Patisserie pirouettes put Pretoria on the chocolate map
Keeping Gauteng’s artisanal chocolate creative and exciting meant performing surprising pirouettes at Jack Rabbit, to maintain the business without layoffs. This year those tricks and inventions are paying off as big gains in popularity and the international market.
The extraordinary overtook the ordinary at Gauteng’s Jack Rabbit Chocolate, but it’s strange how it doesn’t quite boil down to just one aspect, like Jack Rabbit’s own transformation of nibs, for instance. There was a little chocolate melange of necessities that mothered such inventions.
Stephanie Ceronio was and is the innovator and parent of it all. She typically describes herself as founder and chief fancy pants of Jack Rabbit Chocolate.
I take the Gautrain over to Pretoria to meet her and see what and how Jack Rabbit is, for real. Stephanie and I once exchanged a few muffled, masked words at a store opening but have not really met properly and spoken.
The old Waterkloof suburbs including the golf course are now pretty much all gated and I still can’t quite reconcile myself to that, including the long way round by road to get anywhere, via only a few entrances.
The Jack Rabbit Chocolate Studio is in a small shopping centre facing a parking lot. It’s between equally artisanal Whisk Away ice creamery and an inviting looking wine bar.
I’m afraid I haven’t timed this at all well. The dates just haven’t occurred to me. Not intended as an Easter piece, I’m here to find out about Jack Rabbit a few days before what I now realise is the Easter weekend, that I imagined was a week later anyway. It’s probably the busiest time of the year for any chocolatier.
It’s not surprising then that Stephanie is out. Jack Rabbit chocolates are always delivered by car by the chocolatiers themselves to assure their perfect state on arrival. I look around the entrance to see what’s visible. Behind a fully arrayed chocolate bonbon counter is a high and wide bookcase. Books of many sizes are arranged according to spine colours. I marvel, looking at them more closely. They’re all food books, mostly thumbed and, I can easily see, used, read, not bought by the yard.
I know Stephanie and Jack Rabbit also feature in Come Together – the Worlds’ Finest Chefs, edited by Flavel Monteiro and she was one of the authors of his drool-over book about chocolate, Thought Process: When Imagination Becomes Emotion.
Later, it’ll occur to me that this colour filing is a clue to the organisational style of Stephanie Ceronio. Even the tastes are identified by colours and mixes of colours in each bonbon production series. If you’re an already addicted Jack Rabbit chocolates splurger in Jozi, at either The Pantry by Marble in Rosebank or in the deli part of chef Daniela Gutstad’s Culinary Table restaurant in Lanseria, you’ll know this.
Behind the shop part with the books, I hear knocking and tapping, in what I presume is the actual production studio, sounding like chocolates being encouraged from moulds perhaps, but Stephanie is here quite suddenly and we plonk down at a table outside.
I’m hoping she’ll tell me about her cocoa nibs processing. It turns out this has become part of the bean-to-bar side of Jack Rabbit.
“Jack Rabbit? It’s just a name, an incidental name. It was one I picked from a random list.”
I like the fact that Jack Rabbit is fast on his feet, quick to get going. I also wonder to myself if you have a name like this, whether it informs the character of a business willy nilly. I don’t say anything like that but it’s at the back of my mind throughout, while Stephanie tells me about the hardship just about everyone was having during the extreme days, months, two years of Covid. There was hardly any chocolate being imported.
Stephanie’s a Valrhona fan and used to use the buttons or feves of couverture for her chocolates. Often it seems as if the chocolate world is divided between Callebaut people and Valrhona people. Callebaut is bigger than I thought, encompassing many companies. It is Big Business. Valrhona is smaller than I imagined and I do know it has a caring side that seems to be more than plain PR. In so many agro-initial businesses, the farmers are the ones who make the least, often almost nothing and, in the eventual production of expensive chocolates, it seems even more disparate and unfair somehow.
That Valrhona is perceived as equal in value to that of Big Business chocolate may be attributed to the impact they may be having on fairness within the trade. Its supreme quality of chocolate, of course, is undisputed anyway.
There Jack Rabbit was, buying the feves or buttons of chocolate, Valrhona preferably, reducing them to liquid chocolate to make their filled bonbons. Then there was none. So they thought about creating their own feves from the chocolate nibs.
“The husky parts? So dry!” I exclaim.
“They were available and chocolate is chocolate so we worked on extracting what chocolate there is from the nibs. We could make lots of different flavours still, not always the ones we were used to but new interesting fillings nevertheless. We just needed the chocolate. We smoked and roasted the nibs, combined the resultant paste with sugar. For milk chocolate, we used milk powder, roasted that and got a caramelised type of result. We worked on depths of flavour and all kinds of variations.”
Stephanie was long used to extreme thinking and creativity. When she started out as a rookie chocolatier in the early days, there were, as she points out, no YouTube educationals and chocolate making was closely guarded, a secret. no-one shared their knowledge.
One well-known international chocolatier grudgingly offered “to give you just the basics.” From there Stephanie says, “We taught ourselves.” She read everything available and extrapolated from what was and wasn’t said about the process. She loved it.
