Jules James is not your typical Welshman. When I meet him he’s wearing black knee-length shorts and a sporty black shell jacket. His accent is 100% transatlantic and he looks like he’s just stepped off a yacht.
Jules James is a Master Chocolatier and a rising star of the Welsh food scene. Around us are sacks of couverture – the high quality beans, rich in cocoa butter and solids that are the foundation of the chocolate makers art.
Behind us are tempering machines in which thick, viscous chocolate is being sloshed and stirred – a process that gives professionally-made chocolates that satisfying sheen and snap. There are tools for dipping, shaping and moulding and racks of shelving on which finished products are drying and hardening.
There are dark bars studded with caramel chips; milk bars mined with almonds; bars of white chocolate flecked with raspberries. And rows of individual chocolates in shiny blacks, earthy browns, soft whites and brilliant reds; each one a deft combination of flavour and artistry.
How about a Gin and Bitter Lemon truffle? A hunk of dark ganache sealed in a dark chocolate coat and set off with a motif of caramel pieces and a juniper berry.
Actually I didn’t get to taste that one. Only as we were finishing our conversation did Jules reach over and snap off a piece from one of the freshly-made bars. It was dark chocolate with salted caramel and chilli.
“Do you like chilli?” he said. I was in two minds. It wouldn’t have been my first choice but on the other hand I was a bit worried that if I said no I might not get to taste anything else.
I needn’t have worried. It was sensational. Quite salty as you would wish with salted caramel, but perfectly balanced with the bitter chocolate and the sweetness of the caramel. It wasn’t too sweet. It wasn’t too salty. It was a complex blend of flavours that just worked together beautifully. The chilli was barely a hint. But just enough to give it another note. I promptly bought a bar to take home.
To wind back: although Jules is not a typical Welshman, he is a Welshman. Born in Crickhowell and schooled in Newport: “Queen’s High school, They’ve pulled it down now.’” He moved to Canada in his teens. Trained as a pastry chef and then chef de cuisine in Toronto; drifted west to Vancouver, played in bands and then took to the sea; he has been round the world – literally – twice; he spent twelve years as exec chef on luxury yachts working out of Florida and North Carolina sailing down to the Bahamas, through the Panama canal and up to Alaska; scuba-diving all the way.
In the course of this rootless existence he picked up a hundred stamps in his passport but let his Canadian citizenship lapse. When he was denied re-entry into the US – he was on the flight behind the shoe-bomber and they were jumpy – he decided it was time to return to Wales.
Setting up Black Mountain Gold has been both easy and tough. Easy because his training and experience have given him all the skills he needs to make beautiful hand-made chocolates. He understands how flavours work. As a pastry chef he has worked with chocolate for years.
Tough because it is tough to establish any kind of artisan food business. And tougher still if, like Jules, you want to make the best. If you want to conquer the world Crickhowell is probably not the obvious place to start.
But Jules is patient and pragmatic. He won’t compromise on quality but he knows he has to build from the ground up; finding out what sells and where; listening to the feedback from his customers.
He has several irons in the fire. The shop next to his workshop is beautifully appointed. It is a little off the beaten track but once found, it’s not forgotten. He is building a network of carefully selected retailers and a growing following for his bespoke chocolate-making service.
It’s only when I ask him about the on-line shop that his equanimity begins to crack: ‘Yeah, we’re selling online. It still needs a lot of work though. Couriers! They’re unbelievable. You write Fragile on a package but they don’t give a damn.’ I can’t help thinking that a typical Welshman wouldn’t have expected anything else.
Jules James is giving a tutored tasting at our Christmas Food and Drink Fair on Sunday 11 December. View details and book online now