Category Archives: travel

Experiences near and abroad.

Michel Cluizel’s Chocolatrium


I’ve never been to a chocolate factory. In the role of the prizewinners in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I’ve long dreamt of bathing in couverture, taking illicit bites of bonbons on the production line, throwing annoying Oompaloompas into a vat of boiling sugar syrup, and more. Even in a chocolate loving place like France, access to chocolate factories is limited. Valrhona only opens its doors to the elite. Meanwhile, Michel Cluizel lets you onto their property, but limits visitors to a museum, the “Chocolatrium”.

The Michel Cluizel factory is located in Damville, about an hour’s drive west of Paris. The town is virtually inaccessible by public transport (plans to visit two years ago were scuppered). And is a mysterious Chocolatrium worth visiting anyway?

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Knowing that there was some risk involved, my trusty Parisian correspondent, Harry de Paris, and I set off in our own vehicle and incorporated the attractive nearby towns of Evreux and Dreux in our sightseeing plans.

In typical French fashion, the Chocolatrium’s shop is closed for lunch. This we knew in advance. We didn’t know, however, that the open chocolate workshop would take lunch at a later time, about 45 minutes after the shop had reopened. This can make an early-afternoon visit rather disappointing. Luckily we arrived about 20 minutes before workshop lunchtime and were advised by the friendly lady at the desk to rush through to the workshop’s viewing room before viewing the first two parts of the place.

Entry to the Chocolatrium costs EUR 5 and the museum (for want of a better word) consists of at least three areas (I have no memory of a fourth area, described on their website as “an old-time workshop”).

The first area is a display room with storyboards and cartoons explaining the history of chocolate (in French and perhaps some English), and a number of display cases with various chocolate paraphernalia (partially labelled in English). The storyboards aren’t bad and cater reasonably for kids and adults alike. It was interesting to read a potted history of chocolate not long after wading through the enormous book Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage for a review over at The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf… and kind of a relief to see it in short form.

After the display room was a small film theatre where a somewhat interesting video about Cluizel, the family, business and chocolate manufacture was shown. In French, even the completely monolingual non-French speaker would (a) appreciate some of the info conveyed by the images, and (b) realise that the film was groan-inducingly self-promotional at times. Nonetheless, it was interesting seeing different types of pods and the drying process. Some images of the manufacturing process were also enlightening.


Finally, visitors walk into a glassed-in raised area overlooking a small workshop where three staff were making or processing chocolates. One guy was lining cocoa-pod shaped moulds, another was coating balls of ganache in white couverture and giving them a spiky pattern, while a woman at the back was doing the thrilling job of packaging foil-wrapped chocolate fish into tins. Not scintillating, but still, it’s not everyday you get to see pots of molten chocolate or, as one young visitor exclaimed, “Maman! Une piscine du chocolat!” (Mummy! A chocolate swimming pool!) as she watched the conching machine. I was inclined to agree with the sentiment, as the delicious aromas lured me into thoughts of a chocolate hot spring.


And then it’s consumer time. A large, sparsely adorned shop stocked most of Michel Cluizel’s packaged products, from blocks to boxes of pralines to cute sampling boxes (including a nugget of cocoa butter) and more. Prices were good — at or lower than the lowest prices in Paris. This was a surprise, as Michel Cluizel’s own shop in Paris was selling the blocks at considerably above typical retail price last time I visited. Every visitor gets to choose a free gift and one of the options, a small box of pralines made in the workshop, is probably compensation enough for the entry price (though unfortunately they all tasted largely the same, despite different appearances).

The Chocolatrium is a strange affair. It’s kind of fun, but definitely not worth a trek out to Damville if you have no other activities/destinations in mind. It’s nice, at least, that Michel Cluizel has created something for the public, even if a bit gimicky. We chocolate lovers do, after all, like to have chocolate dreams.

