Meet Ireland’s response to Willy Wonka – Paula Stakelum, Pastry Chef and Chocolate Artist at Ashford Castle
For Paula Stakelum, from Thurles, chocolate isn’t just an Easter treat, it’s the artistic medium through which she works magic every week. As the pastry chef at the five-star Ashford Castle in Cong, Co. Mayo, she regularly makes up to 10kg of finished chocolates per day, working with a team of 10 pastry chefs.
Under normal circumstances, Easter would be a peak time for Paula, with specialty chocolates and eggs to be made in abundance. However, this year the 35-year-old finds herself with more free time and a thoughtful mood as the castle prepares to reopen when the pandemic ends.
âMy earliest memories of chocolate are probably the same as everyone’s,â Stakelum says. âAs kids we all loved Cadbury, but then who doesn’t? As a pastry chef, however, I can identify the moment when I realized that chocolate was a truly special ingredient and that I was there for life.
âWe were at Tain L’Hermitage in France, at the Valrhona factory, and we were able to taste pure cocoa liquor. It actually wasn’t very pleasant – it was bitter and unpleasant – but I remember just being fascinated by how this complex substance had evolved into the kind of high-end blanket we work with today. hui. In the world of chocolate, couverture is the name given to high quality chocolate which usually contains a higher percentage of cocoa butter compared to other ingredients.
Today, Stakelum works not only with this chocolate, but with a mixture specially designed for her by Valrhona. âThe chocolate we use every day comes in the form of a solid block of cocoa and it’s our exclusive, no one else in the world has it,â she says.
There was never much doubt about what part of the kitchen would Stakelum end up working in. A teenager in transition year to high school, she did an internship at a local hotel in Tipperary and caught the virus. After her Leaving Cert, she studied cooking at Cork IT before moving to Galway to work at the Ardilaun Hotel and do a Bachelor of Culinary Arts, specializing in Pastry at GMIT.
In 2010, Paula joined Ashford Castle as Pastry Chef and thanks the current owners, the Tollmans, for having the foresight to invest in the equipment necessary to make premium blanket.
âBack then we were making small batches of chocolate by hand for petit fours, but to do it really well you have to have a special room and the temperature and humidity has to be right,â says Stakelum. âBut we started to get really busy and Ms. Tollman basically asked us what we needed and paid for the best equipment. It made a huge difference.
Since then, Stakelum has continued to strengthen the hotel’s reputation for excellence in cuisine, in collaboration with executive chef Philippe Farineau.
Ashford Castle dates back to the 13th century and is set on a plot of over 350 acres. There are two casual restaurants on-site, as well as the George V fine-dining restaurant, and Stakelum and its chefs serve them all. âWhen a guest comes to stay at the chateau, they pay a higher rate for this experience and expect something different. For me, it’s really important that we create something that you can only have here. For example, here we have our own chocolate created with Valrhona, called Legend, because we wanted to create a flavor that was specific to us. So that even if the guests were leaving and they had a bar of our chocolate, it would remind them to be here, âshe said.
âWhen guests arrive at the chateau and are shown to their rooms, we often create a box of chocolates especially for them if there is anything that could inspire them. We spend this time because that’s how you make a difference.
The history of chocolate is fascinating and surprising. For much of its history it has been consumed as a bitter drink and even today it is regularly used as a salty ingredient in South American cuisine. The sweet confectionery we know and love as chocolate is actually a relatively recent invention, originating in the 19th century.
To achieve this, the cocoa pods are split to reveal 45 to 50 cocoa beans per pod. These beans are then fermented, dried and roasted to create usable cocoa. The outer shells of the beans are removed and the inner beans broken down to create cocoa beans.
These chips are then crushed to make cocoa liquor, which can be mixed with cocoa butter and sugar, and depending on the desired end result, sometimes condensed or powdered milk, to create solid chocolate.
âWe put the raw chocolate we receive in a special machine which melts it at 250 degrees, then cools it as it passes through the machine. This tempers it before using it. It’s a complex process, but it’s necessary if you want a great end product.
Tempering chocolate consists of heating it and then cooling it very carefully so that the fats crystallize evenly, giving the finished chocolate particular qualities. Instead of crumbling, for example, it cracks and its appearance is much more even and attractive.
“If you were to just melt chocolate and pour it into a mold, it wouldn’t come out as expected because the crystals in the chocolate would separate too much.” The tempered chocolate is shiny and flawless and cracks when bitten, before melting smoothly in your mouth.
âUntempered chocolate is dull and waxy and often has white streaks. It has a chewy texture and is more likely to melt – that’s not what you want when you’re trying to impress.
Stakelum takes his cooking a step further, and also tempers the cocoa butter. It is a key ingredient in creating chocolates with a glossy mirror finish. âWe use something like a paint gun to spray tempered cocoa butter into a mold before adding the tempered chocolate. You get a fantastic finish that you don’t really see in commercial over-the-counter chocolate, and we can also use different colors and textures, âshe says.
âWhen you buy a chocolate bar from a store, it retains its shape and shine because it has been properly tempered. If it was not tempered, on a hot day, the chocolate would melt on the shelf. Of course, it’s not just in stores where melting is a danger. âBecause chocolate contains a large amount of cocoa butter, it can be difficult to work with in a commercial restaurant kitchen. It melts easily, so molding or shaping it while other chefs are using hot ovens and flames around you is not ideal, âsays Stakelum.
For this reason, there is a specially constructed chilled chocolate room at Ashford Castle, allowing Stakelum and his staff to work without fear of the desserts melting in front of their eyes.
âEvery chocolate design we make has a meaning behind it. When the guest sees it, we want to make them smile and the color has to mean something to them. The color should also reflect the flavor inside. When you bite into a red chocolate, you expect strawberry, not lemon, for example, âshe says.
In his preparations, Stakelum try to use as many local Irish ingredients as possible, with obvious exceptions – there is no way to stock up on Irish chocolate, citrus or vanilla for example. âBut when it comes to fruits and vegetables, we try to make our chocolates as local as possible. I don’t believe people come to Ashford Castle to eat mango or passion fruit or anything like that, so I never use them. People come here to eat strawberries and raspberries, apples and pears.
To further increase the percentage of local products, Stakelum and his team are also researching seasonal ingredients in the area that can be used in cooking.
âTwo of my favorite wild ingredients are only in season now, wood sorrel and pine tips. Sorrel has a nice lemon and citrus flavor and grows from St. Patrick’s Day. Likewise, we pluck the tips of pine leaves and use them in oil and chocolate to capture the aroma. At different times of the year we have elder flowers and elderberries.
So, for someone who lives and breathes chocolate, the big question is, will she be expecting an Easter egg this morning?
” Ah yes of course. I love chocolate and I never tire of it. I can consider it both as an ingredient and also as a treat. I can not wait.