Easter has come early in the kitchen at Simpsons in Edgbaston – but then again, every day is Easter for Jacqueline Keenan.
She is the restaurant’s resident chocolate specialist. The kitchen brigade try to get her to do other things, like peel the spuds or knock up a cep purée, but it’s a hopeless task. Before you can say “raspberry ganache” Jacqueline will be back at her station, rummaging in her chillers for the dark elliptical buttons with which she creates her chocolate miracles.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” says Jacqueline, as we bite into a piece of Manjari chocolate. It is “single origin,” from Madagascar, and packs a punch with a 64 per cent cocoa content. “Umm, fruity,” she adds.
There’s no stopping her. She insists I try some other chocolate drops, to get an idea of the range of flavours she works with. It would be rude to turn her down. Jacqueline pulls out a huge bag of Caraibe buttons, made from the Trinitario bean of the Caribbean. The chocolate is slightly stronger, at 66 per cent cocoa, but it tastes more powerful. “Ahh. That’s nutty,” I say, hitting my tasting stride.
We’re swiftly into the Araguani, 72 per cent, from Venezuela. It’s more bitter, liquoricey and no doubt works a treat in Jacqueline’s chocolate and prune tart.
Then we taste the Guanaja, which is the reason I’m here. A few months back, I had an astonishing dessert at Simpsons comprising a chocolate spiral, cherries and pistachio ice cream. The chocolate was intense, rounded and downright gorgeous. I had to find out about it.
Guanaja, Jacqueline informs me, hails from its namesake island off the coast of Honduras in the Caribbean. The island was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and for that all lovers of chocolate must be eternally grateful. The inhabitants used cocoa beans as currency.
Like all of the chocolate at Simpsons, Guanaja is bought in from French chocolatier Valrhona. Jacqueline has much to thank the maker of this grand chocolat for. It was while taking a course at its school in Lyon that she met Adam Bennett, Simpsons head chef, and ended up being offered a job back in Birmingham.
The finest cocoa beans represent a small percentage of the world’s production and Valrhona claims to buy up 30 per cent of the very best crops from some countries. Jacqueline wouldn’t have it any other way and once you’re hooked there is no going back to the fatty stuff that masquerades as chocolate in our supermarkets.
The chef’s own love affair with all things sweet began at an early age. “My dad had a Roux brothers dessert book. I used to make cakes out of play dough,” recalls Jacqueline. “I decided I wanted to be a pastry chef when I was about four or five.”
She went on to study at Herefordshire College of Technology and Gloucestershire College and soon discovered that her love of all things sweet, chocolate in particular, was not a passing phase. She has become fascinated by the science of chocolate, the emulsions and the tempering. But most of all she loves the flavour.
I ask her how much she eats a day. “As much as I possibly can!” she says with a beaming smile. And yes, amazingly, she has got great teeth. In fact, she’s never had a filling – and she’s 29.
“You should eat 2oz of 70 per cent chocolate a day. It has lots of health benefits,” says Jacqueline persuasively. “Chocolate helps to lower cholesterol and stop stress. The cocoa butter in good chocolate coats your teeth and helps to protect them. I haven’t got a single filling and I eat lots of chocolate.”
Consider, too, that your lavish tarte au chocolat started life as a fruit, from a tree, so it’s got to be good for you. “Think of it as one of your five portions of fruit and veg a day,” says Jacqueline.
Although she works largely in dark chocolate, she also use Valrhona’s milk chocolate Jivara (it’s still 40 per cent cocoa) for some of her outstanding petit fours, including the trademark raspberry ganache, which she coats in rich Manjari.
For obvious reasons, Jacqueline is not the easiest person to buy for at Easter. It’s not advisable to present her with a chocolate egg by Kit Kat or Mars. Don’t bother with the F Word chef’s chocs either. “Gordon Ramsay’s chocolates are really sweet. They’re not very nice. They should not be overly sweet. You should be able to taste the chocolate,” says Jacqueline.
“I know, it’s a nightmare to buy for me – but I am always polite.”
Jacqueline Keenan’s Valrhona chocolate tasting notes:
Ivoire 35%: white chocolate, not very sweet, with a fine texture.
Jivara 40%: Hint of malt with intense notes of caramel and vanilla.
Manjari 64%: From Madagascar. Fresh, acidic taste, with intense notes of berries.
Caraibe 66%: From the Caribbean. Pronounced chocolate taste, sustained fullness, with hints of dried fruit and almonds on a woody base.
Guanaja 70%: From South America. Intense taste, exceptional bitter chocolate and remarkable lingering on the palate.
Araguani 72%: From Venezuela. Lingering long on the palate, it tastes of liquorice, currants and chestnuts, with hints of honey and fresh warm bread.