Spring harvest in Paris

All sorts of things grow when the weather is going crazy. In Paris this week, the temperature fluctuated between 14C and rainy and 35C and excruciatingly humid. I got home from a day of walking around the rive gauche (Left Bank = mix of university, studenty, somewhat wealthy, public service, cultural and dawdling tourist population). Look what had grown in my bag from the curious cultures floating through the air…

There was a strange box containing delicious cakes and a small cellophane bag of macarons. (Pierre Hermé’s coffee and vanilla tarts, plus macarons: grapefruit, pistachio+cherry, olive oil+vanilla, passionfruit+choc.)


Then there was a bag of chocolates from Patrick Roger.


And much to my surprise, a bunch of caramels from the rather eccentric Denise Acabo.


Plus some bags of handmade lollies from Fouquet, and read what David Lebovitz has to say. (EUR 14… who knew sugar could cost so much?!)


Not to mention the compensatory box of chocolates from Artisan du Chocolat in the letterbox. (Read why here. Oh look, no touching!)


And I mustn’t forget a passing mention of confit de canard, the best crème brûlée I’ve ever had, two macarons from Ladurée (bergamote and fleur d’oranger) and (gasp!) an ice-cream from Berthillon (cacao extra bitter — like cold liquid chocolate, thym-citron (thyme-lemon) — beautifully tangy with some bitterness). Okay, none of those were in my bag.


On days like this, you just wish apples or a light salad were easier to find 😉

Artisan du Chocolat: less spin, more flexibility please

I had intended to review some of the chocolates from the British chocolatier Artisan du Chocolat, as I was in London recently and had previously enjoyed (and written about) them after a visit in 2007. Some businesses in high-end food succeed in respecting customers, others choose to be rigid and deliberately unhelpful. Artisan du Chocolat seems on the face of it to fall into a more positive category, but on this visit I was disappointed.

Unable to make it to their Chelsea shop, I visited the outlet in Selfridges department store. Artisan du Chocolat staff are refreshingly generous with samples when a customer is exploring what to purchase (the range is large and the flavours are at times very interesting). My first sample was, I believe, a jasmine tea chocolate. Alas I found the flavour to be on the barely-present side of fleeting and I mentioned that the flavour was too mild for me. I was disappointed to receive in reply a vacuous “We only use natural ingredients, so the flavours are often very subtle.” I really loathe this sort of rubbish. Don’t take customers for idiots. I work with natural ingredients too and my palate is pretty good. While some aromas can be difficult to capture and preserve, a customer has good reason to expect a flavour label to correspond to an olfactory experience upon tasting a product.

I was polite in my disagreement and the assistant was helpful enough to tip me off (without prompting) about which flavours I should best avoid for their “subtlety”. Good.

And so it became time to make a selection for purchase. The chocolates are sold by weight, but can be packaged in fixed-weight boxes or in cellophane bags. I wanted a 200gm box to house my chosen chocolates (especially as I was travelling) and suddenly there was a problem. One product group in the company’s range is dusted in cocoa. I wasn’t allowed to have the cocoa-coated chocolates in the same box as the other products. Wasn’t allowed. They all cost the same by weight. They all fit in the box.

I asked why this wasn’t allowed. “The cocoa would get on the other items.” I explained that this didn’t concern me, but no, they couldn’t be combined. I suggested putting in a paper divider. No. My irritation began to show and the manager was consulted for a second opinion about whether I could have my box of chocolates. No. The other chocolates might get dirty. Gotta love this sort of ignore-the-customer’s-desire approach. Why couldn’t they just insert a piece of paper or wrap the cocoa coated chocolates in some way? “It’s company policy.” So the company doesn’t want me to risk dirtying the chocolates I wish to consume? “It’s company policy.” You’re afraid I’ll complain to someone about the cocoa on the non-dusted chocolates if they happen to rub together? Afraid I’ll come back and complain? “Sorry, sir.”

I don’t actually know why I proceeded to spend my money there. I guess the desire to try some new product briefly blinded me to just how bloody idiotic “company policy” and half-truths are. Unsurprisingly, the chocolates, in separate cellophane packages, didn’t survive travel well. Money ill spent. Thank you so much, Artisan du Chocolat. I now look forward to two weeks with Paris chocolatiers before flying home. At least in Paris I know which shops are relaxed and helpful and which are rigid or haughty, rather than having to navigate this British middle-road of spin answers and “company policy”.

