Stewart McRobert indulges his sweet tooth and explores the Scottish chocolate-making world.
Scotland’s love of all things sweet is well known. Indeed, it has been estimated that we eat more sweet treats than any other country in the world. The origins of that passion are said to date back to the 17th century when sugar started to be shipped to Great Britain from the West Indies, with Glasgow and the River Clyde being major points of entry.
There can be no surprise then that the country is a haven for chocolate lovers and is currently home to numerous expert chocolatiers. In comparison to the somewhat down-to-earth traditions that saw the Scots become specialists in producing robust boiled sweets, today’s chocolate craftspeople take a sophisticated approach. They prepare their products with love, care and a great deal of patience. Above all, they are constantly pursuing new flavours and ideas to stimulate the taste buds of their worldwide customer base.
Here are a few of the country’s distinguished ‘MacChocolatiers’:
When you purchase a product from Edinburgh-based COCO, you are literally buying a work of art. The firm’s unique approach combines high-quality chocolate with leading-edge imagery.
It all began when the company was acquired by former firefighter Calum Haggerty in July 2013. The firm’s Giulia Mattei said: “Calum had been keen to start his own business and was excited by COCO’s potential.
“The big change he made was to combine his love of chocolate and interest in the arts. In particular, he offered a platform for contemporary emerging artists to showcase their work on our packaging.”
The company has worked with UK-based and international artists including Glasgow’s Timorous Beasties, US-based William LaChance, François Mangeol of Paris and London-based Stephen Smith who works under the name Neasden Control Centre.
Giulia emphasised that the focus remains on producing the best possible chocolate. To that end COCO cooperates with a Bogota-based firm that works with cocoa farmers across Colombia. The farmers provide cocoa beans that are quality-tested then turned into the high-quality raw material COCO uses to create its products.
“That’s good for us and for the farmers in Colombia since it creates legitimate jobs and boosts the Colombian economy.
“Overall, we’re delighted that we’ve not only become part of the food and drink conversation in Scotland, but part of the arts narrative too.”
Stop press: during this global pandemic Coco is selling special NHS chocolate bars with artwork by Sir Billy Connolly, Portis Wasp and Andrew Rae. Each bar sells for £8.50 with at least £5 going towards the NHS.
The Highland Chocolatier
The best truffles in the world are made in the Scottish Highlands. That’s not an empty boast, it’s a title won on two occasions at the International Chocolate Awards by Iain Burnett who trades as the Highland Chocolatier.
His multi-award winning chocolates result from his childhood as the son of a chef in the west of Scotland and his keen interest in science.
A product design engineer by training, Iain attended Glasgow School of Art and it was his love of the technicalities involved in chocolate making that led him to his current role. “It’s why truffles have become my specialty and Velvet Truffles my signature piece.”
Iain’s expertise has brought him high profile clients including numerous five star hotels and Michelin-starred chefs such as Albert Roux and Gordon Ramsay.
“To get a beautiful texture you have to spend the time and use the freshest ingredients. We use cream from a single herd of cows that is also based in Perthshire and a rare single origin cocoa from a particular plantations in Sao Tome.”
Iain and his team take two to three days to make each batch of truffles, including hand crystallising them to achieve a melt in the mouth experience. As a result, their velvet truffles have won numerous awards.
One innovation Iain has introduced is chocolate ‘tasting flights’. Similar to the experience provided in the whisky world, customers have the chance to taste different Velvet Truffles, learning the difference between them and their background story.
“It’s fun and people love it. They taste the chocolates and get to learn something too.”
He said that being based in the Highlands has all sorts of benefits. Among others, he has essentials like the finest cream, outstanding soft fruit, and pure natural honey on his doorstep.
“What’s more, we get great support from the local population,” he said.
“That’s complemented by visitors from Europe – Germany in particular – from North America and, increasingly, from China. In 2020 our aim is to further grow our international business.”
A commitment to innovation and collaboration helps set Aberdeen firm Cocoa Ooze apart. As well as producing chocolate flavours, such as liquorice and black pepper, that you won’t find anywhere else on the market, the firm works with partners including whisky companies, to create its award-winning products.
Owner Jamie Hutcheon started the firm in 2008. At the time he was an employee of a five-star hotel but saw a gap in the market for people wanting to make their own chocolate. He carried out research, undertook training and began making chocolates for the hotel as well as family and friends.
“It spiralled from there and lots of people were asking about buying the chocolates. After a while I decided to set up in business.” He began attending fairs and events and in time opened his own premises. As the business developed it became a retailer and coffee shop.
“With our core team of seven we host chocolate making workshops for adults and children, parties, and team building events. Over and above our service to local people and businesses, we have an online presence and clients in Germany and Dubai,” said Jamie.
It’s interaction with customers that helps Cocoa Ooze develop its distinctive experimental flavours.
“We get our ideas from lots of places. As usual, in 2020 we’ll be keeping a close eye on seasonal trends, developing new flavours and enhancing our links with the spirits sector. Collaboration will be to the fore and we’ll be working with others to promote Scotland as a whole.”
Pittenweem Chocolate Company
If there’s a country that loves chocolate as much as Scotland it’s Belgium. It has a long-standing chocolate making custom and its products are internationally renowned. Belgian-born Sophie Latinis is the owner of the Pittenweem Chocolate Company. She brought her own unique blend of Belgian and African heritage traditions to Scotland.
Sophie’s chocolate career began in Harare, Zimbabwe. She was working in the fashion industry when she became friends with a family who had arrived from Belgium to set up a chocolaterie. Eventually, she found herself running that business. From then on she was hooked!
Having discovered the East Neuk of Fife while travelling in Scotland, she opted for life here and opened the Pittenweem Chocolate Company and Cocoa Tree Cafe in July 2007.
Choosing the location was done on instinct. She’d been staying in nearby Kingsbarns and felt very drawn to the area’s coastal villages, however fishing village Pittenweem captured her heart.
“Making my own chocolates allows me to play with flavours I haven’t found elsewhere and using local products when possible is important to me, because it supports the local community.
“I love working with chocolate and we’re lucky to have received positive reviews in the media, including prestigious publications such as Lonely Planet, Scotland the Best, Conde Naste Traveller, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune,” she said.
“We, as a team, enjoy discovering small artisan chocolatiers and cafes, being surrounded by like minded creatives and environments both inspires and encourages us. However, it’s the conversations and discussions we have with our local customers and visitors from around the world that is the ‘shine on the chocolate!’”