Friday 29 March 2013

Easter Eggs, Chocolate Chicks, Chocolate Nibs and Julia Wenlock's Tout Sweet Chocs

There’s a big old church down the street from where I live that used to be run as town council offices but a few years ago became the shop/well-being centre/ restaurant/cafe Serenity. That’s where I was last night, drawn by my love of chocolate. 

Julia Wenlock is a chocolatier in Shrewsbury’s Indoor Market.  She makes her own chocolates, runs her shop, Toot Sweet, and is there most days.  You can recognize her from her big smile, mass of curly hair and willingness to talk all things chocolate.  Plainly what Julia’s doing is born out of love, and that love of chocolate is on show tonight.

Julia stands surrounded by chocolate in its different stages from beans and roasted nibs to Easter eggs. We’re sat at tables all around her, nursing our glasses of prosecco, surrounded by jugs of water and sliced apple [for cleansing our palates], making discreet notes on our chocolate-tasting charts. 

Julia’s explaining the stages chocolate goes through, starting with the rugby-ball shaped pods which can contain up to forty beans, through ripening, drying, roasting, grinding, cooking and all the other stages that end up with the slabs of couverture from which chocolates are made.  

Julia knows what she’s talking about.  She’s been in business for five years now, and is already a National award-winning chocolatier, securing a gold star for her lavender white truffles and two gold stars for her truly sensational dark butterscotch. 

These are as near to Shropshire chocolates as it’s possible to be given that the cacao bean comes from a narrow region ten to fifteen degrees wide around the Equator.  They’re Shropshire-made chocolates and, apart from the couverture, all Julia’s ingredients are locally sourced and grown, including her lavender which comes from Newport. 

Sourcing ethically is central to Julia’s business.  Many chocolates nowadays are made with palm oil, but she insists on using cocoa butter.  And, when it comes to buying in couverture, she can tell you to the very farm in Vietnam where it comes from. In addition, it’s all single-source chocolate, which is what gives the finished chocolates their rich and interesting flavours.

In the course of the evening, we experience some of these flavours, starting with Cadbury’s chocolate buttons, moving onto nibs, which are cocoa seeds laid out on banana leaves to ripen, then roasted to give off a distinct chocolate flavour which is both nutty and bitter.   We pick up chocolate, smell it, take note of its sheen, put it in our mouths and allow it to melt.  We wash out our mouths with water and freshen our palates with slices of apple, then start all over again.  

How did Julia get into chocolate? She remembers her mum buying massive chocolate chickens for Easter. Remembers her, too, as a great cook.  Her mum, she says, was an inspiration. However, when she finished school Julia went to university to study TV and Radio Production, graduating from Salford University with a 2.1 BA Hons. 

During Julia’s second year at Salford, her mum was diagnosed with cancer.  Julia moved home in 2006, and at the beginning of 2007 her grandmother died, followed two months later by her mother.  It was thanks to her inheritance that Julia was able to give up commuting to Manchester where she'd working for Selfridges since her college days and was now being trained as a department manager, and open her first shop. She’d been on several chocolate courses, one with a chocolatier, had already been making truffles for the Christmas market, and taking them to local fairs. Now she was into full-time production with a shop to run as well.

The shop was Toot Sweet on Butcher Row, housed in an old, half-timbered building in the heart of Shrewsbury. The timing wasn’t good, with the recession kicking in. Faced with high rates and rent, Julia didn’t see a return for the money invested.  But she moved her seat of operations to Shrewsbury’s indoor market – which she describes as like a departmental store with concessions - and she hasn’t looked back since.

