Gareth & the chocolate factory

Celebrating its second anniversary, Gareth James Chocolatier in Tynemouth really is a World of Pure Imagination, as the Willy Wonka song goes.
Rosie McGlade finds she does love chocolate, after all…

Gareth Mellor has only just turned 22, but carries the wisdom of someone who has pursued their passion, put in the hours and made a success of it. 

He’s slight and dressed uncannily like I am in a checked shirt and beige trousers, but with bright red trainers. He is polite, pleasant and not quite ready for our arrival. It’s been a busy day.

It’s not really until he produces raw blocks of 64% chocolate and a tub of salt crystals, long after we’ve eaten the pasta he prepared to welcome us, that Gareth really starts to relax.

It’s an obvious comparison, but there’s suddenly a hint of the Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder his preferred version) about him; a glint in the eye that betrays zeal and a flair for creating delicious, terribly finely-tuned delicacies made of cacao, sugar and very carefully-sourced ingredients.

I’m not a great fan of chocolate, but even I’m knocked sideways by the dark sea salt and caramel best-seller. It’s simply a thing of beauty.

As is his gin and tonic dark chocolate liqueur, wrapped in green foil and made with Jack Cain gin from Wylam Brewery and Fentimans tonic from Hexham.

And the classic milk, made of nothing but chocolate and cream, is rich and beautiful.

Gareth’s shop is finally closed after a busy Sunday’s trading. We head upstairs to the heart of the operation – a bright airy room with huge windows overlooking Tynemouth Front Street. There are melting basins with white, milk and dark chocolate frozen in time, waiting to be heated up the following day.

Gareth is bristling with the excitement of being in this place and pulls out a drawer full of little pots of brightly coloured cacao fat – reds, vivid greens, yellows, the things that get splattered on top of the chocolate coatings.

The drawer below is his ‘cupboard of fun’, full of powders with strange properties and pure essential oils.

“I bought five different orange blossom oils before I got the one I wanted,” he says. “My mother used to use it in a pancake recipe, and I couldn’t rest until I’d got hold of the exact flavour I remembered from childhood.”

“Flavours take people back to memories and that’s what this is all about,” he adds, gazing from ingredient to ingredient.  “Either that or we want to give people something new that will make them go ‘ooh’, something that’s so much of itself that it seems impossible it can taste this exact.”

He’s losing me here, until he produces a raspberry sorbet made before my eyes in the ice cream maker with raspberries selected from a batch he tasted until he found the right ones, the same he uses for his raspberry truffles.

It’s delicious. It tastes of raspberries, only more so. And I do feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory – a very tiny, very productive, chocolate factory in Tynemouth.

This is a story of hard work, with Gareth and his assistant Naomi hand making up to 2,000 chocolates a day.

His 18-year-old sister Emma mans the shop front and popular café. “She won three out of the four prizes in the North East Barista awards,” Gareth says proudly. “A chef once told me that perfection is lots of little things done well, and we try our damnedest to do lots of little things as best as we can.”

They do, and the Cafe Gourmand choice, for example, gets you some chocolates, a brownie, a scoop of ice cream or sorbet, some little pastries and the drink of your choice for £7.45.

At the age of 15, Gareth, whose parents ran The Wooden Doll pub in North Shields, did a week’s work experience at Terry Laybourne’s Cafe 21.

He impressed and was asked to stay, but chose to work there part time, putting in massive hours between it and a top North East catering company, all while still studying for his A-Levels.

His aim was to go to university, ‘because everyone does’, he says. Then, after a chance encounter in London, he found himself sidetracked by an offer to work with top chocolatier Paul Young (originally from Trimdon, Co Durham) when he was still
only 18.

Paul’s influence rubbed off and, like him, Gareth firmly believes in making everything by hand, no preservatives, while bringing British chocolate-making into the modern era with a newer, fresher approach.

Gareth refers to molecular gastronomy, made famous by the Heston Blumenthal approach to crazy cooking, but which he sees through more tempered eyes as the application of new techniques and equipment to allow you to arrive at increasingly subtle flavorings.

“It means you can be more precise. We have scales that allow you to measure a single gram and thermometers recording the tiniest variation in temperature.

“Chocolate is notoriously difficult to work with. Different chocolates have their own personalities and are affected by the time of year, so you need a lot of patience, but it’s like cheese, wine, whisky, any of those things that tantalise your palate and fill your head with place of origin, amount of sunlight, degree of fermentation, and so forth.”

So, back to that 64% chocolate and the salt. We’re looking for a difference in the ‘flavour profile’ of two very fine Madagascan and Dominican Republic dark chocolate blocks Gareth uses as some of his basic ingredients.

The Madagascan, he says, is “a bit more peppery, more earthy and more fruity” than the Dominican Republic, the beans having been fermented for seven to eight days rather than the more usual two. It’s delicious with salt. “I love to mix sweet and salt together,” Gareth says. “With a different chocolate, the caramel would really cloy, and it doesn’t with this.”

It’s fascinating, delicious, and a little bit magical. Gareth has an immense future, I have to think. And it’s not just because we wear the same clothes.

Gareth James Chocolatier, 12 Front Street, Tynemouth, NE30 4DX, tel 0191 257 7799

To view Gareth’s Ravioli with tomato and chorizo sauce recipe please click here

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