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A Masterclass In Chocolate

Penelope Walsh asks master chocolatier William Curley to spill the beans

Written by . Published on October 10th 2011.

A Masterclass In Chocolate

APRIL ­­­­­­­­may be the cruellest month, but October is the kindest to chocoholics. Over the last decade, British chocolate has seen a renaissance in quality and creativity, enough to warrant this month’s now annual Chocolate Week, which celebrates industry developments. William Curley is one of the driving forces behind this country’s fine chocolate market, and has continued to be named Best British Chocolatier since 2007. Now, in time for Chocolate Week, William launches his new book, Couture Chocolate, a delicious insight into his art.

Special cocoa beans do not necessarily lead to a special chocolate, William concedes. The final product is still dependent on the chocolate maker...

“I could give you a chocolate lesson, but I won’t go too far back,” William Curley joked, but few could have given a better masterclass. The British have long had a passion for chocolate, but what we recognise now as chocolate, did not come into existence until the 1850s. Prior to this, William explains, chocolate was available as a cocao drink, and in rustic pellets and tablets, but to us, the texture would have been unrecognisably rough. A drive to create a template chocolate bar combined with the onset of the industrial revolution increased the availability of chocolate, as well as its popularity. By the nineteenth century, William adds, chocolate had become “a big thing,” with milk and white chocolate following soon after. Nevertheless, the gift market didn’t begin until the twentieth century, when Belgian shops began selling chocolates packaged in ballotine boxes. At this stage, the drive in both Britain and Belgium was quantity over quality. In fact, William tells me, there was little development in Britain’s fine chocolate market until the 1980s.

Chocolate TartChocolate Tart

“It’s not there yet,” William argues, “but there is a radical change in the UK.” When he started cooking, chefs were restricted to a choice of dark, milk and white chocolate. “There may have been two types of dark chocolate, perhaps a perfumed, strong, bitter one, and a bitter sweet one,” he adds, but that was the extent of it.

Special cocoa beans do not necessarily lead to a special chocolate, William concedes. The final product is still dependent on the chocolate maker, “But,” he adds, “if you start with something that’s not special, it is impossible to make it wonderful. The really good stuff comes from indigenous places.” The include South America, Mexico and the Caribbean. For example, the criollo cocoa bean, which is native to these areas, produces very fine chocolate. The British and the French tried to cultivate cocoa in Western Africa, and found that although the high quality criollo would not take, its poorer cousin forastero did. 

Paris BrestParis Brest

Producing forastero in Western Africa proved a cheaper way of producing chocolate, and it soon became the hub of a commercial market concerned primarily with quantity. Consequently, forastero is now thought to account for 80 percent of world production, whilst criollo accounts for only one percent. “You can make some decent chocolate out of forastero, there’s no question.” William asserts, “The problem is, it all comes down to cost, and if the bottom product is going to be sold at 50p, all the stages (from growing it, to drying it, to toasting it) will be done as quickly and as cheaply as possible.”

Change began when Robert Linxe started La Maison du Chocolat in 1977. “An instigator in the whole market”, Linxe sought out better quality cocoa beans from growers in South America and the Caribbean. From this, he began producing better quality chocolate for chefs. “Now,” William says, “there are so many different varieties, and that’s where it started.” There are now several small, specialist producers who concentrate on making fine chocolate from Latin American and Caribbean criollo beans, including Amadei, with whom William works.

Layer ChocolateLayer Chocolate

The Belgian market is still largely driven by volume. The French, whilst leaders in quality are “not the driving force of the new.” The French have a strong culinary history behind them, but with this, William explains, comes expectation, and the “shackles of tradition and history” can sometimes hamper innovation. For example, William jokes that if he’d opened his first shop in Paris (not London) and presented tarragon and mustard or apricot and wasabi chocolates (two of his signature creations), he’d have been “on the next ferry home.”

In contrast, William considers London to be “very open and cosmopolitan.” Perhaps, I venture, creativity is where British chocolate has the edge? William is reluctant to agree whole-heartedly, but does see London as “one of the most happening cities when it comes to chocolate.”

Rosemary Olive OilRosemary Olive Oil

In Britain, William says, changes in the market “really kicked in” in the last decade. Even outside of the fine chocolate market, consumers are acquiring a taste for dark chocolate “more than ever before.” The growing enthusiasm for quality chocolate is facilitated, William suggests, by the fact that chefs in the UK are fairly open about their methods. Perhaps because we have come from a lower base with our chocolate, he adds, “we are all quite happy to talk about it and beef it up.” On the continent, however, he feels chefs may be more reluctant to share their secrets, joking that you might arouse suspicion or be taken for a spy if you show too much interest. In fact, “some chefs,” he adds, will even “kid you on that they actually make their own chocolate from the beans.” To put this in perspective, there is no one in London who makes their own chocolate “from bean to bar.” 

Previously, William was influenced primarily by French chocolate making and patisserie. Now, this has shifted towards Japan. This is partly because of his Japanese wife Suzue, who he worked with at the Savoy. Although it doesn’t have the same history, Japanese patisserie, he argues, “could compete with France.” There is a “phenomenal” number of fine chocolatiers and patisseries in Tokyo and Osaka, he adds, “the difference is, there’s a queue down the street.”

William admires the Japanese tendency towards subtly and elegance, which is reflected in his own style, where flavour and presentation are matched in their refined understatement. “With what we do,” he confirms, “less is more, it’s about not over complicating things.”


“Within chocolate, there are hundreds of different flavour profiles, some more pronounced than others, and I am trying to marrying those flavours with my ideas. It is all about balance,” he explains. “Foods with half a dozen flavours never work,” he adds, and in chocolate making, if the flavours are heavy, they “overpower the beauty of the chocolate.” As such, William tends to work only with two or three flavours at a time, often using Japanese ingredients such as toasted sesame, shiso and black vinegar.

Despite William’s reputation as Britain’s premier chocolatier, chocolate is only part of what he does. “We probably split our time between chocolate and patisserie equally.” Even so, chocolate is such a versatile medium, he says, that as a pastry chef, it “runs right down the heart of what we do. It is fundamental.” “You wouldn’t have a menu without chocolate on it,” he adds, and “now, because we have all these different chocolates available, with different flavour profiles, from different parts of the globe, it has made the market even more exciting.”

Couture Chocolate (£30) by William Curley is out on 10 October, published by Jacqui Small.  


Chocolate Week 2011 runs from 10 – 16 October


Follow @penelopewalsh on Twitter!

Photos by Jose Lasheras


More Information

Also launching on Monday 10 October is William Curley’s Chocolate Box, a three-month residency in the Front Room at St. Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden. The pop-up includes chocolate themed events, including pairings, speed-dating and master-classes. The Light Bar at St. Martin’s Lane will also be adding William’s new White Chocolate Martini to their menu.


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