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Dark Materials: The Magical Story of York's Chocolate

Dark Materials: The Magical Story of York's Chocolate
Liz Gill: In food terms chocolate is a bit of a tart really, it’ll go with anything.
We’re all familiar, of course, with the traditional strawberry cream, mint crisp and caramel sort of combos and increasingly used to dashes of sea salt and chilli.
But what about Wensleydale cheese? Or Irn Bru? Or liquorice, lemon curd, tea or stout? Or something called Henderson’s sauce, Yorkshire’s reply to the Worcestershire condiment?
And if you think these are rather outlandish then imagine what it’s like to be in Japan where they have 47 kinds of Kit Kat including soy sauce, sushi and wasabi ones. It’s perhaps a good job we’re not allowed to import them – their caffeine levels are too high – or there would certainly be a few bouts of Flavour Offs.
What makes us love chocolate in almost any form though is the key ingredient  theobromine – literally food of the gods – and its effect on our hearts and nervous systems:  it increases blood flow in the pleasure centres of the brain, for instance.
The scientific aspects of the dark stuff are among dozens of fascinating facts I’ve learned on a visit to York’s Chocolate Story. I’ve also learned about its history, its culture and its social and economic impacts with appropriate tastings throughout the hour and a quarter guided tour. So we start off with ‘nibs’ , the first point at which, after being fermented, dried and roasted,  the unpromising looking beans of the cocoa pod start to look like chocolate.
Then it’s on to the role played by the Aztecs and the Mayans and a tiny cup of the cocoa drink which was an essential part of their ceremonies and pre-battle rituals. Fast forwarding a few hundred years we come to the city’s key role in making this exotic commodity part of everyday life in Britain.
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 – but it was the involvement of families like the Rowntrees, the  Cravens and the Terrys (who started off as apothecaries,  literally sugaring pills) that transformed the chocolate business by producing it on an industrial, and hence affordable, scale. As Quakers the families were not only drawn to something 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.     We listen to the founding fathers’ stories from ‘talking portraits’ while dipping into a tub of Quality Street and then hear more recent tales from our guide Daniel. There’s one about the employee who used to smuggle cocoa butter out under his Homburg hat. When his boss realised, he kept the offender talking beside a hot radiator until the stuff started to melt and run down his face. He wasn’t sacked – the humiliation was considered punishment enough.
So intertwined have local lives been with the confectionary business that visitors who are former workers are now adding to the store of anecdotes. One woman confessed to filling a batch of Smarties with just a single colour as a practical joke. The bosses were baffled but she was never rumbled. Daniel incidentally gets top marks for engaging with his audience from my daughter who, as a primary school teacher, is a stern critic of presentation skills and highly tuned to boredom thresholds.
Our next samples are taken by the ‘tasting wheel’ when we’re asked to see if we can discern, for example, herbs, spices, nuts, butter, even earth and moss. Then it’s on to make our own white chocolate lolly which we decorate with a selection of sprinkles in a more is more approach. And finally we watch an expert create a filled chocolate – today it’s with passion fruit – before exiting via the gift shop with its extraordinary selection of goodies. These range from sophisticated single note bars of Peruvian, Venezuelan or Madagascan varieties through flavours familiar and unfamiliar to d-i-y kits for kids and special bars for vegans. And for men who think it might all be a bit girlie there are chocolate wrenches, spanners and golf clubs.
Elsewhere in the city there are dozens of shops selling chocolates or offering chocolate themed meals. At the Cocoa House, for example, you can join a truffle making workshop or just sample what chocolate does for savoury dishes like chicken quesadilla with its smokey chocolate bbq sauce or soups of the day which usually include white chocolate for creaminess and are served with cocoa nib rye bread.
Even our stylish little boutique hotel the Indigo with its super friendly and helpful staff (all that theobromine maybe) has a dark brown panelled wall in the bedroom, a dressing table with a sweeties design motif and a couple of complimentary bars in the mini fridge. There almost comes a point where a balanced diet here is one that does not involve chocolate at every meal.
When you’ve had enough indulgence York has much else to offer: it is one of the most beautiful cities in the country. The Minster is magnificent; the city walls with their daffodil covered banks are the longest in the UK; streets like the famous cobbled Shambles have all kinds of interesting independent shops and there are fascinating old buildings including the Merchant Adventurers guildhall and the fine Georgian Fairfax House. The latter holds Noel Terry’s fabulous furniture collection built up from the family’s chocolate fortune. You see, you’re never far from the dark stuff.
Liz Gill was a guest of Hotel Indigo:

More information:
York’s Chocolate Story
King’s Square
Telephone: 01904 527765
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31 July 2016
By: Liz Gill
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