Chocolate has long been considered to be the ultimate in indulgence, both as a dessert base and a daily pick-me-up, and since it was first created by the Maya tribes of Mesoamerica, chocolate in all of its many forms has been delighting us all, from South America to Sweden.
This delicious food product begins with the cacao bean, which comes from the Spanish translation of what was an Aztec word for the bean from which chocolate was derived: chcahuatl. According to the legend, English traders spelled it incorrectly, leading to the word cocoa, which stuck.
In those days, the product produced by the Mayans wasn’t anything that we would recognise as chocolate. Their approach was to dry and grind the beans before mixing them with water to make a drink that tasted bitter and looked frothy and that was often combined with chilli.
When the Aztec empire conquered the Mayans, they took to the drink eagerly. In fact, the Aztecs and the Mayans believed that chocolate came from the gods. The Aztecs gave it as a celebratory drink to warriors at the end of a battle. They also found a use for it in religious rituals, and there is even some evidence that they employed cacao beans as a form of currency. They called the drink that was derived from the cacao bean ‘xocolatl’ which experts believe may be the source of the modern word chocolate, although there are suggestions, that the root word may be ‘choqui’ or ‘warmth’.
The drink reached Europe through the Spanish, who colonised the region. In fact, the first time that Europeans saw chocolate was likely to have been in 1502, during the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus, when the travellers were offered cacao beans and a strange, brown drink. In 1527, Hernan Cortez sent gifts back to King Charles V of Spain, including a cargo of cacao beans. The recipe for the chocolate drink was reputedly adjusted by nuns, who added sugar cane and later, vanilla.
Originally the drink was considered worthy for its medicinal qualities, but the addition of both sugar and vanilla transformed it into a luxurious sweet treat. Chocolate soon caught on among the Spanish royal family, and the drink spread rapidly among the European aristocracies. It was first served to French aristocrats in 1615, and merchants and traders took it to every corner of the continent.
Chocolate arrived in England in the 1650s, and by the end of the decade, chocolate was being served in pubs and inns, then, in 1674, English customers got their first taste of solid chocolate with the first sales of what were called ‘Spanish chocolate puddings’ at the time.
Throughout the 18th century, chocolate’s popularity spread, and it was reputed to have aphrodisiac as well as health properties, and as the Industrial Revolution began to change the face of the continent, chocolate too was transformed and developed.
In 1778, geologist Joseph Townsend created a machine that used hydraulic energy to crush the cacao beans, which made for a faster and more efficient crushing and grinding process. In 1828, Coenraad van Houten of Amsterdam invented the ‘cocoa press’, which made it possible to remove the fat from a cacao bean, leaving a fine powder.
The result was a tastier drink, and soon people started to add milk to the basic recipe to further enhance the luxury of the product. Then in 1847, JS Fry and Sons came up with the idea of recombining the fat of the bean with the powder, adding sugar and then setting it in moulds, thus creating the first chocolate bar, a product that was further refined by Daniel Peter of Switzerland, who added powdered milk. Further contributions to the development of the chocolate bar were made by Joseph Fry, Henri Nestle, Rodolphe Lindt and Daniel Peter.
By the end of the 19th century, the chocolate industry was growing rapidly throughout all European countries and has remained strong ever since, with England one of the biggest markets.
In fact, the UK as a whole is the sixth largest consumer of chocolate in the world with an average of 7.6 kg consumed for every person every year. In particular, English consumers appreciate very sweet milk chocolate, accounting for around 70% of such bars sold on the continent.
And while chocolate is undoubtedly a luxury food, it has a number of positive qualities. For a start, it is an invigorating and stimulating natural anti-depressant. It contains large quantities of potassium, magnesium and phosphorus along with calcium, iron and sodium and a number of vitamins. Chocolate also features theobromine, which stimulates the nervous system and assists with muscular exertion, phenylethylamine, which has been shown to exhibit psychostimulant properties and serotonin, which can play a role in combating depression.
All of this chocolate consumption may mean that our supermarket shelves are full of mass-produced chocolate, but there are also a number of English artisan chocolatiers, who are producing a fabulous range of chocolate confection. To help you explore the best of what England has to offer to the chocolate lover, here are six top chocolate makers to look out for:
Montezuma’s – Sussex
Montezuma’s is a family-owned, English-made chocolate company and they have rapidly built a reputation for developing some of the finest and most innovative chocolate available in the UK. Montezuma’s boast an impressive range of chocolate bard, truffles, fruits and drinking chocolate, which are all made on their premises, close to the beach in West Sussex.
