A Chocolate Experience in Rome

It was one of those typical “last day of my holiday” situations: your day is too long to sit around waiting for your flight home, but too short to really do something ambitious. And you do not want to end up arriving at the airport hot and bothered and with nothing left of your intention to have a relaxing breakaway weekend.

So in our recent short visit to Rome, we were considering to go to a park further out from the city centre in the few hours before our flight. It was a great few days, with perhaps too many tours, too many historical sites, too much Italian cuisine – the idea was to chill before venturing home. But the weather was suddenly not so promising and besides I had not yet used the opportunity to do some “research”: romechocshop4

Being active in the chocolate industry, I am naturally curious of what other chocolatiers are up to and usually make an effort everywhere I go to see a chocolate shop. First I thought we had run out of time to fit that in, and that it simply did not make sense to Google “chocolate shops in Rome open on a Sunday”, but that was exactly what I did! (It is small wonder that my long suffering husband and business partner often say to me in exasperation, “my wife, you are insane”! ) But he was quite calm and supportive this time around, when I announced what I had done and that I really wanted to visit this chocolate spot somewhere remote from where we were in Rome. So we called an Uber taxi and off we went.

As we came closer, we had our doubts: there was more than the usual amountromechocshop2of graffiti around and the street looked decidedly unfriendly, especially on a Sunday. But we could see the chocolate venue named SAID, tucked away in a small dead-end and as we approached this place, we begin to think that we just might be in for a surprise!

Well, we were! When we pushed open the door, we were greeted by what can only be described as a “heaven” by chocolate lovers like us! The building was a converted industrial site, which turned out to be an original chocolate factory, established in 1923. romechocshop9The atmosphere was clearly not your normal chocolate boutique which you so often find in big cities in Europe. With those, you often feel as if you, firstly, don’t deserve to be there and then, when you have scraped together the courage to enter, you sometimes feel as if you do not look the part of the serious shopper. So you want to buy quickly and leave without drawing a fresh breath!

romechocshop3But not this place; this one invites you to sit down, relax and linger…

Old chocolate machinery, moulds and other equipment from the past were made part of the decor in a clever way to remain casual yet focusing the mind on the good stuff that was available all around you. There was the chocolate, cake and coffee section, a restaurant and the factory itself, where they still make all their own chocolate today (unfortunately the factory was closed on the Sunday). romechocshop5

So we decided to stay for lunch in the restaurant: seasonal Rome artichokes as a starter, fried sardines for the main course. After which we retired to the chocolate section for a rich and dark chocolate torte and some samples (the research part of the visit!). And we ended off our visit with the most amazing velvety dark hot chocolate.

We felt inspired but, surprisingly, also very relaxed as we enjoyed these treats in their comfy sofas, overlooking a small indoor garden. A place where we could make the most amazing chocolate memories, without ever feeling as if we were overstaying our welcome – and we were there no less than three to four hours!


Life is too short…

We often use this expression when we want to rationalise why some activity is not worth pursuing, or why an issue is not deserving of our full attention. But we also like to use it when we think of the tasting experiences we should not have had – life is too short to eat fast food, for example!

But then there are experiences which seem to multiply the experience value of the lives we live (I hope I am making sense at all now):

 Recently, we took a week long holiday on a hired boat on the Canal du Midi in Languedoc,  France. Now, if you are stimulated by the technology or the complexity, even the stress, of negotiating locks on the inland waterways of France, this will be your thing. And we also thought that we would really enjoy that. Not so. We came to think of locks as a menace in our lives, something to get over with without getting ourselves drowned or the boat sunk. Everybody else on the canal seemed to be either somewhat concerned or outright amused by this couple who  appeared determined to get it wrong, either by trying to get the boat into the lock sideways or by somehow trying to get all 7 tonnes of it dangling off the side of the lock wall, while the water underneath was disappearing fast.

