Chocs howay!


Jane Pikett discovers some new tastes in gourmet chocolate

Generally, I wouldn’t thank you for a gift of chocolate, yet so infatuated am I with North Chocolates, handmade by Bev Stephenson in her cottage kitchen in North Tyneside, that I have a large yet fast-diminishing stash of bars and buttons in my desk drawer and my order is already in for Christmas.

Bev is a journalist by trade. She got into food as a restaurant critic and went on via a job in horticulture to discover a passion for chocolate making. There’s culinary alchemy in her craft, so she likes to keep the nuts and bolts of the process out of sight. “You’ve got to preserve the magic,” she says, opening the door of her chocolate studio, which is guarded by a stuffed barn owl, its wise presence testament to the serious business which goes on here.

She opens a drawer to reveal scores of bars of chocolate robed in pretty foil, Kraft paper and ribbon, its exquisite flavours including Ginger & Toasted Fennel, Rosemary & Lemon Salt, Grapefruit & Pink Peppercorn, and a sublime Coffee & Cardamom, using beans from the Ouseburn Coffee Company.

28aA few years ago she studied arboriculture and ended up working for a company growing quality crops for the floristry trade, including lavender and Northumberland heather. Then her passion for horticulture met her passion for flavour, and North Chocolates was born, beginning with garden-inspired varieties such as Geranium & Orange and Rose.

Just 18 months on, and her Ginger & Fennel bar has won the Best In Show at the EAT! Festival; a tribute to its elegant flavour balance and texture.

I think it’s impossibly glamorous, being a gourmet chocolatier, but she says there’s not much allure in standing in the kitchen all day in her pinny, stirring. Glamour there may not be, but she’s a mistress of her art, creating magical combinations of taste and texture which surprise and delight in equal measure.

She learned her craft with help from Ros Tinlin at Coquet Chocolates in Rothbury who, Bev says, was “incredibly generous” in passing on her considerable skill. She also completed a demanding course with Ruth Hinks, one of the world’s greatest chocolatiers, at her prestigious school in Peebles.

28bConsidering her training, it goes without saying that Bev sources the best quality ingredients; intense tastes which may surprise palates more attuned to Curly Wurly.

She loves having a stall at markets and food fairs, guessing the flavours her customers will enjoy. “By talking to people I try to gauge what they like. Some prefer more savoury notes so I might recommend the Rosemary or Chilli options. Sometimes I try them with the florals, but you either love or loathe them so you have to be careful. I’m never offended!”

Her reputation has grown apace and North Chocolates is available in independent delis, Tourist Information Centres, National Trust shops and now in Fenwick; a development which Bev describes as “terrifying, but fantastic at the same time”.

Making chocolate, she says, “excites me in my work again. Like every job, some of what I do is mundane, but the end result is this beautiful thing. And it helps that you can eat it…”

She tempers (the technique of warming and cooling chocolate for a glossy, smooth finish) in small batches to ensure consistency, putting in silly hours to produce up to 500 bars a week, much of it packaged, “thank the Lord”, by her mum, “my chief operations and packing manager!”

North Chocolates has its roots, unashamedly, in the North East and sends its own message to southern gourmets. “I’m not alone in drawing inspiration from what’s around me, whether that’s my garden, travelling abroad, or the Great British Bake Off. It’s about experimenting and I’ve certainly had a few disasters. But chocolate is very forgiving – it’s astonishing what you can do.”

With more than 20 flavours on the go and a children’s range with DinoRoars, mini Androids and, my favourite, ‘Buttons For Gluttons’ (complete with wee tape measure-printed ribbon and a real button), Bev reflects the seasons with limited editions including Mulled Spice, Frankincense & Myrrh and Winter Berry & Nut for Christmas. There may even be some Angel of the North bars. “I’ve been working with a fantastic illustrator, Sara Gibbeson, and we’ll be putting out a limited premium range of bars soon. One of the best bits about this job is collaborating with talented people to produce something, hopefully, people will love.”

You’ll pay something like £3.50-£3.95 a bar, which accounts for the quality of the product, but trust me, four squares at a time is plenty, so it lasts a while. Still, as I say, my stash is diminishing. Dear Santa…

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