An introduction to: Chocolate

The Locavore Edition

While Australian chocolate may never be 100 per cent local – we’re not exactly known for our winning ways with cacao trees – a handful of chocolatiers are producing truffles, pralines and bars with all the grace and elegance of their European counterparts. The vast majority of these chocolate-makers have learnt and plied their craft overseas, and now combine imported couverture with regional ingredients, such as nuts, cream, fruit and liqueurs, to produce world-class chocolates with a southern accent. Many have also tapped into the tourist potential of this industry, opening smart shops and cafes to promote their wares.

Renaissance Chocolates is a world apart from the big-name cereal company Neil Funston used to work for, but it was his time spent travelling the globe as a food engineer, buying chocolate-making equipment, that kick-started a curiosity about cacao. When he left the business, he began making chocolates at his home in Rutherglen, and demand for the handcrafted truffles and pralines soon saw Neil and his wife Robyn up until 3am in the morning, filling wholesale orders.

Realising they were onto a good thing, Neil and Robyn built a chocolate factory in 2010. The Renaissance Chocolates Couverture Room and Café has slotted in perfectly to the Rutherglen wine trail, drawing on the region’s famed fortifieds in truffles laced with Campbell’s Muscat and Topaque, as well as local sparkling shiraz and tawny port. Neil and Robyn also look to their surrounding region to source the region’s best cream, honey and Mt Buffalo hazelnuts for their range of 24 pralines.

Down south, it’s Milton Laycock and Isilda Caldwell who’ve cornered the cocoa market with the award-winning Mornington Peninsula Chocolates. After first starting out in Melbourne, the pair travelled to Belgium, France and Switzerland to learn from the masters. Twelve years on, Milton and Isilda use a combination of imported French and Belgian couverture, along with Victorian ingredients, to create fine handmade chocolates. The chance to sample liqueur truffles, zesty grapefruit or lime ganache and luscious choc-dipped jellies straight from the source make a visit to the sleek shopfront a must.

Visitors to Daylesford get their chocolate fix at Sweet Decadence at Locantro, a European-style coffee house decked out with bentwood chairs, brass fixtures and mirrored panels. Curvaceous glass cabinets are stocked with cakes, tarts and the café’s handmade chocolates, including lavender truffles and brandy-spiked apricots, which are carefully handmade upstairs.

Struck by the quality of French chocolate while on a wine tour in Burgundy in 1993, winemaker Peter Wilson embarked on a mission to bring that level of craftsmanship to Australia. In 1996, along with his wife, Juliana Kennedy, Peter started Kennedy & Wilson in the Yarra Valley. The result is wickedly intense, French-style chocolate that is a favourite among chefs, as it offers an alternative to Valrhona, Callebaut and the like. Even the milk chocolate boasts a cocoa content of 48 per cent, which is on par with much of what is labelled ‘dark chocolate’ in our supermarkets. Since the recent arrival of French chocolatier and pastrymaker Didier Cadinot, Kennedy & Wilson’s signature thins, blocks and cats’ tongues have been joined by luscious moulded ganache in flavours such as butter caramel, ginger, and chilli-raspberry. A retail shop in Healesville stocks these gems, along with one-kilogram blocks of couverture for home cooks.

There’s a French-Australian connection at Cacao Fine Chocolates & Patisserie, too, the Melbourne outfit from Laurent Meric and Tim Clark. Laurent, who holds a masters degree in chocolate, has clocked up 23 years practicing his dark arts at prestigious hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants in France and abroad. Australian-trained Tim has 15 years in the industry under his belt, including time spent perfecting the craft in Europe. Since opening the first Cacao store in St Kilda in 2003, Laurent and Tim have launched three other Melbourne shopfronts, flaunting jewel-toned pralines and glossy ganache-filled delights. The savvy chefs also turn out pristine macarons in flavours such as tangy lemon, classic violet and cassis, and a luscious local derivative, the jam and cream lamington.

Ingrid Nichols of Lizzy’s Chocolates first learnt the art from her father, Keith Van Tilburg, before heading to the ZDS confectionary school in Germany to put the finishing touches on her education. Today, Ingrid and her husband run the family business, named after her mother Elizabeth, combining Victorian fruits, nuts and dairy with authentic liqueurs and imported Callebaut chocolate. Seasonal specials include Christmas pudding ganache and panforte logs, Easter bunnies and the Van Tilburg range of herb- and spice-infused truffles.

Article by Sarah Lewis