Now please don’t think that we saw the humour in any of this at the time. No, indeed we were literally fighting for our lives: against the elements (wind, rain, strong currents), the situations we found ourselves in, against each other. Indeed we felt that life is too short to spend your time with cumbersome river boats, bundles of rope, clever knots, and impatient French lock masters.

 And then we reached an amazingly interesting small city, Carcasson, and stumbled upon an evening in a truffle tasting wine bar, and suddenly every “wasted” moment waiting for a lock to fill or a lock master to finish his lunch, became worthwhile, as a preamble – or postscript – to one evening of utter culinary delight in the company of the warmest of hosts and the dearest of (new) friends.

Initially, we were quite shocked when we alighted from the taxi to find a place that could barely seat 14 customers on bar stools. Clearly not what we had in mind for a dinner out! At least it made sense that when we phoned to book “une table pour duex pour ce soir”, the manager was very keen to have us, but did not bother to take down any of our particulars. We were expected to join when we could and take things as they were. All the panic about the taxi turning up  late was, in fact, wasted emotion. Did we say, life is too short…?

But please do not assume that Philippe Barriere was a careless host. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Barriere Truffes is Philippe Barriere, and everything from the intimate way (looking through your eyes, up close, your older brother who cares a lot for you) in which he helps you decide which truffle tasting delicacy to select; the way he caresses the food as he prepares it; to the way in which he smiling, caringly, moves among the guests to ensure all are having a good time, speaks of a very special artisan who is not only exceedingly good at what he does, but also has the interpersonal skill to allow others to share the sheer joy that his craftmanship brings.

 And joy there was aplenty, among the 14 or so of us who shared the few very special hours of that Thursday evening: The four American guests, who spent well, showed their appreciation generously, and left reasonably early. The English couple who took the Americans’ seats and in their guarded way, enjoyed the general merriment. The four French businessmen whom I imagine had a full day of corporate activity ahead of them, but decided to escape the boredom of a hotel night by letting their hair down every so slightly in a place where they could have decent  wines and amazing foods, and possibly the company of a nice lady or some foreigners who would find their antics funny. And yes, there was the young French lady who came in on her own, probably also travelling and lonely for the evening, smiling serenely at the foursome’s wit. (Her distant attention was nicely rewarded when one of them settled her bill when she departed!) And of course there were us, who found the combination of great truffles, excellent wine, the shared jokes and Philippe’s hospitality irresistable.

An evening that reminded us that life is never to short to share – and if what it takes is a too small wine bar with uncomfortably high bar stools, then so be it – life is worth it, worth a great time out with people we will not easily forget. So much so in fact, that the effort on the canal was also made worthwhile in the end. Thank you, Philippe Barriere!


Live footage

One of the challenges of having an online store rather than a physical one, is that you cannot be there to welcome OPEN ALL HOURSvisitors, answer their questions or just tell them what you are about. Yes, you can write things on the website pages, but somehow it is hard to make those words come alive.

So we have been thinking for a long time about shooting some videos which could be made available through the website and which could take the viewer into Ilze’s Chocolat, to see how the chocolates and macaroons are made. This thinking turned into reality recently, when Liz Smith and her team arrived early on a Friday morning with lots of expensive equipment, lots of wires and lots of connections, in and around the factory.

We wondered beforehand whether we should replace our normal soft lighting in the chocolate factory with strong illumination, but decided that we will rather use natural light from the outside – that is always guaranteed to give the best quality of shots. And so everything was carefully planned for the first videos to be taken nice and early that Friday.

Here is an interesting question to consider: to what extend can one really plan for all the eventualities that might web-design-planningoccur in any venture? I don’t know the answer, but what I do know is that most of us think in terms of eventualities that can be anticipated and those that cannot. So for example, a good eventuality to think about if you were planning to shoot film on location, is whether power supply would be sufficient. And this was clearly considered and planned for. TICK! But if there were a power failure on the day? Well, lengthy power outages are mercifully very rare in Northwood these days, so it was a risk with a low probability and therefore could be ignored.