Danish frisky creamy balls

All over Denmark you see signs for frisky creamy balls. At first it seems very odd and rather tasteless, until you realise you’re mistranslating. You see, friske flødeboller actually means fresh cream balls. A world of difference in the world of smutty word games.


I’m in Denmark as I write this, sitting in a lovely IC3 train (the quiet section, stillezone) on my way from Copenhagen to Odense. A few weeks before leaving Australia for rather chilly (but delightfully sunny and springy) Scandinavia, I was inspired to make the aforementioned smut objects by the talented baker and cake decorator Sif of Earlier this year she published a recipe for flødeboller and I knew that these creations just had to happen in my kitchen too.

As a child I had a perverse affection for the Rowntree’s (now Nestlé) Walnut Whip, largely restricted to the British Isles. Cheap and nasty milk chocolate encased a fluffy interior of a sort of artificial cream. Atop the Walnut Whip sat a walnut, slightly rancid and squeaky. Little has changed other than the price.

In my late teens I was exposed to the German Dickmann’s (Schokoküsse): domes of neutral fluff on a wafer base altogether covered in a thin layer of chocolate. These things can be found in various forms around the world, often having the rather unfortunate name of n-gger kisses, moor heads and the like. (Sorry for the self-censorship, but I can do without white supremacists finding this site!) They continue to exist with, thankfully, rather less old-fashioned names. Wikipedia’s English language article on these is pretty fun.


Flødeboller are fun or hell to make, depending on your perspective on meringue and chocolate coating. This is not a recipe for a humid or warm day. Here comes my account.


SIf’s original recipe uses dried marzipan discs (a marcipanbund) as the base, Swiss meringue for the filling and milk chocolate for the coating. I was giving my flødeboller as gifts over about 10 days so decided to use an effective method for pasteurising the egg whites at home: heated Italian meringue. During production I found that I had undercooked the marzipan bases a bit and that they soften too much over time (some manufacturers coat the marzipan completely in chocolate). I’m not sure if a shortcake or biscuit base might be a better option, especially for longer storage. Many recipes use a wafer base, but it’s not my preference. I feel you’d need a base which is fairly firm but not too crisp/crumbly.


With 200gm of marzipan, make discs 4-5mm thick and whatever diameter you prefer (I tried 5cm) or prepare biscuits/wafers of similar dimensions. If using marzipan, you’ll need to dry the discs in a 200C oven, being very careful not to burn them (Sif says less than 5mins). The discs are very soft until they have cooled.


Sif uses commercial pasteurised eggs for safety (a very common concern in parts of Europe and North America). As pasteurised eggs aren’t always easy to obtain, I’ve used a special Italian meringue.

I used approx 100gm egg white (about three egg whites) and 150gm sugar. In order to ensure home pasteurisation of the egg whites, I warmed the egg whites gently in a bowl over hot (approx 50C) water, then added hot sugar syrup.

First, prepare a sugar syrup by adding about 20ml water to the sugar in a small saucepan and then simmering it until it reaches a target temperature of 110-120C (you don’t need to be particularly precise). Very shortly before the syrup reaches its target temperature, place the egg whites in the bowl over the hot water and start beating slowly. The goal is to raise the temperature of the egg whites so that the combined temperature of syrup and egg whites will stay above the threshold for pasteurisation for long enough to be effective.

When the egg whites form soft peaks, place the bowl on a flat surface and add the syrup while whisking at high speed until the meringue is very stiff. Allow to cool.

When the meringue is cool to the touch you can pipe it onto the discs, using whatever pattern/nozzle you prefer. You could flavour the entire batch of meringue, divide it into different bowls for different flavours, or add certain flavours after piping. The piped meringue should stand at room temperature for at least an hour or two so that the surface is fairly dry to the touch.