We’ve moved on now to Julia’s own chocolates. She brings them round stacked up in little piles on white plates. Her white chocolate vanilla truffles have tiny flecks of vanilla pod in them.  Some chocolatiers would sieve this out, but Julia likes them and so do we. The chestnut caramel with truffle oil has a highly unusual flavour and an unexpected bite. Julia’s chocolate slab with pistachio, nibs and flakes of smoked salt is like a firework with a few surprises up its sleeve. And as for the butterscotch cream – the TWO gold-stars award-winning butterscotch cream -  I could eat it all day.  The combination of sweet, creamy butterscotchy innards and outward casing of dark, bitter chocolate is far better tasted than described.  Recently Julia won Silver from the Academy of Chocolates, which is a massive honour, not least because one of the UK's most famous artisan chocolatiers, Paul A Young, also won silver in the same category.   

By the time we’ve finished, we’ve worked through them all. There’s an interesting white chocolate infused with cardamon, a delicate violet cream which leaves a really subtle after-taste, and then of course there’s the award-winning lavender cream.  Julia talks about coming home from London with bags full of chocolates, sitting with a notebook chomping her way through them all and making notes.  She googles flavours.  She loves researching and trying things out.  Last night fennel and orange weren’t quite right, but tonight she’ll try again because fennel and chocolate are an interesting mix.

Last September, Julia won a bursary that provided her with a stand for five days at the Good Food Show in November.  The experience was invaluable. It was a real big deal.  Julia and Tootsweet found themselves photographed for the Good Food Magazine. Their stall was in the NEC, and daily Julia had the chance to give talks to VIP ticket holders.  She told them about her company, taught them how to taste chocolate and willingly received all feedback.  Because her chocolates had won a couple of awards, people came by especially to meet her and taste the product for themselves.  The stand, which in any other circumstances would have cost Julia thousands of pounds, came for free. However, it generated so much interest, and brought in so many contacts, that Julia is booking to return this year. She's experience at first hand how worth while it is.  

It’s interesting to be here tonight at this chocolate evening having spent last night in the Shrewsbury Bakehouse with Dominic Schoenstaedt and his buns and bread.  The products might be different, but the lifestyle’s much the same. So is what Dom and Julia are trying to achieve. Here are two young business people in our town working their socks off to create a local product of real quality.  Like Dom, Julia’s up in the night.  After her day in the market she’s making chocolates until two in the morning on a regular basis.  Although the chocolates will keep, it’s important to her to sell them fresh [the truffles keep for four weeks; the bars will last for between eight and twelve weeks]-      

Last Thursday in the run up to Saturday in the market, Julia stayed up all night making chocolate eggs, and she’ll probably do the same this week [she’s making chocolate chickens too].  People can tweet her, phone or drop into the market and ask for chocolates to be made to their specification, and she’ll do it too. 

Julia creates chocolates with her customers in mind.  They’ve talked to her, she’s got to know them, she knows what they like - and in the wee small hours when she’s sampling flavours and trying things out, what they like is at the forefront of her mind. 

So let’s support her, that’s what I say.  Let’s support Dom with his bread, and Julia with her chocolate, and all our other young people who are working to make Shrewsbury work for them.  I’ve heard so much about young people in Shrewsbury moving away and only the oldies being left behind.  But that’s so not the case.  There’s Jessicah Kendrick, owner of the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, and her gang of cheery friends/family/co-workers, bringing not only coffee and cake but new blasts of music, art and discussion to the town.  There’s Helen Foot and Kate Millward with their Shropshire tweed. There are the boys from the Bird’s Nest Café, who I haven’t interviewed yet [but I intend to, if they’ll let me].  There are Sam and Vicky down at It’s A Nomad Life, and all their tribal artifacts and antiques.  And there are loads of others that I haven’t mentioned yet, or had a chance to interview, but look out for them. 

We pride ourselves here in Shrewsbury on our small shops.  Well, many of them are manned and owned by young people.  They’re passionate about what they do, and they deserve our support.  Dom deserves our support.  Julia does.  And they deserve it because they’ve earned it. We’re not doing them a favour when we buy from them.  They’re doing one for us.  I mean their products are good. And that’s what business is all about.

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