And then there are events that we know will happen and therefore we can plan for them: if there is a major event planned for Wembley, then one will avoid the roads leading to the venue in the hours before the start.


Nicolaus Copernicus is today credited as the person who first understood that the sun was in the center of our solar system and that the earth revolved around it. His observation arguably set in motion a major branch of science where thousands of people over hundreds of years set out to understand that a lot of what happens around our planet is actually predictable. Including solar eclipses!

But of course, despite the dedicated efforts of Copernicus and all the clever men and women all over the world who stood on his shoulders, none of us realized that a rare but very predictable solar eclipse was going to take place on the very morning when we were planning to make the Ilze’s Chocolat videos, using as much as possible – natural light!

But in the end, as has happened so often in the history of the world, the human spirit conquered! And with lots of activity, more equipment and more connections, the videos were made and the shots produced. And from what we have seen so far, we are very excited!


The food journey continues…

Travelling can be very costly and time consuming, but this summer I had the privilege to travel to two very different destinations.

Ilze-in-SydneyIn early August, I visited my daughter in Sydney, Australia. She went there on a working visa stay in February, but would love to remain for longer. And now that I have also seen the city with its numerous fresh produce markets, cafe’s, tea shops, restaurants and yes, chocolate and macaroon shops, my judgement is also that it must be one of the most exciting food destinations in the world. BlommeAus

Australia is completely self-reliant and do not import any fresh products. And I suppose it is because the food does not have to travel far that it is so much more tasty! I visited a fresh produce market with my daughter – a market that she, being a vegan, frequents. With vibrant colours, huge variety and opportunity to taste, it became an exciting experience – and I must confess that we got a bit carried away with our shopping. SlaaiBut who can blame us, being foodies, and with prices so much more modest than in the UK! She cooked us some amazing vegetarian dishes – pumpkin and blue Cheese risotto, melanzane alla parmigiana, to name but a few, and it made me almost convert to vegetarianism!

In early September we stayed as the guests of our sister-in-law and her family, in a villa in Tuscany – close to Montepulciano. 2014Sept-Tuscany3And there we just continued the food journey! We enjoyed wonderful local red wine, ate pasta dishes, tasty local veal and insalata caprese around a long table on the patio at the villa, or deep into the nights around the table upstairs in the palatial dining room. 2014Sept-Tuscany5

In Pienza we tasted an array of wonderful local pecorino cheeses, amazing red wines at Boscarelli, a local winery, and the local panforte cake in Siena. 2014Sept-Tuscany2

But of course we had to finish our five days in Tuscany at Amadei, the famous Italian chocolate makers in the tiny village of Pontedera, close to Pisa. The owner’s son Alessandro, clearly inspired by his mother Cecilia, the founder of Amadei, took us on a tour of the factory and then a taste journey of mostly 70% chocolates. Their enthusiasm must have rubbed off on me, because I am more than ever motivated to make unforgettable chocolates and to enthuse and teach others to also appreciate good quality chocolate.Amadei

Why not join us on the chocolate journey. For all of you that are fascinated by chocolate, we will offer a once off chocolate course in November, where you will get the opportunity to make your own chocolates and also the opportunity to taste a few amazing dark and milk chocolates. After the course you will hopefully have a better understanding of the complexity of chocolate and perhaps also a more discerning palate.

We are still making macaroons in our tiny factory in Northwood and we once again invite you to our next course in October. For all of you that wanted to get the technique of making the perfect macaroon under your belt, this course is for you. We will patiently take you through all the steps and you will go home with your own perfect selection. We end the course with a delicious home cooked meal and more discussions about food..

I hope I have the chance to share some unforgettable food experiences with you soon!

New Year Resolutions

We have to apologize for not blogging for a while. This is the problem with a small business like ours – you simply don’t have enough hours in one day!