Gently melt about 200-250gm dark chocolate (I wouldn’t go over 60% cocoa). I suggest having a large pointed spoon and a small teaspoon to hand for coating the meringues. The discs with meringue should be placed on a thin wire drying rack. Place freezer plastic or baking paper underneath the rack (you’ll want to catch the chocolate that runs off so that it can be recycled). Let the chocolate cool to slightly warmer than skin temperature before coating the meringues (otherwise the meringue may soften a lot).


Drizzle the chocolate over the meringues, taking care to patch any holes you might miss at first. The chocolate should form a seal around the entire meringue, but it isn’t necessary to coat the bottom of the discs. Apply any decoration before the chocolate stiffens. Place the finished flødeboller on baking paper or waxed paper before the chocolate stiffens (it’s not fun when the chocolate hardens while the flødeboller are still on the wire rack, because they then break when you try to remove them).

The chocolate will take a long time to harden. It is best to leave the flødeboller in a cool place for a number of hours. Then eat them all.


If you forget to eat some, make you sure you keep them in a sealed container in the fridge.

Airline food before you take off

I’m sitting in the Qantas Business Lounge at Melbourne Airport. The food is designed to prepare you for the inflight experience. Actually, I think the food on my flight might end up being better. The “Malaysian Chicken Curry” is one of those thick-with-starch sweet curiously-moist-chicken affairs with lots of turmeric for effect. The rice is seriously overcooked broken (why?) long-grain rice. I’m glad I stopped at a tablespoon of each.

Dessert, meanwhile, was a firm-cream lemony hazelnut-daquoisey thing, exactly like those insipid creamy “cakes” you get inflight. It’s staring at me now.

And why would you have a wireless network in the lounge which is called “Telstra” rather than something relating to Qantas? At least the Malaysian Airlines wireless access is clearly labelled (and, incidentally, accessible for non-lounge travellers sitting at the gates, though the signal can be weak).

I’m off on a trip. Look out for strange reports of better food!

Icelandic cuisine

I was contemplating a holiday to Iceland. I was reading the guidebooks. The Rough Guides’ description of Iceland’s culinary delights stopped me dead in my tracks:

Harðifiskur, wind-dried haddock or cod, is a popular snack, eaten by tearing off a piece and chewing away …

Hákarl (Greenland shark) is a more doubtful delicacy, as it is first buried for up to six months in sand to break down the high levels of toxins contained in its flesh.

About the only endemic vegetable is a type of lichen that’s dried into almost tasteless, resilient black curls and snacked on raw or cooked with milk.

You can read it all at

For the sake of balance, I’ll mention that I own the fascinating Icelandic Food & Cookery by Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir (Hippocrene Books), and enjoyed one semester of Old Icelandic at uni.

Pastéis de nata — Portuguese custard tarts

Of the many baking projects I’ve launched in the last ten years, only one has caused serious weight gain, burns and an absolute lack of fear of puff pastry. Portuguese custard tarts, known as pastéis de nata (cream pastries) or pastéis de Belém (Belém pastries) do something magical to many eaters. They are an enchanting combination of lightly crisp pastry layers and a very, very pleasant egg custard filling. And, of course, they’re a little tricky to make at home.

Once I’ve started one of my projects I rarely drop the bone until I’ve exhausted most avenues. If I remember rightly, it took eighteen batches of tarts to develop the recipe which was published in The Age newspaper back in 2004. At the time there were no reliable recipes online or in any of the books I could find or friends could source, either in English or Portuguese. It’s still the case that few published recipes are the real thing. Why? Because rather than admit failure, too many cookbook writers prefer to pretend they’ll fulfill your dreams. If it fails, you’ll probably assume you made a mistake.

Look through your cookbooks and magazine cuttings for a recipe for these tarts. A surprising number omit to show a picture of the final product or they make sure they dust the tarts so liberally with icing sugar and cinnamon that you’ve got no chance of seeing what happened to the custard. It’s called cheating.

The greatest examples of Portuguese custard tarts have frightening burnt spots on the surface. That charring might at first seem unappetising, but it adds a lovely extra dimension to the flavour. For many home cooks, those spots are what seem to be the unattainable, essential marks of beauty. It is very difficult to get them at home, and it’s wise to deprioritise such freckles and go for luscious interiors and texture instead.

