The master chocolatiers

Sue Newland and her daughter Holly put the finishing touches to their Easter eggs
Sue Newland and her daughter Holly put the finishing touches to their Easter eggs
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The rich chocolate smell fills the room as thick dark, light and white liquids turn in separate tanks.

In the fridge sit egg moulds coated with chocolate from the tanks, just beginning to set and become sweet and creamy Easter treats.

Dawn Shrives, right, shows Ellie Richards the secrets of making chocolate during a workshop

Dawn Shrives, right, shows Ellie Richards the secrets of making chocolate during a workshop

And glossy chocolate shells stand on worktops ready to be decorated, wrapped and become the tempting tasty final product.

Easter is in the air at Le Salon du Chocolat, where eggs and other chocolate products are in various stages of development.

It’s a time of intense activity for Dawn Shrives, who runs the studio and shop at Stansted Park near Rowlands Castle. Not only is she busy making Easter treats to sell, but she’s also running seasonal workshops and still taking bookings from people wanting chocolate-making parties.

But Dawn – who says she has a passion for chocolate – is far from complaining.

‘I like it, I prefer being busy. And I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It will be a bit quieter in May, everyone will be worrying about getting into their bikinis. And I can have a bit of a rest.’

Independent chocolatiers might be small, but they face bigger challenges than the multinational companies. They hand-make their eggs, which are sometimes personalised, and produce according to demand rather than having everything prepared and boxed up straight after Christmas.

So it’s all go at Le Salon, and that’s before parties of schoolchildren or groups of adults arrive for chocolate-making sessions.

The place is a paradise for cocoa connoisseurs, who can witness egg-making – from liquid chocolate to the wrapped gifts in the next door shop – and have a go at moulding and decorating themselves.

Surrounded by sacks of Belgian chocolate buttons and chocolate mixing machines they learn about a scientific process called tempering – melting, cooling and then warming the chocolate in special tanks to achieve the desired properties for a tasty product that can set.

And they see how chocolatiers carefully fill, scrape and design layers of chocolate in moulds to achieve different shapes and patterns. Time-consuming processes included hand-turning the egg moulds for an even coating – something that would be achieved by machine in the factories of big firms.

But Dawn’s favourite bit of the job is sharing her passion for chocolate with people and telling them exactly what makes a good bar.

‘In this country, companies are allowed to call something chocolate when it really isn’t, in my opinion,’ says Dawn. ‘I use Belgian chocolate because there are strict regulations. They’re not allowed to dilute chocolate. In this country they use things like vegetable oil.’

Dawn says the key to buying good quality chocolate is looking at the label to check the cocoa solids (the cocoa butter and powder that actually comes from the cocoa bean) exceed a certain percentage and haven’t been replaced by other ingredients.

She recommends at least 70 per cent in dark chocolate, 30 per cent in milk chocolate and 25 per cent in white.

She says: ‘I’m not saying come and buy my chocolate, but I do feel very strongly about what people are buying and I love to tell them how great chocolate can be.’

And she has good news for health-conscious consumers – chocolate can be good for you. ‘Cocoa has higher levels of antioxidants than most other foods, including broccoli and blueberries. It contains every vitamin and mineral. The only thing it is deficient in is calcium.’

But she warns it’s only really beneficial if it has the right levels of cocoa solids – the 70 per cent found in good quality dark chocolate.

And she adds: ‘You still have to be careful how much you eat because there’s still sugar. It’s good for you in moderation.’

Dawn is delighted that more people are interested. Joanne Harris’ 1999 book Chocolat and the subsequent film about a shop in France may have heightened the profile of the traditional chocolatier.

For chocolate-loving Dawn, it’s a dream job. She started working for a West Sussex business after answering a job ad for a chocolate lover.

Now she loves the activity and challenge of running her own studio with the help of her daughter Amy, who is employed in the workshop.

But she’ll be glad when Easter comes and she can have a little bit of time to put her feet up – not with an egg.

‘Funnily enough people don’t buy them for me,’ laughs Dawn. ‘But my work doesn’t put me off chocolate. I miss it when I’m not here.’