We can at least make that a new year resolution – to communicate more regularly. And although we are already in the fifth week of the new year, please allow us to wish all our customers a very happy New Year. We hope you will have lots of joy and that we will play a small part in contributing to that joy and happiness by providing you a consistent good service and good products! At the same time, we would like to thank our loyal customers for their support over the last year. We saw our sales soaring over the Christmas period and in order to maintain a good standard of delivery, we had to shut down our internet shop twice during December, just to keep up with the demand and to give you, our clients, good and fresh products!

OnrusNow, after a wonderful holiday in sunny South Africa, we are ready to face the new year with all its challenges. We have big plans for Ilze’s Chocolat and promise you that we will communicate those plans to you over the months to come. We will still be at the Beaconsfield Farmers Market on the fourth Saturday of every month (weather permitting) – if you want to meet us and see all our products on display. Many of our products had developed over the years because of feedback from clients on our markets. New Look at MarketDuring a market we chat, we taste, we compare and we laugh together! Then we go back and we experiment and improve our products until we and our clients are happy! In the end we want to make and sell chocolates and macaroons which our clients really enjoy and that they wouldn’t find elsewhere. It still gives me immense pleasure to see that people enjoy our products and we believe that if we prepare our products “with love and compassion”, people will somehow taste it! And even when we grow more as a business in 2014, I have promised myself that I never want to stop being an artisan – someone that prepare their product with compassion and care!

We don’t only want to reach clients through our markets, but also through the classes that we are planning to offer this year. We are situated in the greater London area and it is easy to reach us by car or by train. We will offer a few macaroon and chocolate courses over 2014 and will post them in the “Courses and Workshops” section of our website (the first few are already there). We have been offering macaroon classes for a few years now, but would like to also offer our first chocolate course just before Easter. EasterEggsDuring this course, you will be able to make your own Easter Egg or Easter Bunny! We will only take 6 persons at a time and will share a nice meal afterwards. We will also offer a series of chocolate courses later for those who want to really get a better understanding of chocolate. We will teach you about temperature, chocolate tempering, making ganaches, experimenting with flavours, chocolate enrobing, handrolled truffles, etc.

The macaroon classes are always very popular and we are offering a macaroon class that will be fun for mum and daughter or son, just before Mother’s Day, on the 29th of March. If you want to have a nice day out with your friends, the classes are offering you the opportunity to share a wonderful creative opportunity to bond and share a meal afterwards.


ImageA comment that I received from a wonderful customer and friend recently made me want to say something about taste.

Years ago, I attended a wine tasting course. It was quite the thing to do at the time, and to some extent it probably still is. Wine tasting remains a popular “team building” activity for corporates and a good way for the upwardly mobile to add that cultural dimension to their make-up.

I do sound cynical now, but I do not want to be. In fact, I would like to encourage that we go a little beyond the commercialised facade and think about what is really behind the whole tasting experience, in order perhaps to make it more meaningful to ourselves. And before I give my view, please remember that this is not an attempt to try to impose a belief, but rather to explain myself.

For me, the tasting experience is a way of communicating with other people. If I create a chocolate or macaroon and succeed in realising the taste that I had in mind, it has to be shared with someone else. And if someone else experiences the taste and “gets” what I had in mind, then there is real communication; and real communication means shared joy, even shared love.

It is for me profoundly important to achieve this real communication in what I do.  I spend hours every day preparing chocolates and macaroons and I sometimes get very tired, even very depressed if I have to sacrifice sleep and “me time”. But when I then get even the simplest word of feedback, I am suddenly revived and ready for more – because I know that we communicated taste.

Equally, it is very discouraging if someone does not taste what you wanted them to – it happens in any form of communication. Often, it is because I did not put the taste together properly, or it could be that the other person is just not sensitized enough. While it is disappointing, I understand it and can deal with it. I would often let them taste something else, to see if we can communicate another way. And this works well, particularly on the markets, where you have the opportunity.