A commercial kitchen has hot ovens. HOT. Without setting fire to your kitchen, you can’t get there at home. But with luck and some experimenting, you might come fairly close to the commercial product.

A bit like my beloved macarons, it’s rare to find a bakery in Australia that can make them properly. When I was writing the original article, I travelled near and far in Melbourne, hunting down establishments producing good tarts. After far too many wild goose chases, it transpired that, with the exception of one rural bakery producing embarrassing garbage, every café and restaurant in Melbourne was sourcing their tarts from a single bakery in Burwood, the Magical Munch Bar. I’ve seen no evidence that anything has changed in the years since. This producer is reasonably good, better on some days than other. For better tarts, you have to head to Sydney, where Fernandes Patisserie in Dulwich Hill and, apparently, La Patisserie and Sweet Belem in Petersham all make great Portuguese cakes and tarts.

Ironically, a photo of my tarts which for some reason doesn’t appear on my original newspaper article online is visible (without permission) on a piece about Portuguese tarts in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Here’s some of what I wrote in 2004:

Whether at a highway roadhouse, a dusty village café, or an upmarket town eatery, the tarts are everywhere in Portugal. They are as ubiquitous as lamingtons (and suffer similar quality assurance issues), but unlike lamingtons, there is one place – just one – which everyone knows serves the best in the land. In the waterside Lisbon suburb of Belém, a cavernous blue-tiled pastry-and-coffee house serves thousands upon thousands of custard tarts every day. And the tarts here, at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, even have a special name: pastéis de Belém. Lisboetas (residents of Lisbon) and tourists alike flock to the Confeitaria, buying calorifically frightening numbers of tarts, neatly packaged in nifty cardboard tubes with little sachets of icing sugar and cinnamon. The impatient then rush to a bench in the nearby park, usually ignoring the grand scenery (the Jerónimos Monastery, and the Belém Cultural Centre), in order to devour the tarts at their peak of freshness, warm and soft. More prim visitors may actually dine at the Confeitaria, taking a coffee with their repast.

The custard tarts are as prominent a part of Portugal’s national identity as meat pies are for Aussies, except that Australians don’t generally write about, wax lyrical about, meat pies. But search the web for pastéis de nata, and you find an inordinate number of teenage bloggers extolling the virtues of these tarts, recounting their most recent tasting, reporting on their visit to the Confeitaria.

Pasteís de nata are a pain to make without good guidance, for two reasons: Firstly, most recipes in English are poor. Secondly, some recipes in Portuguese are pretty useless too. Thirdly, they are a maddening combination of two substances which need entirely disparate treatment – custard likes low temperatures, while puff pastry likes high temperatures. Fourthly, home ovens rarely reach the ideal temperature. Ok, so that was four reasons, not two, but I didn’t want to scare you.

Below is my slightly revised recipe. You’ll also find a good recipe, though slightly different, over at Leite’s Culinaria. We wrote our respective articles at about the same time, as enthusiasm for these tarts reached its peak.

RECIPE — Pastéis de nata [UPDATED]

makes 10

As puff pastry requires high heat for 10-20 minutes, and custard curdles at high heat after just a few minutes, it is necessary to use thin puff pastry so that it cooks as quickly as possible. The custard is stablised slightly by adding some flour to the mixture, but is still fairly sensitive. That’s why it’s hard to achieve the burnt spots without curdling the custard.

Make the pastry first, up to a day ahead. Can’t be bothered? Buy a reallllllly good quality puff pastry instead, though the result will be inferior. Follow the custard instructions carefully.

The ideal cooking temperature is probably 300-350C. Many ovens set to their maximum temperature will come close to this on the top shelf, but you need to know your oven. Convection (fan-forced) ovens generally cook hotter than standard ovens. Preheat your oven for at least 30 minutes.

You need standard size muffin pans (or my wonderful little tart pans 😉 which are 3cm deep and 7cm wide at the rim). Non-stick pans are probably unsuitable, as most of the coatings only tolerate temperatures up to 230-250C.

