York’s chocolate revival
The York Cocoa House sells confectionery products from 25 local suppliers, as well as those made in-house. (York Cocoa House)
At the tiny, deli counter-style Monk Bar Chocolatiers, a diet-threatening array of treats is on display. The caramel praline cups, pineapple butter creams and curacao orange liqueur truffles are designed to lure even the most reluctant sweet-toothed visitor.
York has been the UK’s chocolate-making capital for more than a century. But in the last five years, a new breed of small, upmarket chocolatiers has taken the baton from the big name manufacturers – such as Rowntree’s and Terry’s – that brought international fame to York’s chocolate industry in the early 20th Century.
Back then, Terry’s produced the likes of the UK-favourite All Gold – a box of assorted milk chocolates – while Rowntree’s made Kit Kat wafer bars and sugar-coated Smarties, but both were eventually bought out. Nestlé took over Rowntree’s in 1988, while Terry’s became part of Kraft in 1993. Production of many key brands was moved away from York, and although a Nestlé factory in the city still produces many former Rowntree’s products, the Terry’s factory closed in 2005.
The city’s confectionery history is explored in York’s Chocolate Story, an attraction that opened in Kings Square in March 2012 and uses video, interactive quizzes and voiceovers to explain how the city’s riverside location made it the perfect spot for importing ingredients and exporting the finished treats. But the attraction is about the future as well as the past – it also has in-house chocolatiers who hold regular chocolate-making demonstrations, and the downstairs shop offers a chance to sample products from some of the city’s small-scale manufacturers that do not have their own stores.
For example, the shop features peach-and-raspberry or orange-and-geranium flavoured bars from Choc Affair, which specialises in handmade, fair-trade chocolate. The company was founded by Linda Barrie, who was searching for a hot chocolate recipe for her lactose-intolerant daughter. She ended up melting down bars of dark chocolate, and the experimentation went on from there.
Even smaller in scale is husband-and-wife operation Guppy’s Chocolates, also available at York’s Chocolate Story. In 2010, Peter and Fran Guppy converted their garage into a miniature chocolate factory and quit their jobs in the financial services industry. Their speciality is single origin bars, where all the cocoa beans come from a specific region such as Santander in Colombia or Sambirano in Madagascar. The principle is similar to that of terroir, where the soil and climate in a particular area impart distinctive qualities into wine. Guppy’s also makes hand-piped ganache truffles, with flavours including champagne and strawberry, cherry brandy and salted caramel.
Perhaps the most ambitious of York’s new chocolate projects, however, is the York Cocoa House, located near York Minster cathedral. Opened in November 2011, it offers a twist on the traditional Yorkshire tea room. Instead of serving afternoon tea, York Cocoa House serves afternoon chocolate, where all the items served have a predictable key ingredient. The spread includes raw cacao nib and black olive tapenade; a Yorkshire Blue cheese and chocolate tart; and choc-cherry scones.
The indulgent afternoon feasts are complemented by the shop, which sells confectionery products from 25 local suppliers, as well as those made in-house. The latter use seasonal produce whenever possible, so strawberry truffles are only made when fresh strawberries are in season.
But the third string to York Cocoa House’s bow is chocolate-making classes, where novices can have a go at creating their own chocolate bar from scratch.
The experience includes tasting chocolate in its various forms – including cocoa bean, nib and pure cocoa butter – and students selecting which ingredients they want to put in the bar. They are also taught how to temper the chocolate using a hairdryer – the process of melting it while retaining a smooth, glossy texture.
York Cocoa House is owned and run by Sophie Jewett, who went to the University of York after growing up on the Isle of Wight in southern England. “I am a very greedy chocolate lover,” Jewett explained. “And I was fascinated about York being a chocolate city. You could smell the chocolate in the air – it was pungent from the factories.”
Jewett believes that the current renaissance in artisan chocolate making has strong links to that past, through both tradition and personnel. York Cocoa House’s chief chocolatier, for example, formerly worked at the Terry’s factory.
“The city has such a bedrock of talent and experience,” she said. “And we’re beginning to see the results of that.”