But there are two kinds of responses that really wakens the worst in me: The first is that of the random taster, the person who rushes past your table and grabs a quick taster without making eye contact and rushes on. They don’t really want to communicate with you, they just want the general drone of background noise – the sweetness of chocolate or whatever… It is like talking to someone at a social event while you notice them looking at someone else over your shoulder.

The second response that I find difficult to deal with is that of the pretender. You find them often at wine tastings, where they pretend to detect subtle tastes when they don’t, only to sound “sophisticated”. What is the point? I wish that you would be true to yourself and to me when you taste the things I make – so that we can communicate through a shared experience. And it may be that you taste something that nobody else does, but if you truly do, it may be something that we share uniquely and this brings even greater joy!

Easter, etc.

Since I last wrote a blog, we have made a few changes to our macaroon page. I had a change of heart with regards to the tiffany coloured mango macaroons. Even for me (and another good honest friend) it felt that to match the blue colour with a mango flavour, was going a bit too far. So we have given the tiffany coloured macaroon a wonderful vibrant blue berry filling now. Our mango macaroons – also bursting with flavour – are now a nice orangy colour.GingerMacaroon

We have also added to our macaroon selection a rocksalt caramel macaroon, which has a natural flavour with a delicious caramel filling (made from scratch in our macaroon kitchen), with some dark chocolate added to it to break the sweetness – and a sprinkle of rock salt.

To celebrate Easter with chocolate, we decided to keep it simple this year and repeat the popular praline centred bars topped with roasted nuts or fruit (we had it at Christmas as part of a hamper). We now offer the trio of three bars in our environmentally friendly box  – see our seasonal page. It is not an Easter egg, but it is delicious and will make a loved one happy at Easter. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We would also like to thank all our wonderful clients for buying from us again and again – whether it is for yourself or sending it to someone as a gift. Above all, thank your for the very kind feedback, especially the feedback on our Amazon page. Nothing makes us happier than knowing that you were really satisfied with your product and above all, that it arrived in time!.

Happy Easter to you all! May it be a time of peace and reflection.

Honouring Mothers

Mother’s day is a few days away. And we haven’t said a word about it yet! For some it is just a money-making opportunity, but for many it is a day to say “thank you mum”. Over the last few days, we had hand-written a few touching cards that went with a box of macaroons or chocolates or a few selected bars and truffles, to a “mum” or a “ma” or a “mummy”. With many of the messages, I experienced a bit of nostalgia, but also had some admiration for the son or the daughter that thought “I am going to send my mum something nice, something sweet, something special!” In a way, we feel proud to be playing an intermediary role in writing the card and wrapping the gift – knowing that someone’s day is going to be nicer and brighter and in making loved ones “feel closer”, even if they live on the other side of the country.

It does not come as a surprise to us that macaroons are still for many people their favourite, their object of desire, something with that “it” factor. Recently, we received a request from a bride-to-be for “Tiffany” coloured macaroons.  I was lost, but my daughter who is a young adult and aware of the “it”, could tell me exactly what it was and that the colour was quite in vogue at the moment. We wanted to do a new flavour for a while now, and I thought maybe we should use this “Tiffany” colour.

I love mangos (we had a few mango trees in our garden when I grew up and I had the privilege to eat them straight off the tree) and so my thinking was to produce a mango flavoured macaroon. Unfortunately though I had already used the natural colour of the mango for our passion fruit macaroons. So I thought why not make the mango flavour macaroons with the Tiffany colour (thinking outside the box)!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, this week we are launching the new Tiffany coloured macaroons with a vibrant and real mango (with a hint of orange rind) and butter cream filling! Try it for mother’s day or maybe Easter that is just around the corner. You will not be disappointed.