If you want to make sure you get the hang of the cooking time in your oven, start by cooking just two or three tarts. Taste them once they’ve cooled a little (burns!). Your main goal is to cook the pastry well. I used to recommend prioritising the custard, but undercooked pastry just makes the tart less impressive. So it’s better to accept that your custard might curdle (it’ll taste a bit like bread and butter pudding), but if you can get the pastry cooked in under about 12 mins, you should have the best of both worlds. 🙂

Note that during cooking the custard will rise up and bubble and look distinctly unpromising.

This is about enough pastry for ten shells.

70g plain flour
40-50ml cold water
1/4 tsp salt
55g butter

  • Make a puff pastry using the above ingredients. Instructions for making puff pastry (not ‘rough puff’ or ‘flaky’) can be found in most basic cookery books.
  • For this recipe, the pastry should be folded and rolled at least three times, but resting time between phases is less important.
  • If the pastry starts getting warm to the touch, it’s time to refrigerate it for a while.
  • When finished, roll out the pastry to a 20cm x 10cm rectangle, 4-5mm thick. Then roll up the pastry into a log shape, like a rug or swiss-roll, with the long edges forming the ends of the log. The log will be 4-5cm in diameter.
  • Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for half an hour.

At this point, make the custard.

This is enough custard for 10-14 tarts, depending on the size of your pans.

22g plain flour (not more)
160g sugar
3 egg yolks
1 egg
300ml milk
approx 2cm x 4cm shaving of lemon rind

pure icing sugar and ground cinnamon, for sprinkling

  • Sift the flour and sugar together into a bowl.
  • Lightly beat together the egg yolks and whole egg.
  • Put the milk, lemon rind in a saucepan and gradually bring to the boil. Remove the lemon rind.
  • Pour half of the boiling milk over the flour and sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Add this mixture to the remaining milk.
  • Pour a few spoonfuls of the hot mixture onto the beaten egg and stir well. Then pour the egg into the flour and sugar mixture, stirring constantly until completely mixed. This is the finished custard, and should not be cooked further (unlike more familiar custard types).
  • Let the custard cool in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 300C or the maximum setting if your oven can’t heat that high.

  • Remove the pastry from the fridge and with a sharp knife, cut 10 discs from the log, about 1cm thick. Some recipes say that you should now just press the disc into the pan, and up the sides, but this can be tricky, so I recommend first gently flattening the disc with a rolling pin to increase its diameter.
  • Press the disc into its pan, starting in the middle of the base, and working outwards, up the sides. The pastry will be thin, especially on the bottom.
  • Chill the pans briefly if the pastry has become too warm.
  • Place the pastry cases on a baking sheet or tray. If you find your pastry doesn’t cook fast enough, using an aluminium tray may help.
  • Pour the custard into the pastry cases, leaving about a centimetre between the custard and the rim of the pastry.
  • Put the tray in the oven. Use the middle shelf for the first batch, and adjust if necessary for later batches. Bake for 8-12 minutes. If the pastry edges are browning very well then the tarts are ready. If you get brown spots on the custard, congratulations! (But don’t bank on it.)
  • Once you’ve removed the tarts from the oven, let them cool for a few minutes, then remove them from their pans, and place them on a rack to cool. Try to resist the temptation to eat them straight away, as they are at their best when just warm.
  • Before eating, sprinkle the tarts with the icing sugar and cinnamon. Or not.

This batch didn’t want to get any spots

This batch did get some spots. The pastry looks less good because the pans had been lined two days earlier, so the edges had dried a little before cooking.

And finally…

One of my goals after starting Syrup & Tang was to revisit these tarts and improve my recipe. So much time had passed and my baking skills had improved. As life would have it, with a different oven and different trays, I learnt more about baking in one or two further tests for writing this article. Happily, the recipe needed very few tweaks (mostly in technique).

Now all I need is a café pingado and a view of Lisbon…

For final entertainment, here’s a really sweet video on how to make pastéis de nata. Unfortunately they’re not quite the Portuguese thing, but this Brazilian take on them. The video is 8 mins long but is quite charming.