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Angus & Peter's Chocolate Factory
Member Name: Hishyeness
Advantages: Outstanding chocolate. Sound corporate ethics.
Disadvantages: A little expensive - but you get what you pay for.
HEAVEN & HELL
I have an incorrigible sweet tooth and a particular fondness for chocolate. Unfortunately, I also have Type 2 Diabetes, which I suppose is analogous to cheese lover with a dairy intolerance. Who said life was fair? That said, the consumption of chocolate is not actually prohibited to diabetics, as long as a beady eye is kept on blood sugar and the emphasis remains firmly on quality rather than quantity. As such, I have developed quite the discerning palate when it comes to premium chocolate, on the reasonable premise that if I can only have small amounts of it, it may as well be bloody good.
Having recently landed a plum job in the City of London (which I start in a couple of weeks) I had some time to kill during one of several interviews, and whilst having a look around what I hoped (at the time) would be my new "work" neighbourhood, I discovered a branch of Hotel Chocolat (pronounced in a snooty French accent as "Sho-koh-lah" - simultaneously ensuring that one's nose is elevated at a precise 45 degree angle to the ground). I spent ten minutes window shopping (and struggling not to drool) before spending almost £25 on various chocolate creations for my wife and daughter. I don't know how other marriages and relationships work in on-line review land, but my wife expects presents when I go into town, and I know better than to disappoint.
ANGUS & PETER'S CHOCOLATE SHOP
It may surprise you that despite the posh-sounding French name, Hotel Chocolat is a British company (I suppose its current moniker sounds a bit more exclusive than the English translation - "House of Chocolate"). Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris started their chocolate venture as a mail-order company in 1993, originally called "ChocExpress", before making the move on-line, and finally moving into retail with the opening their first "high street" establishment in 2004.
They now have over 40 retail outlets up and down the country, as well as concessions in most John Lewis stores and four international branches - two in Boston and another brace in the Middle East. Hotel Chocolat was awarded the accolade of "Emerging Retailer of the Year" by Retail Week magazine in 2007, also earning a shout as a "UK Cool Brand" the same year. The business has maintained its on-line service (www.hotelchocolat.co.uk), and also has a tasting club - first established in 1998 - that currently boasts around 100,000 members.
WHAT DO THEY SELL?
If it has chocolate in it, odds are they have it. A trip into one of their shops is like journeying into an Aladdin's cave - except the riches there are measured in the percentage cocoa they incorporate, rather than in the weight of gems and jewels. The front part of the shop is usually dedicated to seasonal specialities and holidays. For example, you will find Easter Eggs, Valentine's chocolates, and Christmas-themed chocolates at the appropriate times of year.
On the back wall of the Moorgate branch where I do most of my ogling and buying, is a large selection of chocolate packaged in two ways - as a single slab, or as a six pack of individual chocolates. There is a diverse variety of flavours and combinations, from dark chocolate filled with salted caramel, ganache-filled truffles with a hint of cherry, velvety pralines, booze filled concoctions, to more traditional fruity creams. In other words, something for everyone and every palate.
They also do chocolate covered fruit, my favourites being their delectable kirsch cherries, orange tang, and mango slices - what better way to delude yourself into thinking you've had one of your five a day? Their "Purist" range is for those who like their chocolate largely unsullied by other ingredients and introduces the consumer to region-specific chocolate from exotic locations such as Brazil, Madagascar and Ecuador.
Fancy cooking with chocolate? Then the shelf dedicated to its use as an ingredient should tickle your fancy, containing everything from chocolate pasta, liquid drinking chocolate in various flavours, chocolate and black truffle salsa, to cocoa powder and chocolate pellets perfect for melting.
HOW DO THEY SOURCE?
Hotel Chocolat mainly comes from two sources - St Lucia and Ghana. They have a cocoa plantation - the 140 acre Rabot Estate - near Soufrière in St Lucia where they grow their own cocoa, and are also planning to build a factory nearby. The usual industry business model is to source the cocoa from the nation of origin by buying it from local growers and cooperatives, but then do the actual chocolate making somewhere else. This is why Hotel Chocolat's approach is so different.
They have established what they call an "Engaged Ethics" programme, details of which are extensively provided on their excellent web site. The idea is to engage with, train and empower the local West Indian community to produce the chocolate from bean to finished product, ensuring that the farmers see a profit and the local community benefits from job creation and skills training.
The first two stages of their project - buying a plantation, growing their own cocoa and building a factory are to be followed by a third - a "chocolate hotel", where enthusiasts can book a Caribbean holiday - not to lay on sandy beaches and drink rum punch all day - but to experience and get under the skin of life on a cocoa plantation and to really understand and appreciate just how chocolate is made from bean to bon bon.
STAFF, SERVICE & OTHER DETAILS
When you first enter the shop, it won't be long before someone approaches you with a free sample. Whilst you munch happily on your lip-smacking freebie, staff will be happy to answer any questions, point you to what you need or leave you in peace to browse for as long as you like. The chocolate is not cheap, but you would not expect it to be. First of all, their unique ownership of the whole supply chain necessarily adds a layer of expense, but so does the quality of the chocolate and the process of making it to such exacting standards.
A trip to their web-site will give you the best information about specific prices, but as an example, I usually buy a combination of bars and selection six-packs, which are either £3.25 each, or £2.50 each if you buy three or more. The pots of kirsch cherries are £7.50 for 150g (or get three different pots, such as the mango strips, rum soaked sultanas, or orange tangs go for £20). The Easter Egg I bought for my wife (which was called Eggtastic!) was £22 and consisted of two very thick separate halves - one dark and one milk, with various chocolate concoctions wrapped separately in between the two halves. Unsurprisingly, this is now on-sale at half-price given the short shelf life of quality chocolate.
They accept most credit cards as payment, except for Amex. If you sign up for their mailing list, you also get a free chocolate by way of a thank you. Another thing worth checking out is their very popular and successful Tasting Club which the staff will be happy to tell you about, or alternatively, check the website for details.
Hotel Chocolat provides a huge selection of outstanding, creative and original chocolate which easily competes with the very best for quality. The fact that it is a British run company with a solid and transparent ethics programme is an added bonus for the discerning consumer. It is undoubtedly expensive, but not outrageously so - and it's good to know that the premium you are paying is for a reason other than brand snobbery.
© Hishyeness 2010
Summary: Great chocolate for the discerning palate.