Athens supermarkets devote many shelves to Greek chocolate bars, and there is no shortage of shops in the city that produce their own chocolates with different fillings as well as truffles, along with other types of sweets. But the past year has seen a chocolate renaissance of sorts: two shops opened which are dedicated exclusively to chocolate, joining a third, The Dark Side of Chocolate, an old-timer from 2011.
What’s fascinating is that the owners are all young people in love with this magical, demanding substance, yet their creations could not be more different. Aristotelis Panagiotaros of The Dark Side belongs to the Valrhona Circle of Chefs (Valrhona is a renowned chocolate producer) and makes squares of chocolate “pralines” topped with a thin layer of chocolate so beautifully and delicately decorated that you hesitate to bite into them. Evdokia Liakou and Sophia Dendrinou at Esophy turn out long sheets of flavored chocolate and little tiles called tetra, while Kakau Worship represents the New Age bean-to-bar movement, using Fair Trade organic chocolate sourced in South America, a biodegradable wrap and recycled plain beige cardboard.
In each case, the tastes are so subtle, so exquisite that they may spoil your enjoyment of commercial chocolates. But be daring. Let’s investigate these unique ventures.
The Dark Side of Chocolate
With milk chocolate walls, tables and chairs in various shades of brown, the décor in this tiny café in central Athens prepares you for a soothing experience, even if your drink of preference is tea or coffee rather than hot chocolate. Vintage music is playing just loud enough to be pleasurable – certainly not loud enough to distract you from the patterns and colors of Aristotelis’ miniature “painted” chocolate squares on display. Which he will later place in a red, black and yellow box of the same design as the tiled floor.
Before we sit down to talk, he makes us a chocolate fondue with a shot of espresso and places a trio of his red, green and striped creations on a little saucer next to the cup.
“My story with gastronomy starts in 2006 with a road trip on my motorcycle,” Aristotelis explains. Fed up with his office job and having to live with his parents, he took off at the age of 29 for Amsterdam and got a job washing dishes in a restaurant. “I rose to sous-chef and then cook, but after a year I missed the Mediterranean, so I took my bike and my girlfriend to Florence, where I attended cooking school for a while,” he continues.
Though he learned the basics of chocolate in cooking school, it was working for a small chocolatier – smaller than this one – that channeled his ambitions. “This was like working in an artist’s studio, and because I’m very artistic, I decided to specialize in chocolate. It was there I got the passion,” he explains.
But it was in Paris, at Patrick Roger’s chocolate plant at Sceaux, that Aristotelis mastered the techniques of the profession. “He’s known for his huge chocolate statues and is considered the best chocolatier in France,” he says. “From the very first day I was expected to work at the same pace and the same level as the rest of the team of seven-eight people. But he had a Japanese assistant who made miniatures, and that’s where I learned how to bring art to chocolate.”
After returning to Athens, he opened this shop in 2011; at first, his chocolate lab was located here as well, before he moved it off the premises two years ago.
“I like to flavor my pralines with Greek tastes: rosemary, jasmine, basil, honey and cardamom, olive oil – from my own trees – and citrus from my own lemons and tangerines,” he says. But he doesn’t limit himself to local tastes: he has also made chocolates flavored with Japanese green tea, black tea with dried fruit, peppercorn and lime zest, and espresso and salt.
At the moment Aristotelis uses only Valrhona chocolate, which represents just 1 percent of the world’s chocolate, and he belongs to the Valrhona Circle of Chefs, a high honor. It takes him two days to make his products: one day to make the ganache filling, and another to apply the fine sheet that he decorates.
“One has to pay great attention to detail. There are so many small things you have to look out for. Chocolate is a very delicate and very demanding material.”
“Chocolate is a very delicate and very demanding material.”
We bite into the squares in front of us, cracking the glazed surface, letting the complex taste of the soft ganache fill our mouth. Have we ever really savored a chocolate like this before? With each one different, each one gloriously rich, how on earth could anyone choose?
Like any creative person, Aristotelis is not content with his impressive range. “The new menu will have my own invention – cacao maza, a bitter drink, close to what the Aztecs and Maya used to make – and I want to move on to making my own chocolate from scratch,” he tells us.
For the moment, we are so happy with his present collection that we’re in no rush to move on. It will take some time before we’ve sampled the whole range of these lovely squares.
According to Sophia Dendrinou, chocolate is the most exciting word in the dictionary. And, says Evdokia Liakou, “it’s friendly, warm, symbolizes love, giving, friendship, thanks. Like the Mediterranean.”
The two women met while working at a large food and beverage company in Athens – Sophia was Evdokia’s boss – but they soon realized they wanted to get out of marketing and get their hands on something they could make themselves.
