The Chocolate Society: Meeting the cocoa connoisseurs of Somerset
PUBLISHED: 14:34 28 May 2019
From a factory in the heart of Somerset, a small team of experts is creating some of the country's most sought after chocolate
Located in a small hamlet just outside of Wincanton is a factory of dreams - creating some of the country's most sophisticated, beautifully hand-crafted sweet treats. With conveyor belts of rippling chocolate and pools of perfectly melted cocoa butter, this is going to be as close to getting a golden ticket as I will ever get.
Adorning my health and safety hair net, I feel a bit like one of the Oompa Loompas from Roald Dahl's famous children's book, but Alasdair Garnsworthy, owner of The Chocolate Society is far from the eccentric, mystical character of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory fame.
He may be a maverick of his trade, but Alasdair did not suddenly find himself in a glass elevator within a factory of chocolate streams and candy floss trees; instead he took a long and complex road to mastering the craft and artistry of becoming an accomplished chocolatier.
The Chocolate Society itself has had a long history of creating bespoke chocolate but it was in 2010 that Alasdair took over the reins. Although initially unsure what direction the company would take, he swiftly realised it was in need of modernising and upscaling if it was going to have any feasibility as a rural business.
It does not surprise me to hear that Alasdair started his career as a web designer. Although that's a far cry from being one of the country's finest chocolatiers, his creative flair is visible to see, not just in his beautifully created chocolates but also in the thoughtful yet elegantly simple packaging and branding, and a small workforce hand-tying each box with a fine ribbon bow.
But how does one become a master chocolatier? Well, like many artisan businesses these days, it starts with a gutsy attitude to learning as much as possible in a very short time.
"When I started working with chocolate I literally watched every YouTube chocolate video going and was like a sponge," explains Alasdair. "After I had a rough knowledge base I employed the help of French chocolate house Valrhona who were invaluable in the process."
A premium chocolate manufacturer based near Lyon, it was their fountain of chocolate knowledge that allowed Alasdair to really see The Chocolate Society as a thriving business once again. Absorbing not only their decades of knowledge but also their passion for all forms of chocolate, Alasdair was well on his way to reviving the business to award-winning standard.
As I watch one of the chocolatiers satisfyingly glide glossy chocolate over a cooled marbled surface, I'm intrigued as to how Alasdair and the team come up with such unusual and innovative flavours whilst always prioritising the flavour of quality chocolate.
"We have created a product that allows all the team to be innovative and creative. The Box of the Month provides us with the opportunity to test combinations and take inspiration from seasonal or newly found ingredients. Changing up the flavours on a monthly basis not only makes it exciting for the customer but keeps us inspired in the factory," he explains.
"We find that The Box of the Month also creates great team camaraderie where the team comes together to share their thoughts and ideas which can range from nostalgic treats through to crazy ideas inspired by a restaurant dessert or recent travels."
With an increased demand for Alasdair's handcrafted products, naturally his workforce also had to grow. However, it was not easy at first for this self-taught chocolatier to pass on the carefully crafted responsibility of reproducing chocolates to such a superior standard.
"We are still a small team in relative terms, however, it is pretty mighty! We have members of staff from a range of backgrounds from a chef through to a cider maker. Each team member has a fantastic work ethic but it is their attention to detail that is most commendable.
"I like to run the business in quite a hands-off manner and all I ask is they work hard and make the very best products we can. It's amazing to think that a local workforce is making chocolates for some of the country's leading companies such as John Lewis, Selfridges and the Langham."
The Chocolate Society's sister brand, Hokey Pokey, also relied heavily on a very 'local' workforce for the first seven years. These perfectly aerated nuggets of honeycomb enrobed in glossy chocolate were the responsibility of Alasdair's mother until chef Dan took over production two years ago.
Now Alasdair's favourite product, he and mum Dee took a laborious three months to perfect the honeycomb recipe, ensuring the ideal bubble to crunchy toffee ratio was consistent in every piece.
"I think our honeycomb is hands down my favourite product - it's pretty special."
They already coat the honeycomb in an array of chocolate types - from a Caramac-style white chocolate called Blonde to a rich, bitter dark variety - but the team is now experimenting with flavouring the honeycomb itself, ready in time to hit the shelves at a long list of Christmas markets.
Adding themselves to a rapidly growing list of Somerset-based artisanal food producers, recognised not just within the county but up and down the country too, Alasdair is proud to use a local workforce and suppliers of ingredients and packaging to create bespoke products of the very highest quality.
"Somerset has some fantastic food and drink brands and I'm honoured we are part of it. For me, it is these small support networks that make our products even more special."
Find out more at chocolate.co.uk.