Le Salon du Chocolat is running Easter egg making workshops on Monday, Wednesday, Good Friday and Saturday. For information visit lesalonduchocolat.co.uk, e-mail dawn@lesalonduchocolat.co.uk or call 023 9241 3350.

Handmade chocolates

Sue and Holly Newland’s shoes look good enough to wear.

But if you don’t want them melting on the pavement, you’re probably better off eating them.

The elegant shoe-shaped chocolates – which admittedly are a little smaller than an average woman’s foot and aren’t really going to fool anyone – are a popular gift choice among the mum and daughter’s customers.

And Sue and Holly are currently producing them at quite a rate at their Southsea shop Coco Chocolatiers.

They’re into the pre-Easter rush and the shoes are a popular alternative to the traditional Easter egg.

But both present a challenge. The eggs and shoes are all hand-made and when the delicate shapes are extracted from the moulds, there can be breakages.

‘It’s not like we can use it after that, we have a lot to make at Easter but we can’t compromise on quality,’ says Sue.

The chocolatiers often work to order and the requests for personalised gifts come rushing in at Easter. And of course their regular work doesn’t cease for the period. Holly and Sue are still producing wedding favours and birthday presents.

There are plenty of challenges. In the past they’ve been asked for 40 personalised eggs in one order. And they once made a three-foot tall egg with smaller eggs inside.

‘We’ve been trying not to tell too many people about that one,’ laughs Sue. ‘It wasn’t easy. Holly had to stand on a chair to decorate it.’

The chocolatiers are also great with numbers and run an accountancy business alongside the shop.

It’s a hectic life, but they love trying out new designs and shapes, including a chocolate train set. ‘The trouble is we put it in the window and then had to keep making it because people were asking for it,’ laughs Sue.

But her favourite part of the job is getting to know customers – a mixture of children, passers-by and chocolate-adoring regulars.

‘We have some real chocolate lovers coming in,’ says Sue. ‘One woman has ordered her own dark chocolate egg flavoured with pure orange oil.’

Sue says Coco caters for anyone who likes chocolate but she’s pleased that people are increasingly appreciating the quality products of the chocolatier. The shop uses South American chocolate with a high content of cocoa solids.

She says: ‘It’s also about the quality of the bean and the soil it’s been grown in. More people are really interested in that now and looking for quality.

‘It’s the same as grapes and wine.’

Making chocolate

Chocolate comes from the cacao bean (or cocoa bean as it’s widely known) which is found on three varieties of tree growing in various parts of the world, including West Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka.

The cocoa pods are taken from the trees and are left to ripen. They are then split open to extract the cocoa beans.

At this stage the beans have no chocolate taste so this has to be developed. Naturally coated in a high sugar pulp, they are piled into the centre of huge banana leaves, wrapped up and left for up to nine days. The beans are turned occasionally during this time to introduce oxygen, which helps the fermentation process. After the nine days, the pulp has drained away leaving the beans with their chocolate taste.

They are then left in the sun to dry before being shipped to the world’s chocolate companies.

The next stage of the process is roasting the beans and remove the shells. It is the nibs that are left and made into chocolate.

The nibs are ground and the cocoa is then pressed to extract the cocoa butter. What is left is further ground to produce cocoa powder.

The cocoa butter and cocoa powder are then mixed back together in a ratio depending on how creamy or chocolaty the end product is to be.

Sugar is added for dark chocolate, milk and sugar for milk chocolate and sugar is added to cocoa butter for white chocolate.

The blended chocolate then goes through a refining process to improve the texture.

Chocolate facts

1. The Mayan civilization had cocoa plantations long before 600 AD.

2. The Aztecs used the cocoa bean as a form of currency.

3. Chocolate was brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The Spanish sweetened the bitter Aztec drink with sugar and spices.

4. The word cocoa was the result of the misspelling of cacao.

5. The first bar of solid chocolate is believed to have been produced by the Fry company in the 1830s.

6. The most expensive box of chocolates in the world is made by Lebanese chocolatier Patchi and costs £5000 a box.