Chantal first met Thomasina Miers of Wahaca at Aldeburgh, one of her favourite food festivals. Not long ago, Chantal received an email. Tommi is writing a new cookery book, and would Chantal be willing to share her expertise and talk about chilli truffles? So it happens that one morning we find ourselves in the chocolate school kitchen at our Motcomb Street branch in Belgravia, people in the cafe above looking watching the chilli chocolate workshop through the glass floor.
Chantal prepares truffle ingredients while Tommi unwraps a parcel containing huge, waxy-looking peppers. They’re dried pasillas, relatively mild in heat but with depth, resonant of tobacco smoke. They’re fruity and raisiny, she explains, so they should go perfectly with dark chocolate.
They discuss the method she’s been using to make the truffles, before Chantal show her some tricks of the trade. Tommi has been blending her chilli peppers into cream, but we decide to infuse the cream then remove the peppers to keep the smooth texture of the ganache, and conversation drifts while we wait for the chilli to steep.
Before starting Wahaca, Tommi went to Ballymaloe cookery school and managed Villandry. While working there she wrote Soup Kitchen, a charity cookery book, and started to meet and talk to other chefs, eventually entering and winning Masterchef. Both Chantal and Tommi have written a number of cookery books and love the process, but they agree that they like to spend far longer on the process than publishers allow to test and tweak recipes. For Chantal, taking the book’s photographs is the ideal stage to refine recipes, but for traditional publishers it’s too late, everything has to be perfect long before. Recipe writing is a more organic process than publishing allows.
Both find working in food deeply rewarding but also odd at times. Tommi says she spent a couple of years feeling constantly full from endless tastings both for Wahaca quality control and research for new venture Burrito Mama, while Chantal talks about the demands of judging chocolate competitions. It sounds like a dream job, but being faced with hundreds of chocolates, or burritos, to judge is daunting and physically demanding, and sadly not everything tastes good.
As the chilli-infused cream is stirred gradually into chocolate we talk about chilli peppers, and Tommi tells us that Mexican chillis are getting hotter as they are cultivated more intensively. People in the UK sometimes avoid chilli thinking they don’t like it (though her toddler loves chilli, along with Virgin Marys and dark chocolate), but the range and depth of flavours is enormous, from the mild sweetness of the poblano (ancho) to the smokiness of the chipotle, and it’s a shame to lose that subtlety of flavour. She describes to us how some people make mole sauce using the dried chilli seeds, roasted until black and ground into the sauce to give a darker colour and a bitterness that counteracts the sweetness of the sauce. She tastes the cream and we add a little more pasilla with some dried chilli powder for a different dimension and more heat. Go gently, she warns as we mix the ganache. You can always add more heat but you can’t take it away.
We add rum last and a little butter, which will give the finished chocolates a beautiful silky texture, and pour the mixture into a tray to set before Chantal introduces Tommi to Valrhona’s Caramelia chocolate, the chocolate we use for our best-selling salted caramel ganaches. It always elicits a swooning response, and today is no different.
As the ganache sets, we talk booze. Tequila works beautifully at with chocolate, and that’s what Tommi will use for her chilli truffles. Chilli is an active ingredient that can affect the shelf life of truffles, and a little alcohol will help the chocolates to stay fresh a little longer as well as enhance the taste. Tommi often cooks with chocolate and tequila, and makes an ice cream sauce at home from dark chocolate, milk a drop of golden syrup and tequila. Chantal suggests making it with just hot water to allow the purity of the flavours to shine – the trick to making ganache or sauce with chocolate and water is simply to mix very well.
Tommi is evangelical about good tequila and mezcal, pure spirits made from Agave that she gets from small artisan and organic producers. They have a real feel-good factor, and the Charlotte Street branch of Wahaca (perhaps the most grown-up branch, she says) has a mezcal bar upstairs. Tommi loves Wahaca, and her vision and sense of fun is clear to see in the restaurants. Matchbooks by the entrances contain chilli seeds so customers can try growing their own, and they are inventive and creative with both their cooking and decor. As well as the mezcal bar there’s a tequila bar in the soho branch, a street food van and a restaurant made from shipping containers on the South Bank. Tommi has a soft spot for this branch, which is also their test kitchen and closest to the casual street food and style she loved so much living in Mexico. She shares with Chantal both an approach to food based on love and nurturing and a focus on teamwork and fun. Food doesn’t always have to be serious.
Saying this, they cut the cooled chocolate ganache slab and pull on gloves to prepare for the fun, messy part. They work as a team, slathering the squares in tempered chocolate before dropping them into cocoa powder, letting them set before shaking the excess cocoa off gently in a sieve.
We pick chocolates straight from the sieve bite into through soft cocoa powder and shatter the thin chocolate layer to reach the silky smooth ganache beneath. The chilli is smoky, mild and rich, enhancing the fruit notes in the chocolate, with just a hint of rum at the back. Silence falls for a few seconds as everybody savours their chocolates, then Chantal looks up. ‘More booze,’ she says, ‘then they’ll be perfect.’