Eat Hackney has a decidedly sweet tooth, but a chocolate tasting at 11am initially seemed like a challenge. Laurent Gerbaud’s chocolates are so light and pure though, that I ate my way round his plate of chocs with relish, and could probably have managed another round.
Interview with Laurent Gerbaud
Laurent’s shop is a light bright space in Brussels’ museum quarter, the pretty parcels of chocs printed with a stylish Chinese motif. The wall is emblazoned with his principles: no added sugar, no butter, no alcohol, no artificial flavours. Anyone who has sampled boozy, sweet and rich Belgian chocolates knows that this goes against the grain: Laurent’s tastebuds went on a long and exotic journey away from his homeland to reach this point.
Laurent studied law and medieval history, and was a student of Mandarin for two years, conceiving a dream to open a chocolate factory in Shangahi. Laurent giggles recalling the hazy and romantic dream he had of building a factory on a picturesque river bank – he says his Chinese friends are still laughing at him and in reality the river and the city are “f—king HUGE!” He encountered two major problems which after a couple of years of effort brought his Chinese business dream to an end: the stonily unhelpful attitude of the authorities and the fact that Chinese people have little taste for sweet food.
But, being a positive sort of chap, Laurent has turned these two things to his advantage: operating in such a difficult environment made him unafraid, and he had began experimenting with less sweet flavours to tempt the Chinese, in the process refining and developing his own tastes.
Laurent returned to Brussels and continued making chocolates, this time in his grandmother’s house, using her cuisine cave, the cool tiled basement of traditional Belgian homes where the kitchen is located. His other grandmother helped out, and they used a pingpong table to dry the chocs on. The business grew, from a delivery service to stalls at a local market to the current café and workshop, from where Laurent now organises internationally themed food events.
As for the chocolate itself… it’s carefully sourced so Laurent can pinpoint exactly where it comes from. And the chocolate producer he uses – in Italy – processes carefully in small batches: this is where the subtle taste is developed. Laurent adds magic with pure ingredients, combining the chocolate with just one element: dried Turkish fig, Persian cranberry, Piedmonte hazelnut or candied ginger. Amongst his products are fantastic slender bars of chocolate, embossed with a Chinese pattern and flavoured with sweet chilli, Japanese citrus or – sensationally – black pepper. The flavours travel round your tastebuds in a deliciously slow way, the sweet chilli only delivering its cheeky kick once the chocolate has been swallowed.
Laurent’s chocs aren’t stocked in London – though someone should be selling them! But if you go to Brussels, do take a break between museums for some Belgian chocolate, Shanghai-style.