SALMON, whisky, venison, Aberdeen Angus beef, shortbread ... Irn Bru. Scotland is famous for its culinary excellence.
And no one would argue that we don’t have a taste for the sweeter things in life – puff candy and Highland Toffee have destroyed the teeth of many a Scottish child. But quality artisan chocolate? That’s not really our territory.
Au contraire, argues Iain Burnett. aka the Highland Chocolatier. “At the very beginning,” he admits, “when we started, people were like, ‘Scottish chocolate? No, I don’t think so.’ Even a chef in Scotland, they’d be looking south. ‘What’s in London? What’s in Paris? What’s in Belgium?’”
These days, however, it’s a different story. As we speak, he is busy putting the finishing touches to a complicated order destined for Japan. He supplies markets as far afield as Dubai and Oman, while he is also eyeing the US. Closer to home, his celebrated truffles can be savoured at any number of five-star establishments, from Claridges and Gleneagles to the three-Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road. “We are definitely on the map for chocolate now,” he says proudly.
And, as proof, he has established the Scottish Chocolate Centre, the first visitor centre in the country dedicated entirely to chocolate, guiding the eager chocophile through the history of the sweet stuff, from plantation to plate.
Based at an unassuming kitchen at Grandtully, Perthshire – “basically, it’s a double garage”, he says frankly – he and two fellow chocolatiers take an incredible two days to make each batch of truffles. But that’s nothing compared to the three years and more than 120 ingredient combinations it took Burnett to finally pin down the holy grail of truffle recipes. “I was in Japan at the time, when I came across a phenomenal truffle,” he recalls, smacking his lips at the memory.
“It was obviously delicious, but beyond that it had this incredible texture. It had no chocolate shell. But it had none of the usual things people stuff in truffles nowadays: fat and oils and sugar additives to make it soft or to give it a long shelf life. This was fresh dairy and chocolate and nothing else.”
The self-confessed perfectionist dedicated the next three years to recreating the experience, until finally he had his eureka moment. “If it hadn’t worked out I would definitely have gone bankrupt,” he laughs. No doubt it wasn’t quite so funny at the time.
Burnett’s passion for food began as a child. “Ever since we were kids, we had to help out in the kitchen. That’s where I learned to enjoy working with food.”
He trained as a master chocolatier and on his return from Japan set about establishing his chocolate empire in Perthshire. He sourced the best cocoa from São Tomé, an island off the coast of central Africa, but the rest of his ingredients have a smaller carbon footprint. “Tay Valley is famous for its red fruits,” he says. “And we did the cream tasting across the whole of the UK. But the best cream by far was being produced over the hill, in Crieff.” Even the rose infusion he uses comes from the roses in his own garden.
The naked, unembellished truffle is still the all-time classic, like a great Burgundy or fine single malt, he says. “At the beginning you’ll have a sweetness, a fruitiness. You move on to more of the savoury or spicy notes – you’ll get some black pepper flavours from the São Tomé cocoa. Then at the other side there’s the sweet, tanginess from the cream. It’s very much like wine-tasting.”
But with all that tasting, perfecting and tasting some more, Burnett could be forgiven for being, well, a little on the rotund side. So how does he manage to stay so slender? “Ah, there’s no calories in the good stuff,” he laughs. If only.
• Iain Burnett, The Highland Chocolatier (www.highlandchocolatier.com) products are at Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh, and McEwens Perth
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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