In the world of food, there are few skills more complicated than producing excellent chocolate. The story of the Indian and self-taught Aneesh Popat – awarded the "True Innovation Award in Fine Chocolate" by The Academy of Chocolate – is even more appealing. I sat down to talk with Popat about how he became a chocolatier supplier for Michelin starred restaurants, luxury hotels and Royalty. Popat told us about his advanced chocolate making techniques and his experimental flavour combinations, which range from 'rose and cinnamon ganache' to his famous 'chili and lime truffle'.
Where did you find your passion for chocolate and flavour pairing?
My greatest inspiration in life has definitely been my grandmother, who brought me up in London with the essential knowledge of Indian spices, fusing western and eastern elements. You could say my background has inspired me along the way. First I took my degree in mathematics and science, two majors that got me acquainted with the technics of research (from hypothesis to experiment, analysis and conclusion).
Because I’ve always had a strong affinity for chocolate, I’ve learnt how to make chocolate by reading, watching, practising and repeating the process over and over again. Since I’ve never taken any cooking lessons, I’ve got my inspiration from many great chocolatiers and chefs alike. 1993 was a turning point in my career; that year I’ve had the privilege to spend time with a 1993 MOF Chocolatier who trained me in the art of sculpting chocolate. Another memorable experience is my encounter with the French chemist ‘Dr. Hervé This’, who inspired me to use water with chocolate instead of cream and butter, as is conventionally done.
How do you develop such intense flavours in your chocolates?
My love for science has led me to apply both my mathematical and scientific background to create the most unique and experimental flavour combinations in chocolate. Actually, I consider myself a researcher-chocolatier who studies flavour components on a chemical level with utmost precision.
Inspired by the water + chocolate technique of Dr. Herve This, I've gone on to deliver an astonishing transparency and honesty in flavour by creating mainly water ganashes. Water having no real taste of its own allows for the chocolate to do all the speaking.
"In the pursuit of pure flavour, all of my chocolate ganaches are water based. Water is a neutral ingredient, especially when compared with cream and butter coating your palate. In all of my creations I want the chocolate to do all the talking: pairing fine chocolates with water, fruits, spices, nuts and herbs means real tastes and flavours."
Besides that, my truffles also have a convenient impact on the healthy and sustainable life of my customers. The Times coined my truffles as the ones 'who cut calories'. Compared with standard calories my truffles contain 40-50% less calories and only one quarter of the fat!
Where do the ideas come from when developing a new flavour combination or a new product?
Developing a new flavour is more a matter of inspiration than of creation – I rarely sit down and think about flavours. My best ideas come up while watching a movie, reading a magazine, walking in the park, talking to friends, … Things I see or hear leave an impression, generate new ideas and finally evolve into flavours. The flavours which end up on the menu are those which generally have a strong emotional appeal to me.
"I use Foodpairing as it gives me the license to experiment with my flavour combinations. In my process of producing chocolate I want to be able to deliver exquisite moments of unforgettable experiences, taking people into a special place of their own through luxury. Foodpairing allows me to do so and also on a personal level I use the tool to push boundaries with adventurous flavours."
I've selected three chocolate creations of mine that I consider as interesting foodpairings with a good story.
Beetroot - cabarnet sauvignon vinegar - Piedmont hazelnut
I’ve created this pairing for a Michelin starred restaurant. The head chef of the restaurant wanted me to come up with something earthy as well as acidic. I tried to find the perfect match between a deep earthy chocolate taste and the taste of red fruit. Through Foodpairing I discovered the match between beetroot and vinegar. Since chocolate and beetroot have had a flavour-relationship for ages this combination of beetroot, vinegar and chocolate was clear. Piedmont hazelnut has been working well with beetroot too, so the challenge was all about balancing the vinegar by adding some sharpness to the ganache without overpowering it.
Vaara-Rose - quince - vanilla - honey
This combination I’ve made for the royal HH Maharaja of Jodhpur in Rajasthan (India). I was asked by the king to make something in honour of the wet fragrant monsoon soils in the Rajasthani desserts. My team and I selected the floral notes of a rose to insert some Eastern elements. I wanted my combination to be very fragrant and naturally sweet. Foodpairing showed us a match between different flora and I took out three elements: a south Indian rose (Vaara), vanilla & honey and finally quince to cut the sweetness of the other elements. This Foodpairing resulted in a truly outstanding combination, and by all means fit for a King!
Papadum - mango - coriander - chili - cumin
Because I had the idea to match spices with mango and dark chocolate, I’ve looked at Foodpairing to tell me which spices worked well for our particular types of chocolate. We used cumin, coriander, onion seed, chili and lentils. These spices all matched with chocolate but not necessarily all at once. My aim of this combination was to surprise all chocolate lovers by offering them a 15 second eating journey. Doing so, I’ve roasted the spices to draw out the notes and levels of nuttiness from the spices I wanted to achieve. At first there was the lentil in papadum with mango and onion seed, 4 seconds later the cumin and coriander came through and 4 seconds after this the chilli kicked in. I like to call this chocolate pairing our 'Willy Wonka' style of chocolate making, also because I have used the flavours of my childhood. Soon this Indianised chocolate experience became that popular that it was being featured on UK's channel 4 TV.