castle in Co Mayo, creates chocolate desserts at the hotel.

“I always liked chocolate, I mean, everyone likes chocolate. But I realised the more you learn about it, the more you can do. It’s so versatile. You don’t just have to make chocolates. You can use chocolate in different recipes to get different textures. There is chocolate in our lemon curd, because we want that creamy texture without adding lots of butter, so we use chocolate instead.”

In her pastry kitchen at Ashford Castle, Stakelum uses a minimum of 10kg of chocolate each day. The creativity she puts into the different products is astounding. “It’s really about bringing chocolate and the estate together, to create something that guests are only ever going to taste here.

Her pine chocolates are testament to this. “We only make them once a year. We use the pine trees on the estate and we pick the pine tips.” She makes an oil with them and matures it for a month. “We only make 1,000 in one batch, and sometimes the guests are lucky to have them and sometimes they are not.”

There is a definite shift in the world of craft chocolate. It has opened up dramatically and is no longer as exclusive as it once was.

Cliff House hotel chocolates by Paula Hannigan: ‘What we use is made for melting down and forming into something else, show pieces or bonbons.’ Photograph: Shane O’Neill
Cliff House hotel chocolates by Paula Hannigan: ‘The couverture chocolate  we use is made for melting down and forming into something else, show pieces or bonbons.’ Photograph: Shane O’Neill

Passion

Mark Lanigan is a budding chocolatier based in Waterford, whose Instagram account has images of rows of shiny, delicate spheres of chocolate with artistic splatters of colour that wouldn’t look out of place in a Paris boutique.

They look like someone highly skilled has created them, but Laniganhas only been making chocolates since last November. He works as a private chef for an IT company, and when his employer asked him to create something for conference attendees, he sourced some chocolate moulds in Søstrene Grene, looked up how to make chocolates on YouTube and went on to make 1,400 chocolates in about four days.

“From that, I just got hooked,” he says. “I just really  got a passion for it.” When he wanted to do more complicated chocolate work, he contacted Adare Manor’s executive pastry chef Xavier Torne for some advice and has been doing weekly stages [work experience] in the hotel’s pasty kitchen.

Mark Lanigan’s handmade chocolates.
Mark Lanigan’s handmade chocolates.

“The design work, I just really love. I have lots of fun with that.” But it is an expensive hobby. “I’m not making any money yet, and cocoa butter is expensive.” But he hopes it will become more than a hobby. “Chocolate has given me a new creative spark again, that push to strive to become better and better. I really want to become a chocolatier.”

FIVE TO TRY: IRISH CHOCOLATIERS

L’Art du Chocolat
Main Street, Maynooth, Co Kildare
A dedicated chocolate bar and cafe in Maynooth. Owners Nicolas Bateau and Cyril Borie are from Bayonne, a city in the French Basque country known as the chocolate capital of France. They produce handmade chocolates and chocolate sculptures using Valrhona chocolate, for sale in store and for wholesale. At their cafe chocolate bar, you can enjoy  hot chocolates with a homemade ganache base.

Koko of Kinsale
Koko of Kinsale, Pier Road, Kinsale, Co Cork
At this small artisan shop in Kinsale, the team turn out beautiful boxes of handmade chocolates made up of old classics like violet creams and hazelnut pralines along with more adventurous ones using local flavours like honey, seaweed and herbs. Available instore and online.

Lorge Chocolatier
Lorge Chocolatier, Bonane, Kenmare, Co Kerry
Frenchman Benoit Lorge prides himself on following the traditions of true French artisans, creating unique chocolate creations from his workshop in Bonane, Co Kerry. He sources top quality chocolate from around the world and works with it to make intricate, delicately flavoured boxes of chocolates. Find his chocolates at independent retailers and online.

Cocoa Atelier
Available from Kildare Village, Nurney Road, Co Kildare and Dollard & Co, 2-5 Wellington Quay, Dublin 2
There was a chocolate shaped hole in many hearts when Cocoa Atelier closed on Drury Street last year. But happily, they’ve just popped up again in Kildare Village. Known for their elegant and aesthetically pleasing high-end chocolates, they also use plenty of Irish ingredients like local herbs and Achill Island sea salt.

The Truffle Fairy
The Truffle Fairy, Chapel Lane, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny
Based in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. The Truffle Fairy owner Mary Teehan specialises in handmade truffles dipped in single origin chocolate. Well known for adventurous flavour combinations, this shop uses foraged seasonal ingredients, spices and local liquors to create really unusual chocolates. Think rosemary and pear, salted caramel and cardamom orange. Available in store and from independent retailers.

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