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Gwen Lasserre, chocolatier in Schull, West Cork

Gwen Lasserre, chocolatier in Schull, West Cork

Valentines Day is here and with it the sap of romance rises to overflow like molten chocolate in a fountain. The undisputed food of love, chocolate melts your heart as it melts in your mouth. Whether or not it is a true aphrodisiac, it certainly soothes and relaxes. Perhaps more important than all the science about neurotransmitters and amino acids is that chocolate has a cultural place in our food repertoire and our calendar. I must admit I was more than a little curious when my five year old son greeted the news that Valentines Day was coming next week with a cheer, saying “That’s my favourite day of the year!” Where had this romantic streak come from? What plans had he devised and for whom? Should I too be planning ahead a bit more? But then he explained “That’s the day when we have melted chocolate and strawberries” and I realised that a seasonal food tradition had taken root. How lovely it is to have foods to look forward to.

 

Anyway this gave me the perfect excuse to talk about my favourite food and moreover a genuine research mission, so this week I visited Gwen Lasserre at his chocolate shop in Schull. Gwen is one of two chocolatiers weaving his magic in West Cork – the Ó Conaill family in Carrigaline have their own wonder emporium on French Church St in Cork city – an excellently located haven if you need a rich hot chocolate to repair nerve damage from a frazzled shopping expedition.

 

As I arrived Gwen and his wife, Clare, were busy getting ready for love’s first flush of 2008. Gwen has produced 100 painted chocolate hearts filled with individual chocolates. Inside one of these he has placed a gold heart necklace made by Sabine Lenz at Enibas jewellers across the street, neatly connecting two very different but superbly executed craft traditions. Gwen’s chocolate craft is classically French but in the last year he has developed it with local ingredients and ideas like this one with Enibas. For Christmas he produced sloe gin chocolates with a warm plumy flavour and this spring he’ll gather elder flowers to infuse a ganache filling. Gwen recalls his first introduction to chocolate, “For me there was a magic about chocolate when I was growing up in France, it was a seasonal product, not there all the time and more special for that. Our village baker was very good at confectionary and between Christmas and Easter he produced chocolates. I was dazzled by the display and when I was 14 I asked if I could work with him.”

 

Gwen subsequently pursued another passion – plants, and it was a long time before he got back to chocolate. He came to Ireland to work as a commis chef in Blairs Cove in Durrus and learned on the job, getting up early to finish his vegetable prep work so that he could spend time with the pastry chef. By 2004 he was head chef and he started making petits-fours chocolates to serve with coffee. “I had run my own business twice before and by then I was looking for something to do. I did a bit of research on quality chocolatiers in Ireland and the companies were going well, there was only one other in West Cork so I thought there was an opportunity. I could get all the ingredients and fillings I needed here too, but I didn’t want to make chocolates from a bucket, I wanted to make them from scratch. I needed to learn more, so I went back to France and found a master chocolatier. I worked for free for 3 months with him on condition that I work only on chocolate, not cleaning floors or emptying bins, I’d done enough of that. We worked hard, often late in to the night, but I learned a lot. I still go back to him from time to time.” He showed me the work and care attention that goes into making the praline, marzipan and ganache filling that form the base of his extensive range. His praline is quite unlike that in mass produced chocolate, rich brown in colour and with a roasted nut taste that develops in the mouth rather than hitting up front with sugar and flavouring.

 

Gwen gets great satisfaction from being a part of life for people in Schull. “We have people who come back again and again. First, they come in to look around, they are curious, to start with they buy a present for someone else. But then they learn what they like for themselves and keep coming back. I love West Cork, it is magical and it’s great that I have made a place for myself here. In France it’s hard to get people interested in anything new with food, they think it’s all déja vu, but in Ireland there is a craving to learn ”  And so is chocolate the food of love for Valentines? “With my wife I have love in my life every day and not just on one day of the year.”

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