The dark heart of Melbourne

Scott Casey discovers that Australia's coffee capital is developing a sweet tooth.

In the city which ushered in the Espresso Age in Australia, a new culture is taking root with a darker, sweeter and more seductive nature.

The chocolate cafe, selling chocolate hot or cold, dark or white, made with cocoa butter by a skilled chef, is becoming entrenched in the proud Melbourne dining scene.

And can you blame them? On a brisk Victorian morning, walk along the banks of the Yarra or up Flinders Street and you'll see Melburnians dart from trams into cafe caverns to sit around a revitalising cup of steaming hot chocolate.

From Fitzroy to St Kilda, chocolate boutiques are springing up faster than the American coffee shops that once dotted the global landscape.

The language of coffee and chocolate are almost interchangeable. Your espresso becomes a luscious lump of coal-black dark chocolate. A flat white transforms into a milk chocolate which, on touching the tongue, dissolves to wrap your mouth in silk. And the soy decaf latte becomes an organic, vegan, preservative-free block of goodness.

But the revolution that is replacing latte sippers with truffle scoffers didn't happen overnight.

As far as chocolate shops go, Haigh's Chocolates in Collins Street's historic The Block Arcade was one of Melbourne's first, crafting chocolate as early as 1915.

But it wasn't until the past decade that a real chocolate cafe culture began to emerge.

Today, it provides a serious challenge to the city's traditional coffee houses, with dozens of fine chocolate establishments from the glitz of KoKo Black's numerous stores, to the sleek minimalist lines of Caco in the CBD through to the warm inviting nook of Fraus in North Melbourne.

At these gourmet chocolate cafes, traditional staples such as rocky road, chocolate slice or eclair are almost shunned, treated with the same disdain a coffee connoisseur would dish out to McDonald's drip filter.

Instead, you have chocolate with no additives like vegetable oil or artificial flavours but a high (70 per cent and above) cocoa content that enhances the chocolate's flavour and is better for you because you need less to conquer the craving.

From that base, Melbourne's chocolatiers create blocks embedded with coffee and cocoa beans, flawless pralines or froth up puffy clouds of hot chocolate.

My first memory of hot chocolate is a watery cup of Milo at Scouts - basically sweet, hot, milk - and for most cafes this still seems the standard, normally with a couple of marshmallows slowly dissolving on the surface.

But Melbourne's chocolate cafes have led a crusade for the establishment of the European tradition of thick, rich, fresh hot chocolate.

A chilli-tinged Belgian Hot Chocolate from KoKo Black is like drinking a cloud with a bolt of lightning in the tail.

A milk 'Chocolat' at Max Brenner is more subtle than the darker varieties but still a massive step up from your average Breaka.

These are drinks made to remember.

The emerging chocolate challenge is not going to cause the sun to set on Melbourne's Espresso Age. But prepare for a new bitter-sweet era in the city's narrow lanes, where coffee and chocolate co-exist side by side.

The author travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Virgin Blue and Tourism Victoria.

Melbourne chocolate boutiques:

KoKo Black
52 Collins Street
Melbourne CBD.
http://www.kokoblack.com/

Max Brenner
Shop OE5, Menzies Alley
Melbourne Central Shopping Centre
300 La Trobe Street, Melbourne
http://www.maxbrenner.com/

Fraus Crepes & Chocolat
345 Victoria St
North Melbourne, VIC 3051
(03) 9328 8999
http://www.fraus.com.au

And for lover's of organic ingredients...

Coco Loco
219 High Street,
Northcote, Melbourne
http://cocoloco1.wordpress.com/

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