So the chocolate from nibs or another kind of “bean to bar” process was a challenge but a good one. The results were what she and her Jack Rabbit team of chocolatiers would depend on as the way of staying in as much business as was possible. They are, incidentally, all qualified patissiers before they start at Jack Rabbit. She is the one that was not.
“We used anything likely we could lay our hands on at Checkers and the Spar. Remember, it was the time when there were often empty shelves in those shops?” The bars were born. Packaging them was another hurdle. Printers were shut. One of them that Stephanie visited illicitly, had bright offcuts of paper and they used cotton or string to tie up the bars, personally.
Those bars saved Jack Rabbit in many ways. The staff were not laid off. It was difficult but the bars sold and sold. Today they don’t look very different in their bright paper wrappers. People still love and demand them, even now that chocolate bonbons are very much in production again.
But now there are differences. “Covid slowed us down and we had time to think, change old ways and plan new ones.” Stephanie realised her chocolate can now come from anywhere, especially in Africa. She has help by way of a Malawian chocolate worker who creates Jack Rabbit’s couverture from Malawian chocolate beans but can really do so with any country’s beans. And will.
Jack Rabbit is free now, after all the strictures and inventions, to feature special origin runs of chocolate from Madagascar, Tanzania or Ghana, anywhere.
One of the things that Jack Rabbit is already famous for is its range of flavours. there were some crazy bar flavours once but now they can be adventurous. Already I have my eye on a green paper-covered bar or slab of dark chocolate with candied cocoa nibs embedded in it. It seems the perfectly apposite choice.
The real adventurousness comes with the pure chocolate Jack Rabbit bonbons enclosing an incredibly inventive and changing selection of deliciousness, beyond ordinary filling expectations.
I have twice fairly recently in Jozi bought saffron-and-marzipan bonbons. They no longer exist. What I want now is African Nightshade (nastergal or umsobu – having grown some myself too), also Burnt Butter and Honey and a Bergamot one. And any of the other 21 flavours. Or all.
Stephanie says, “I eat a lot of chocolate and I keep thinking up more flavours I want to create or combine or try, so we drop many others as we go. It keeps the range fresh. I can’t remember what I was doing last Sunday but I can remember flavours and tastes from my entire life.”
New autumn flavours, freshly created, just to mention the latest examples are: Spicy Clemengold I (an international winner as we’ll see); Fig Balsamic and Port; Cranberry and Almond; Blonde Pumpkin Spice, Apricot Cobbler and Kalamansi Pie. There are non-fruity ones like Chai Latte and Turkish Delight inter alia but Stephanie loves fruit at the moment. Kalamansi, it turns out, is a Philippine lime, a sour-tasting hybrid between a kumquat and a citrus, like a mandarin orange. That’s another bonbon I have to try.
The other range is Signature Flavours and here are the: Espresso; Salted Butter Caramel; Dark Chocolate and Cherry; Crème Brulee; Bounty (love the memory); and one regarded as Jack Rabbit’s current greatest is simply called Passion Fruit. Another must, I think.
Recently, each of the staff of chocolatiers sent with Stephanie to Florence, the place of this year’s International Chocolate Awards, their own chosen, self-created flavour. Jack Rabbit won outright in 2017 and has always done well until the Covid gap. Jack Rabbit has to enter under Mediterranean countries because, strange as it may seem to people who know on what huge continent much of the world’s chocolate comes from, there is no category for Africa.
One of these bonbon flavours submitted was African Nightshade but was regarded as “not a recognisable taste.” However, chef Lucy Sithole’s Spicy Blonde Clemengold was awarded Silver and another from the Jack Rabbit studio, won Bronze. That was for a Strawberry Cape Gooseberry bonbon.
Things are going well again for Jack Rabbit. Very well. A Japanese importer spotted Jack Rabbit’s products on Instagram and the rest could become history. Harrods is also interested. Stephanie says this is the year she concentrates on exports. They’re tricky with chocolates that have no preservatives for shelf life but apparently highly desirable for that matter.
It’s the end of the afternoon and I realise I haven’t been offered a cup of coffee or even a hot chocolate or just a chocolate. Even a glass of wine from next door would have been nice. We’ve spoken and spoken and neither of us stopped for anything to drink. But I must go.
I recklessly buy a beautiful box of all the bonbons I’ve decided I’d like, plus the ones I thought I’d add. I also buy that bar with the candied nibs.
On the train back, thinking of what I’ve learned and what it means, a funny thing hops into my mind. It’s husse met lang ore. When we were growing up in London, my mother often reminded us of where we came from with phrases like that. It was maddening that it was not a rabbit, not anything. It had long ears but it was the answer to a whole bunch of things, like “What’s Daddy making in the kitchen?” (it was usually Turkish Delight or an omelette). So it was the phrase for Anything or Whatever. It’s not unlike the changeable, nimble, irreverent, mysterious Jack Rabbit, really. And he has the lang ore.
On the relatively short journey I eat the dark chocolate bar with the candied nibs. I haven’t eaten all day and the snap of the bitter-sour chocolate and sweet little inclusions are extremely satisfying to all my senses. I eat the whole thing.
What do I know now? I consider. There’s nothing ordinary about Jack Rabbit. DM/TGIFood
Jack Rabbit Chocolate Studio, 068 231 3796. jackrabbitchocolate.co.za
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.