Chocolate looks good, smells good and tastes good… and sell good. Jane Ram on its enduring appeal and how chefs are using it to entice diners.

Chocolate has a long history. Derived from the fruit of the cocoa or cacao tree, it is native to tropical Central and Southern Latin America, but nowadays it is cultivated in many parts of the world. It was originally regarded as medicinal, but by the mid-16th-century the Spaniards started to combine it with cane sugar to make it more palatable and chocolate drinking soon became popular throughout most of Europe. But it was not until the invention of the steam engine in the mid-19th century that it became it possible to grind the cacao and compress it for edible chocolate bars.

Romantic, aphrodisiac, anti-depressant — chocolate looks good, smells good and tastes good. Scientists have recently confirmed that it also conveys many physical and psychological benefits. Small wonder that what is often described as “food of the gods” is among the most popular feel-good indulgences.

It’s not clear where or when the tradition began but over the past 70 years or more chocolate bonbons have become almost a cliché as a hotel room turn-down amenity. When VIPs or regular guests check in, a presentation box or a chocolate showpiece is a familiar welcome gift. And, in addition to serving chocolate petits fours, restaurants are increasingly sending guests home with a small souvenir box of chocolates.

Outsourcing is shrouded in secrecy for understandable reasons. But until the past decade or so, it was commonplace for even the most prestigious hotels to buy in most of their in-house chocolates, albeit prepared to customised specifications. These days, however, it is almost a point of honour for a luxury hotel to produce at least some of its own chocolates in-house, although most buy in the couverture or basic material.

Six years ago The Peninsula Hong Kong hired a Belgian master chocolatier and established the hotel’s Chocolate Room to produce hand-crafted chocolates. These form a unique in-room amenity, and are also offered from a chocolate trolley during dinner at the hotel’s fine-dining French restaurant.

“It provided a new platform for us,” says Group Executive Chef, Florian Trento. “We buy the couverture as making our own would require another specialised facility. But we have access to the best single plantation or customised couvertures worldwide.

“Sugar is cheap, and it also makes the ingredients last. That’s why mass-produced commercial chocolate is generally so cheap and so sweet with such a long shelf-life. Our chocolates have a shelf life of only three weeks as we use all natural ingredients,” explains Trento.

“Chocolate is part of our DNA. It’s one way to differentiate hotels, create memories and impressions. You only have one chance! It’s always about guest experience! It’s an opportunity to personalise things, taking into account the guest’s profession or interests. For a fashion designer, for instance, we might make a chocolate shoe or handbag to hold the chocolate bonbons.”

At the Mira, Hong Kong’s design-led hotel, master pâtissier Jean-Marc Gaucher, uses more than a few touches of fantasy when he dreams up in-room welcome amenities for individual VIP guests. When Salvatore Ferragamo stayed at the hotel for a private wine dinner in September, Gaucher prepared a special edition of the hotel’s chocolate mooncakes, made with Il Borro wine.

“We created miniature chocolate moons for this year’s mid-autumn festival in September using a special mould sourced from France that adds a unique texture to these treats. We will revisit the shape for the winter season as Christmas Truffles Surprise, presented in a sleek festive tin can as a guestroom amenity.

“Chocolate is a fantastic medium to play with and create surprising textures. There are two current design trends: round and smooth or multi-dimensional, intricate shapes, or patterns with irregular texture. We are more adventurous than ever before! Regarding the flavour we are using more citrus including Japanese yuzu.

“Chocolate suppliers must aim to please pastry chefs and produce ever more exciting materials. The trend for 2018 will be chocolate couverture with a fruity natural flavour — passion fruit or strawberry. It hasn’t hit the market yet but I have been selected to try it and I find it very interesting. It’s a premium grade chocolate with great room for creativity due to its high cocoa butter content and finer texture suitable for stunning decoration, melting, moulding, enrobing and so on.”

Restaurant Group Elite Concepts recently launched an innovative line of Chakeli chocolates for purchase in all the group’s Ye Shanghai restaurants. “Chakeli was conceived with east meets west in mind. The combination of carefully crafted Chinese tea ganache with chocolates from all over the world felt natural and it creates a unique product that works as bridge. Shanghai has always been the Paris of the orient, meeting point for the best of the east and the west,” says Executive Director, Paul Hsu. “A unique East-West bonbon adds the perfect finish to a traditional yet stylish meal. We also use Chakeli for gifts, as a signature product of our group. Chakeli is a brand by Ye Shanghai and we plan to launch Chakeli Cafés soon!”

Despite the cultivation of Cacao in many parts of the world, demand for chocolate is fast outstripping supply, and this is polarising the top and bottom ends of the market. Prices are rising and consumers must pay more for a superior product or accept increasingly sub-standard chocolate, with lower cacao content, warns Gregoire Michaud, former baker and pâtissier at the Four Seasons Hong Kong, who now runs his own custom bread and cake operations.

At his new specialist café-cum bakery, Bakehouse, opening in early December, Michaud is well ahead of the trend in offering Hong Kong connoisseurs something different. “All our chocolate items (including bon bons) will be made from chocolate that is entirely made in Hong Kong from bean to bar. Working with Monde Chocolatier, following the same philosophy as for our bread, our chocolate is being made locally by passionate artisans, taking the consumer’s experience to the next level with chocolates that will be on a par with world players.”

At the InterContinental Hong Kong, Executive Pastry Chef, Cyril Dupuis, says, “Trends for chocolate vary around the world. In Paris now a lot of chocolate masters mix chocolate with vegetable flavours. But Hong Kong guests have more classic tastes and they love the real taste of chocolate.”

Marcus Ng, the Head Chef at Sukhothai Shanghai, due to open in March 2018, is excited about the planned Chocolate Room where all the hotel’s bon bons and showpieces will be made from scratch.

“It’s a matter of lifestyle, of feeling for quality to make our own bonbons and showpieces,” he said. “We are researching sources of raw materials and working on concepts including savoury chocolates.”