Chocolates blended in heaven

The Australian

A WINEMAKER’S nose and palate have guided Peter Wilson on what has become his mission – to make chocolate. But not just any chocolate.

Just as grapes are transformed into wine’s complex tastes and aromas, so Wilson tracks down and blends cocoa beans, vanilla pods and a spectrum of exotic flavours to make chocolate that is nothing like Cadbury Dairy Milk. From “plain” chocolate in all its variety to filled “bonbons”, real chocolate is never just chocolate.

Wilson and his wife, Juliana Kennedy, began making chocolates about 15 years ago in Healesville, Victoria, after returning from a wine trip through Europe. Wilson studied winemaking at Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia and had spent 10 years at Yarra Yering vineyard and winery, Bailey Carrodus’s pioneering winemaking venture in the Yarra Valley.

On the European trip with Kennedy and Carrodus in the early 90s, they were given chocolates as gifts wherever they went. “Finally, we were in Burgundy, tasting wines, and I bought some Valrhona chocolates,” Wilson says.

“I could not believe you could pay so much attention to chocolate,” he recalls. “This was a fine food product, like a fine wine, something I’d never seen in a chocolate before.”

Returning to Australia, he says “Juliana expected me to say, ‘We should plant some chardonnay’.” But, though he continued working at Yarra Yering, his heart was elsewhere. The pair bought their first conch (a machine used for warming and grinding chocolate) and started making chocolate.

Their first attempts, he says, “were almost inedible”.

He did short courses at William Angliss culinary school in Melbourne, with renowned chocolate teacher Bert Mueller, and continued experimenting at home. They invited a team of experts – cheesemaker Richard Thomas and food journalists among them – to taste raw ingredients. The panel’s input marked a turnaround. It saw the creation of their “first serious chocolates”. In the late 90s, Wilson left Yarra Yering and Kennedy & Wilson was on the road.

They bought a conch from Scotland (“a great machine”) and had a tempering kettle made to their design in Melbourne. Chocolate moulds came from Germany. French pear and Italian duck moulds later joined the collection.

There was great help at the beginning, Wilson says. “Suzanne Halliday, who’s done so much for the region. Stephanie Alexander stocked our chocolate at Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, Will Studd helped with packaging and advice. Simon Johnson started stocking it. Melbourne store Daimaru took us on.

“The biggest challenge,” Wilson says, “was importing raw ingredients, getting good-quality cocoa. Eventually we established direct contacts with Germany, Papua New Guinea, Western Samoa, Madagascar; and sourced ‘bread and butter’ cocoa from Ivory Coast and Ghana.”

Now, following the trend for specialty coffee merchants to source direct from farms, he’s discovered some “truly outstanding cocoa farmers in Samoa”, and hopes they’ll be on board by the end of the year.

Early vanilla supplies came from Madagascar and Fiji, which Wilson processed to “maintain its resiny oiliness”, but he’s since tracked down vanilla from Queensland.

Great chocolate-making demands knowledge, expertise and a winemaker’s nose.

“Cocoa is a natural farm product; as with wines, different vintages from the same supplier can be dramatically different. We like to accentuate that,” Wilson explains.

“Beans are harvested, fermented, winnowed and roasted and slightly ground (melted together), producing cocoa mass, which is pressed into a paste. The residue after pressing (crucial for texture and massively expensive) is cocoa butter. Cocoa butter melts in the mouth at body temperature, but cheap chocolates substitute vegetable fats.”

The snap, crumble and gloss of chocolate all come with tempering. Heating the cocoa butter, which has a crystalline structure, to different temperatures (melting the crystals) produces different kinds of chocolate.

An early and continuing K&W speciality incorporates coffee beans (to make mocha), whole vanilla pods or cinnamon quills with the chocolate in the conching process. A childhood memory produced another early item; delicate little chocolate cat’s tongues, inspired by the gifts Wilson’s grandparents brought back from Viennese bakery Demel.

An After Dinner Duck is made of “whole coffee beans, to make genuine mocha, with low sugar and a helluva lot of cream in it for softness”, says Wilson.

Milk chocolate is more than 48 per cent cocoa with 55 per cent butterfat cream, so dark “it looks like light dark chocolate”. White chocolate incorporates cocoa butter and milk, cream, powders and vanilla. “We keep the sugar level low and cream level high and use very beautiful vanilla.” (An early shipment to Daimaru was returned with the note that K&W had “forgotten to put the sugar in”.)

Ingredients such as berries and nuts come from the Yarra Valley whenever possible. Salted butter caramel is fabulous, but it’s agonising for me to choose a favourite.

The company’s first professional chocolatier was Didier Cadinot, who joined around 2000. Apprenticed in France, moving to Melbourne in the 80s, he had been a pastry chef for Paul Bocuse and Phillippe Mouchel in Melbourne, running the Bocuse bakery at Daimaru. K&W’s moulded and filled chocolates started with Cadinot. He now returns to help in peak periods and occasionally with chocolate-making demonstrations.

James Farmer helped further develop the filled chocolate range, introducing a delectable honeycomb. After a brief stint overseas he is back as chief chocolatier.

The team creates small batches of new chocolates every month, which are added to the range if they pass staff trials. Nice job.

In the shop, I can see into the glassed production area at the back. Tastings and demonstrations are held here. There’s coffee, hot chocolate and brownies made by a local baker, Beez Kneez, using K&W chocolate. Wilson is also waiting on a licence (expected later this year) for wine tastings and sales by the glass of a range of hand-crafted wines he and his brother, James, launched a few years ago.

We talk about cooking with chocolate and I taste a 99 per cent chocolate with less than 1 per cent vanilla, which is “great for a South American mole”.

Wilson intensifies the jus in meat dishes with a cat’s tongue.

“I make a daube: red wine, black olives, orange rind and, just before serving, stir in one or two tablespoons of brandy and one or two cat’s tongues,” he says.

“It adds great complexity without cloyingness. Cooking, wine and chocolate are all about balance.”

Kennedy & Wilson Chocolates, 203 Maroondah Highway, Healesville, Victoria.

Article by JUDITH ELEN