Forget Willy Wonka, here's a man who has created some of the most exotic and implausible flavours with chocolates. Meet Dominique Persoone of Chocolate Line, Belgium.
He likes to be known as shock-a-latier instead of chocolatier. The shock element in his work is intentional but the genius is inherent. Dominique Persoone isn't satisfied with creating conventional chocolate; it is the unconventional and exciting that interests him. Not surprisingly then, the man has created some of the most exotic and implausible flavours ever invented in the history of chocolate making.
Although connoisseurs rank the pralines and bonbons of Belgium above any other chocolate produced in the world, a visit to Dominique's Chocolate Line quickly dispels all doubts about the distinction.
But it is not the usual stuff that adorns his shop racks. The window display is arrayed with chessboards and chess pieces, playing cards and roulette – all crafted out of chocolate. Chocolate Line is one of the three chocolate shops mentioned in the Michelin Guide, the staff informs me proudly.
I was in Bruges for the Flemish Primitive, a culinary event, and Dominique Persoone was one of the chefs attending the event. Bruges, a beautiful medieval city, is home to 50 chocolate shops, five of which specialise in handmade chocolates but he is the one in demand. The idea of going back home without a conversation with the chocolatier would have been blasphemous and so I decided to meet the man who makes news regularly in the world of chocolates.
A tête-à-tête with the man behind some of the most exotic chocolates turns out to be an interesting path down the chocolate street. This is the man who demonstrated how to “sniff” his chocolates from a specially designed shooter to the Rolling Stones when they had a birthday bash in Brussels, a couple of years ago. The Chocolate Shooter has since been patented. He was also commissioned to make the chocolate used to paint hundreds of nude models for an art installation in Bruges by contemporary photographer Spenser Tunick. Not surprising that the word shock-a-latier was coined for him.
Persoone specialises in what he calls ‘fusion chocolates', combining cocao with unbelievable ingredients such as tobacco leaves, peas and lemon grass. More surprises await me as I am led through what I would have thought bizarre if I had not tasted them: Tonka, a mix of white ganache with coconut milk, bourbon vanilla and Tonka beans from Venezuela; Havana, marzipan with liqueur from Cuban tobacco leaves marinated in rum and cognac; and Choc-tail, bitter chocolate Costa Rican ganache with tequila silver and Maldon crystal salt.
There is dark chocolate with chilli pepper flavour, basil flavour and even white chocolate with chutney and sun-dried tomatoes. Distinctive and unusual flavours like the man himself. Chocolate containing marzipan in a puree of black olives, chocolate with cauliflower and even fried Spanish onions, chocolate with cola that literally creates an explosive sensation in the mouth; you name it and Persoone has blended it all! Vosges Bacon flavoured chocolate bars are passé;Dominique Persooneof Belgium has produced chocolates biscuits encrusted with chicken-skin. Swallow that!
“Fifteen years ago when I started the shop, I made a chocolate with chilli pepper and everybody said I was crazy but now everybody makes chocolate with chilli pepper,” Persoone says flippantly. He was a cook before turning his hand to making chocolates and that, to me, explains his adventures with the cocoa.
We were almost into the Valentine Day and the Chocolate Line was bursting with delectable chocolates. “Why chocolates?” I asked.
“Well, chocolate is the obvious choice for lovers not just because of the myths but because science has finally proven it stimulates the production of happy pheromones,” said the master chocolatier. “I also have a line of chocolate lipsticks and edible massage cream, which could work wonders on your partner on Valentine's Day.”
Persoone came up with the brilliant idea of creating a chocolate lipstick after a scientist informed him that most lipsticks contain cocoa butter but a tasteless and flavourless version. “So I decided to give it a flavour.”
The idea of creating edible chocolate massage cream was born when his wife became pregnant and he saw her using almond oil on her belly to avoid stretch marks. He added chocolate, lavender and dried mint to create a touch of freshness and a delicious massage cream was born.
With his infinite interest in the subject, it was but natural that Dominique Persoone should pen a book and call it Cacao: The Roots of Chocolate and also that it should win the award for the “Best Chocolate Book of the World” at Paris.
The tasting session that followed the conversation left me in a trance from which I am still struggling to emerge.