THINK of premium, top-end chocolate and you probably think of exquisite truffles or smooth, silky bars in luxurious packaging, creations of meticulous artisan craftsmanship with the words “Swiss” or “Belgian” included somewhere. You wouldn’t think of inelegant, lumpy, rough-hewn shards of the stuff sold in no less elegant paper and plastic bags with a sticker for a label, looking for all the world like the results of a school cooking experiment. Yet the chocolate from Rabot Estate, a new shop in Borough Market, comes in just that format, and take my word for it, it’s exceptional stuff.
Not that it’s without the pedigree of more refined styles – the business is the brainchild of the two founders of the established premium brand Hotel Chocolat, which produces all manner of fancy choccy delicacies. But this is not just one more Hotel Chocolat outlet. In fact, “unrefined” is pretty much the mission statement behind Rabot Estate, which takes its name and style – the shop is all corrugated metal and rickety timber – from a cocoa plantation estate owned by the founders, Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris, on the Caribbean island of St Lucia. The result is unrefined in aesthetic and also in taste, taking chocolate back to the pungent, antioxidant-fuelled purity of the cacao bean from which it’s produced.
“There’s been a tendency in the chocolate market to go for something that tastes very mellow, that’s sweet and creamy and melts in the mouth, but you don’t get much of the cacao,” says Thirlwell. “What we’re proposing is a small range of honest chocolate products that really deliver the magnificent taste of cacao.”
It’s pleasant once you’ve added sugar, anyway – the shop sells cacao beans in their roasted state, but for some people they’re bitter enough to make the eyes water. With sugar mixed in you get chocolate that’s fruity, aromatic and fizzingly vibrant.
As well as bars of the stuff in different formats – including a twist on milk chocolate that’s actually 70 per cent dark chocolate with a dash of milk and only 10 per cent sugar – there’s also a café serving dishes like chilli chocolate chicken sandwiches, chocolate mousse in espresso cups, and “cocoa tea”, for which the whole bean is ground into a paste and melted into skimmed milk. It’s a drink that was popular in 17th century London, Samuel Pepys recorded as drinking it as a pick-me-up after a heavy night.
“When you get cocoa powder in a supermarket, all the natural cacao butter has been pressed out of it and you’re left with this rather acrid powder,” says Thirlwell. “With cocoa tea you retain the goodness of the whole bean. It’s very stimulating, much more powerful than coffee.”
As well as the cacao grown on their own estate, Thirlwell and Harris buy from other local growers at above market prices, in what Thirlwell says is an attempt to rejuvenate the cacao growing industry on the island. So pleased is the St Lucian government that the agriculture minister flew over to open the new shop. It’s worth it, according to Thirwell, since the particular local conditions contribute to the remarkable taste of the chocolate produced.
“As with wine, it’s all about terroir. The volcanic soil is incredibly fertile and sulphur-rich, it’s at a high altitude and the rain comes straight in over the rainforest – it all means the beans have a unique taste in the world.”
I couldn’t disagree.
Rabot Estate, 2 Stoney Street, SE1 9AA www.rabotestate.com