A Chocaholic’s dream weekend

Liz Gill discovers the wonderful world of chocolate and a lot more in York

If you were asked if you fancied some theobromine you might not be too keen. Learn that it translates as ‘food of the gods’, however, and you might be tempted. Have it revealed in its more familiar form and you’d probably grab it with both hands. For the compound is a key ingredient of chocolate and its effect on our hearts and nervous systems –  it increases blood flow in the pleasure centres of the brain, for instance –  is one of the reasons we love it so much.

This scientific explanation is among dozens of fascinating facts I’ve learnt about the dark stuff during a chocolate-themed weekend in York. I’ve also learned about its history, its culture and its social impact. I’ve learned how to taste it with rather more finesse than I usually do and – best fun of all – I’ve learned how to make it.

The workshop was at the York Cocoa House opened a year ago by Sophie Jewett, a young woman who has turned a childhood passion into adult expertise. In fact when Her Majesty is presented with a box during her visit to the city on Thursday to present the Maundy Money at the Minster the selection will be Sophie’s handiwork. She researches, imports and invents – there are savoury combinations like chocolate and black olive tapenade and blue cheese chocolates as well as sweet ones – and, as we’re about to learn, she also teaches.

We start with the unpromising looking cocoa pod and hear how its beans are fermented, dried and roasted before being turned into ‘nibs’, the little chunks which start to look and taste a bit like chocolate but only really give off their distinctive aroma when Sophie starts to grind them over heat on an old Guatamalan granite slab. It was the Aztecs and the Mayans who worked all this out and made cocoa drinks an essential part of their ceremonies and pre-battle rituals. They even believed in a god of cocoa and disastrously mistook Cortez for him when the Spanish conqueror arrived in all his finery.

Hand grinding might be authentic but it is hard work and slow so we fast forward hundreds of years to our next stage by heating double cream and pouring it onto giant buttons to make a ganache. If we were adding flavours such as fruit or liqueurs we would do it at this stage but we’re keeping it simple, pouring the mixture into piping bags and putting it in the fridge to cool and stiffen. Meanwhile we learn how to temper chocolate: alternately melting (with a hairdryer), stirring and cooling until it has the right dipping consistency.

Next we pipe out squidges of ganache, roll them between our fingers and pop them into the melted chocolate. We also drop big spoonfuls onto a tray and tilt them until they form egg shapes which we decorate lavishly – a case maybe of over pudding-ing the egg. It’s all gloriously messy, a kind of playschool for grown-ups.

There is, of course, a serious side to chocolate as we hear on a specially themed walking tour. For while other Northern cities were creating wealth from wool, cotton and steel York was going its own sweet way, producing not just chocolate but all kinds of confectionary: sugared almonds, humbugs, pastilles, toffees. Cocoa as a basis for a drink had been around for a while: it was a smart tipple in Georgian times, sometimes  mixed with wine, and, piquantly for anyone who has just given it up for Lent, often used to fortify those who were fasting for that period.

It was, however,  the involvement of  families like the Rowntrees, the Tukes, the  Cravens and the Terrys (who started off as apothecaries  literally sugaring pills) that transformed the chocolate business, producing it on an industrial – and hence affordable – scale . As Quakers the Tukes and the Rowntrees were not only drawn to a commodity which they believed could be a substitute for the  ruinous ‘demon drink’ but also ploughed back much of their profit into alleviating poverty.

Joseph Rowntree, for example, set up the research foundation which still bears his name as well as giving a park to the city and building a model village New Earswick for workers who numbered over  14,000 at the factory’s peak in the 1920s and 1930s.

The stories – and vintage film footage – of those whose livelihoods have been intertwined with  the confectionary business is one of the topics at the newly opened Chocolate – York’s Sweet Story attraction and one I found rather touching. Of course there was the element of company PR but there also looked to be also a real sense of community in all those sports days and works outings and singing on the production lines.

The attraction, which has been created by the people who did the ground-breaking Jorvik Viking Centre in the city, also features a virtual factory, a film about the origins of chocolate, ‘talking portraits’ of the industry’s founding families, a nostalgic collection of sweet advertising and a whole corner dedicated to Kit Kat, including the fascinating fact that the world’s biggest selling bar – a billion a year  –  has 42 different flavours in Japan including wasabi. The visit begins with a short tutored tasting of a piece of chocolate and ends with a demonstration by a chocolatier and more tasting.

By now I had almost lost count of my own tasting experiences but I know they included some remarkable and delicious combinations, among them a white chocolate and truffle flavoured risotto with scallops followed by venison rolled in five spice cocoa powder at a dinner at Dean Court Hotel.

It was therefore perhaps time to try out some of the other attractions which draw seven  million visitors a year to one of Britain’s most beautiful cities. I started with a wonderful bird’s eye from the big wheel Eye where a ten minute trip is accompanied by a fact-packed commentary and followed that with more like a worm’s eye view in Jorvik where a little underground train takes you back to everyday life in Viking times complete with rather unsettlingly lifelike animatronics and real life guides who entertain with you with such gems as the reason many Vikings were blonde was because they used  horse’s urine to deal with headlice and bleached hair was a side effect.

After that I did a tour of Fairfax House, one of the best Georgian houses and interiors in the country which has chocolate magnate  Noel Terry’s fabulous furniture collection and chatty well-informed guides. One pointed out to me the wonderful contrast of the table groaning with fine silver, linen and glass and the nearby elegant sideboard housing – a chamberpot.

I also over the weekend took in the Merchant Adventurers building, still used as guildhall after 650 years;  a walk round the city walls, their banks carpeted with daffodils;  the range of independent shops particularly in Fossgate, Stonegate and the Shambles; lunch at Grays Hall, dinner at Melton’s Too (both historic buildings as well as good eating places) and a visit to Betty’s, a tea room and shop selling its own handmade chocolates.

And just so that my weekend was not completely corporeal, I ended it with visit  to the magnificent Minster and had my breath taken away twice. First by the climb of 275 steps to the top of the Middle Tower, the highest point in the city, and then, but in a completely different way, by a performance of a requiem by the choir of men and boy sopranos.

Where to find out more

Further info:  www.visityork.org/chocolate  or www.visityork.org/2012  for a full list of events and festivals marking the city’s 800th anniversaryThe city’s first ever chocolate festival runs this weekend from April 6 to 9. Events include an Easter Monday chocolate fortified climb of the Minister’s Tower stairs. www.yorkminster.org and www.yorkchocolatefestival.co.ukChocolate – York’s Sweet Story Admission adults £10, seniors £9, children £8 www.yorkssweetstory.comA York pass costs from £34 for a day and then offers free entry into over 25 attractions www.yorkpass.com

East Coast operates 72 services in each weekday between London King’s Cross and York. Customers travelling First Class can enjoy East Coast’s complimentary food and drinks offer plus unlimited Wi-Fi. Advanced return fares, booked online at www.eastcoast.co.uk: start from £26 Standard Class or £79 First Class. Times and fares can also be found via 08457 225225 or from any staffed stations.

The Dean Court Hotel – www.deancourt-york.co.uk

Themed walks: www.exploringyork.com


Article and images copyright Liz Gill

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