“We realized we had the same philosophy: we’re both people who love to cook, take care of friends and family, decorate and celebrate,” says Evdokia.
“But because of our background,” continues Sophia, “we had learned what’s needed besides passion and inspiration – quality control, logistics, pricing – things that are vital for a viable business.”
“We knew we lived in a place abundant with fruits, nuts and herbs, and we wanted to do something with them,” says Evdokia. “On the other hand, you have chocolate, which is a superfood, but which has been turned into junk food, and there’s so much guilt surrounding it.”
First, they took a six-month online course at L’Ecole Chocolatiere in Vancouver and graduated top of their class. They’d learned the theory and the chemistry, but they needed practical experience so, while still working, they attended classes at the Chocolate Academy in Brussels: how to make pralines (the ganache Aristotelis refers to), how to coat, tempering, etc.
Chocolate is the most exciting word in the dictionary.
“But something was missing. The ingredients they used for fillings didn’t seem to have any flavor,” says Sophia.
That made Evdokia and Sophia all the more eager to introduce Greek tastes into their chocolates. “We originally had 100 recipes, but we’ve pared them down to about 22,” she continues.
Using their business connections, the duo opened their own chocolate business called Esophy (a combination of their names) and began making chocolate gift baskets for corporations. They did this for two years and the response was so “incredible, that we decided we were ready to open a shop this October. We use chocolate from different small producers, including Valrhona,” says Evdokia.
Their shop in Kifissia is spare but tasteful, with a large case displaying their thin slabs of chocolate, broken into irregular pieces, and decorations framed by their elegant beige, black and white packaging. You can see the area where they make their chocolate to the rear, laying it out on a long metal table, and they don’t mind you watching either.
The options include salted pistachios, mastiha and roasted almonds, yogurt and blueberries, rose petals, mint, sesame, caramel and sea salt, three citrus fruits, coffee, cardamom and figs.
To our surprise, having a preference for dark chocolate, we liked the milk chocolate combinations more than we thought we would. Thin though they are, all are packed with subtle flavors. We first noticed their surface texture, the snap as we cracked a piece, the sublime aroma, the rich taste and then the dilemma, which one to try next?
While for the time being they sell only chocolates, they’ve ordered a machine that will make hot chocolate to go. Their slabs and tetra (little squares) are not for sale anywhere else in Athens, so it’s worth making the trip to Kifissia to find them.
Aris Flokas, only 27 years old, discovered chocolate when he traveled to Mexico in 2011. “I was never a chocolate boy when I was young but in Mexico I met cacao, the bean. And it blew my mind because I felt the relationship with the material. I found some homemade chocolate paste (from the skinned bean), bought some stone grinders and started putting the stuff, like cake batter, into my coffee,” he says.
The way he tells it, sitting in his sparsely decorated shop in a back street of Pagrati, it’s obvious that it was love at first bite. And he became obsessed with the bean. “Wherever I went, I would try to make chocolate, trying to grind it finer, mixing it with coconut oil, adding spices,” Aris explains. “I traveled a lot in South America but my main inspiration came when I stayed with a family in the Amazon jungle of Peru.”
Aris came and went, working at his family’s taverna in Gavdos, a tiny island south of Crete, in the summers to earn money for trips to South America, forgetting about university.
“Wherever I went, I would try to make chocolate, trying to grind it finer.”
“I was determined to make chocolate at home, bought a conch [stone grinder], which would take 36 hours before you’d have chocolate. And I was fixed on purity, didn’t want to use sugar. Eventually I managed to make some bars and my friends were enthusiastic and some, like Tassos Theodosiadis, wanted to join me on the practical side, while others helped with the financial side. And we started getting good feedback from people used to eating high-end chocolate,” he says.
This self-taught bunch invested in some machinery and opened Kakau Worship last June. “We have no background in pastry or anything, but we had a calling. The same month that we opened the shop, we also entered our bars in an international competition and three of the eight won awards!” Aris exclaims. “It was confirmation of what we believed in.”
The only bean-to-bar company in Greece, they buy organically grown beans from small producers in South America involved in fair trade practices, and their packaging is environmentally friendly, too.
For the moment Kakau Worship’s bars are from Guatemala, 75 to 90 percent cacao, one with chile, one with coffee and two without any flavorings; and from Peru, 55 to 77 percent cacao, flavored with vanilla, coconut and cardamom as well as unflavored. Unsurprisingly, their logo is the ancient Mayan symbol for cacao.
Apart from Kakau Worship itself, you can find their bars at certain shops like TAF coffee, Cibo and Vino in Kolonaki, and Lacadona in Plaka. They cost around 5-7 euros each. But we think you’ll agree that chocolate tastes even better when it’s handmade with love and passion, so it’s worth spending a bit more.