In a moment of boredom (yes we agree, we should go out more) during the winter holidays, we thought we should also do a new chocolate bar. For some time now, many of our clients asked for chocolate with macadamia nuts. And because we wanted to please them, we “filed” the idea in our memories – until a few weeks ago when I thought of a new combination of roasted macadamia nuts, caramelised lemon peel and pieces of stem ginger – in a dark chocolate bar!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The combination is sensational and it got the thumbs up from all our farmer’s market clients. I think it will not only please the palate in winter, but if will be equally refreshing in the warmer months. The flavours are vibrant and tantalizing. The good news is that it is suitable for vegans or people with dairy allergies. Check out the “Bars” section of our website for some other sensational bars.

And remember that if you want to talk about chocolate, we are just an email away…

Enjoy the last few cold winter nights…

The Camargue

The Camargue has always registered in my mind with the image of wild white horses running with flying mane through water. The image belonged in the Wild West, albeit a Wild West with a very French name.
At the beginning of December, before the Christmas chocolate rush started, we were able to check for ourselves the validity of our mental images, during our yearly end-of-autumn break. You see, after more than 12 years in England, we still find the winters too harsh and too long and so we need courage to get through it. Courage in the form of a weekend of relaxation, sightseeing and enjoying regional delicacies. And so this winter we travelled to the far South of France to celebrate our yearly break at Montpellier, La Grande Motte – and The Camargue.

Back to those images: the water is real; the Camargue is basically a large wetlands formed by the delta of the River Rhone. And so are the horses: the Camargue features its own unique breed of horse (and of cattle!), which has a greyish white colour. But we did not see them running like that. In stead, we found them friendly and cute and looking out for something that we could offer them to eat – they are French, after all!2012NovMontpellier_2638

The Wild West feel was there, too. Large hats, tight jeans, heeled boots, horse and cattle manure everywhere. But when we arrived at the river ferry wanting to cross, but finding it closed for lunch, we remembered that we were in France after all.

Yet we were surprised by several things: the beautiful pink flamingos dredging for plankton in the shallow water was a surprise. But even more so was the fact that in one relatively small region of France, the local produce included not only wine, but also rice and salt!threeflamingos

The Camargue is full of surprises – an amazing weekend in a wonderful corner of France, topped off with great weather. We were ready for the English winter -which turned out not so severe after all, at least, so far!

Truffles and Dragées

This has been a summer of silence for us, but with so much to see and reflect on around us, the blog was not getting the attention it was due. But we have not been inactive; in fact, a few important things happened: Perhaps most importantly, we started selling our products on Amazon and already it has become an active sales channel for our products. At the same time, we have been working on some new products.

We are constantly trying to bring variety and choice to our clients and some of our farmers market friends had to do “taste panel duty” for us again! This last month saw us launching two new products: A few months ago, we launched almond dragées and saw how popular it was, so now we have added hazelnut dragées. The French word “dragée” means  “dredged”. The centers (almonds or hazelnuts in our case) are dredged first in a caramel and then in chocolate. It is the handmade version of “panning” where machines are used to cover cocoa beans, nuts, cocoa nibs, etc. Panning involves expensive machines and deliver a shiny finish, but we decided rather to go for the natural process and look of the dragées.

Our dragées are also vegan friendly, because instead of butter for the caramelisation of the nuts, we use cocoa butter which is completely natural and make these two products completely dairy free.

And then to appease our dark chocolate lovers, we launched a dark chocolate truffle: pistachio, with a hint of Grand Marnier. It was an immediate hit – dark, but very satisfying, like a “mini” dark chocolate pudding in a bag!

By the way, while we are into the business of providing definitions, where does the word truffle come from when talking about chocolate? Surely, the taste is quite different from the truffle that is defined as the “fruiting body of a subterranean mushroom” by Wikipedia, and that is such an expensive delicacy – and is sniffed out by pigs in the forests of France and Italy. No, the chocolate version derives its name from the fact that its shape is usually more or less round, but uneven. Have a look at the photograph of our pistachio and Grand Marnier truffles and you be the judge whether they look in any way like the subterranean version (photograph courtesy of Wikipedia)!

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