Giving the supermarkets a golden touch
Can an independent chocolatier really work in harmony with big business?
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.