Giv­ing the su­per­mar­kets a golden touch

Can an in­de­pen­dent choco­latier re­ally work in har­mony with big busi­ness?

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Eating & Drinking - XANTHE CLAY mark­sand­

It’s hard to imag­ine any­thing more joy­ously pa­gan than an Easter egg. For all the re­cent fuss about drop­ping the word “Easter” from egg hunts, all those eggs, chicks and bun­nies hark back to an­cient spring fes­ti­vals. So does the very word “Easter”, al­legedly named for the deeply un- Chris­tian god­dess Eas­tre. As for the choco­lates, the brief has widened be­yond baby an­i­mals and ovoids. With the boom in ar­ti­san choco­latiers over the last decade, shapes have be­come more in­ven­tive, with shelves bear­ing Daleks or a Dis­ney Frozen palace. Cho­co­late is of­ten bet­ter qual­ity too, with sin­gle-ori­gin and high-co­coa solids both bump­ing up the price. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the su­per­mar­kets are keen to get in on the act. Marks & Spencer leads the pack, hav­ing worked with Ar­ti­san du Cho­co­lat since 2008. The Kent-based bou­tique pro­ducer makes the best­selling M&S salted caramels, as well as many of its show-stop­ping, sculp­tural Easter eggs. But how does a small choco­latier, which prides it­self on work­ing with top-qual­ity cho­co­late and cut­ting-edge de­sign, work with a gi­ant re­tailer with­out sell­ing out? I vis­ited the Ar­ti­san du Cho­co­lat fac­tory (a space smaller than the av­er­age two-bed­room bun­ga­low), to find out. Ar­ti­san du Cho­co­lat’s owner, Anne Weyns, is a no-non­sense Bel­gian who de­scribes her­self as hav­ing OCD – that’s “Ob­ses­sive Cho­co­late Dis­or­der” – and has given her­self the job ti­tle “cho­co­late ad­ven­turer”. The for­mer man­age­ment con­sul­tant set up Ar­ti­san du Cho­co­lat in 1999 with her then part­ner Ger­ard Cole­man (he has since left but still con­sults for them), work­ing around her day job. Their big break came when a sam­ple was snapped by the then head chef of Gor­don Ram­say’s Royal Hospi­tal Road restau­rant (Ram­say has since de­scribed them as the “Bentley of choco­lates”, and Weyns still sup­plies the restau­rant as well as Clar­idge’s). The choco­lates that made them fa­mous were the mar­ble-sized, liq­uid salted caramels, glo­ri­ously sweet-savoury, that ap­peared just as the salted-caramel craze started. Weyns’s first shop opened in 2002, when she fi­nally gave up the day job, then in 2007 they moved to the cur­rent fac­tory in Ash­ford. M&S com­mis­sioned their first choco­lates the fol­low­ing year, in­clud­ing a ver­sion of those salted caramels. For such a small com­pany, work­ing for a su­per­mar­ket has its tri­als. There were ex­haus­tive checks by M&S au­di­tors and by its tech­ni­cal team. Metal de­tec­tors were in­stalled to scan ev­ery egg and cho­co­late. It was not al­ways easy toe­ing the line, Weyns ad­mits. “It’s a bit like be­ing a teenager, when your par­ents tell you some­thing that you know is right but you still don’t want to do it.” But, she says, “they’ve seen it all al­ready – they can see prob­lems com­ing”. With the help of the M&S work, her staff has grown from two to more than 50, plus those who work in the four shops. Com­pared to the other five cho­co­late pro­duc­ers that M&S uses, it’s a tiny op­er­a­tion, which al­lows for more com­plex meth­ods. Weyns shows me boxes of four small eggs, filled on one side with a dark cho­co­late ganache, on the other with runny caramel. “It’s com­pli­cated tech­ni­cally,” Weyns says, with some un­der­state­ment. The su­per­mar­ket’s or­der might be for 50,000 eggs, while a usual “run” for the pro­ducer peaks at 2,000. “It’s a blend of hand­made and mech­a­nised,” ex­plains Weyns. Some in­gre­di­ents dif­fer too, al­though both par­ties in­sist on nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents such as real maple syrup and mint. The Ar­ti­san du Cho­co­lat caramels use “sel gris”, a cleaned but un­re­fined salt from France that might have a minute fleck of mol­lusc in it. A tiny risk, but not one that M&S is pre­pared to take, so their caramels con­tain Mal­don salt. Pro­duc­tion for the Ar­ti­san du Cho­co­lat Easter eggs starts in Jan­uary – rel­a­tively late com­pared to other pro­duc­ers (cream is used in their ganache, hence the shorter shelflife). But the new ranges are planned a year ahead. The M&S team heads off on factfind­ing trips to the cho­co­late hotspots of the world. Sounds like heaven, but Katy Patino, Marks & Spencer’s cho­co­late de­vel­oper, says it’s no hol­i­day. Days are spent dash­ing from cho­co­late shops to patis­series, tast­ing and com­pil­ing a dossier of ideas. On the hit list are the three main cen­tres of ex­cel­lence: Paris, Barcelona and Lon­don. Paris is about “chic and beau­ti­ful” de­signs, but it’s Barcelona where many of M&S’s in­flu­ences can be found. “Easter is big in Spain, and their cho­co­late is fun and ac­ces­si­ble – less ‘scary’ than beau­ti­ful Parisian cho­co­late.” Lon­don is a cos­mopoli­tan mix of both, with choco­latiers such as Paul A Young and Ro­coco’s Chan­tal Coady lead­ing the way. The team looks at styles, fin­ishes and flavour com­bi­na­tions. “We’d never take some­thing and sim­ply redo it. But in Barcelona last year we saw some re­ally fun lambs and bun­nies with their bums in the air – they made you smile,” ex­plains Patino. This idea has been reimag­ined as the Laid­back Lamb – a Shaun the Sheep looka­like on his back with legs thrust sky­wards. Ideas be­come a brief of pho­tos and key words, given to the sup­plier to in­ter­pret. What does the sup­plier think? “Oh dear!” laughs Anne. “The brief is quite wide and there is room for ma­noeu­vre. I know the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of what we can and can’t do.” For those of us who rail at ex­cess pack­ag­ing, Patino in­sists that the lay­ers of foil, card­board and plas­tic are vi­tal. “They have to go through a lot of abuse.” Ev­ery egg de­sign is tested by drop­ping a case full of them three times from knee height. All must sur­vive, or the egg must be made less frag­ile or the pack­ag­ing more re­silient. “How­ever beau­ti­ful it is when it leaves the fac­tory, it’s no good if it ar­rives dam­aged. These are gifts at the end of the day.” As I leave, I watch a woman check a batch of dark ganache-filled eggs with gloved hands, while an­other dabs each with ed­i­ble glue, and a third strokes on a sheet of whis­perthin gold leaf. It’s in­cred­i­bly skilled, de­tailed work. “They are very dex­ter­ous,” says Weyns. As each egg is hand­brushed to re­move any stray fin­ger­prints, be­fore be­ing slot­ted into the ac­etate sleeve and tied with a rib­bon, it’s im­pos­si­ble to dis­agree. Pretty enough for Eas­tre her­self.

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