Cartografie – London
A chocolatier that came out of the lockdown, Cartografie was created by two successful chefs, Kae Shibata and Sven-Hanson Britt, who found themselves without jobs. The company uses only the most premium, ethically-produced cocoa beans to make handcrafted pralines and bon-bons with the finest equatorial ingredients, selling them through social channels: they sold out again and again. Their success has enabled them to set up a studio, where they make each chocolate by hand.
The range includes some fabulous examples, including salted beurre noisette ganache from the Dominican Republic’s Yuna Valley, and scorched hay infused caramel ganache with roasted banana using Trinitario beans grown in a Tanzanian national park. Many of their chocolate products come with tasting notes to enhance your enjoyment of these luxurious treats.
Land – East London
Land was created by chocolatier Phil Landers, who launched the company after returning from travelling in Central America where he found work on a cocoa farm. From his base in East London, Landers hand sorts the best cacao beans before going through the painstaking process of roasting, cracking, winnowing, and grinding, turning out 60kg batches twice a week.
As well as employing single origin beans from around the globe, Landers also works with local producers. A good example of this is his 65% Malt Dark Chocolate bar, which draws on malt barley grain acquired from an East London brewery, and he works with a local forager to obtain London-based ingredients such as cobnuts, fennel and alexander seeds. Land is also famous for producing an exquisite drinking chocolate, which is sold in some of London’s top cafes.
Pump St Bakery – Suffolk
As you can guess, Pump St operates primarily as a bakery, in Orford, Suffolk, but it also produces some of England’s best small batch bean-to-bar chocolate, which has earned a host of awards. Like the bread products produced at Pump St, their chocolate is built around the beauty of local sourcing, and it uses a variety of close to home ingredients, including rye and sourdough breadcrumbs. If you like the sound of the combination of bread and chocolate, check out the Pump St limited edition bars, based around Panettone, Eccles cakes and Hot Cross Buns.
Creighton’s – Bedfordshire
Creighton’s was founded in 2010 by a mother-daughter combination, Andrea Huntingdon and Lucy Elliott, and has become well known for its small-batch, handmade chocolate as well as the innovative flavour combinations they come up with, which runs from ramen to retro biscuits. Creighton’s operates with an all-woman team of five and over the last ten years has grown to the point where they can produce as many as 10,000 bars a week, with almost all the work carried out by hand.
Their distinctive bars use ingredients from all over the UK, including Maldon sea salt, Scottish edible flowers, Bedfordshire-roasted coffee beans and Yorkshire biscuits. A particularly popular product from Creighton’s is their Spoon of Cereal bar, which features marshmallow-flavoured white chocolate with cereal hoops, while gin lovers should definitely check out the Pink Gin chocolate bar which is made through a collaboration with Tatty Devine, a London jewellery maker.
Willie’s Cacao – Devon
Created by chocolate maker Willie Harcourt-Cooze, Willie’s Cacao makes more than 25 products, yet still relies on a low-tech approach, which employs antique machines and a hand-made ethos. Harcourt-Cooze uses 100% natural ingredients to produce small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate and employs a famously painstaking attention to detail. This ensures that the chocolate is tried and tested at each stage of the process, with each batch taking up to 21 days to produce. Known for its range of chocolate truffles and bars, Willie’s also makes a popular drinking chocolate.
Solkiki – Dorset
Launched in 2015, Solkiki has earned an impressive array of awards and prizes for their bean-to-bar vegan chocolate. In fact, the company has gathered over 70 international awards.
Their core range is focused on high quality single-estate chocolate, which is made in a building that is powered by renewable energy. Solkiki’s micro-batch chocolate, made in batch sizes of less than 50kg, is a popular product, and features local ingredients, such as Dorset apples and home-grown chillies.
Dormouse Chocolates – Manchester
The owner of Dormouse Chocolate, Isobel Carse, began making chocolate in her home back in 2015, an operation in which she did everything, even down to the peeling of the cacao beans. From those humble beginnings, her business has grown and now operates out of Manchester’s Great Northern Warehouse, turning out micro batches of chocolate.
The core product is built on a combination of simple ingredients: cacao, sugar, and organic milk powder, and there is also a range of limited edition bars, such as the Christmas stollen bar, containing roasted almonds and cherries. If white chocolate is your thing, you will also enjoy the 39% Madagascan Toasted White, which is produced with caramelised milk powder, and which has the distinction of being the only white bar to earn gold at the 2018’s Academy of Chocolate Awards.