I have just returned from a lovely holiday to Scotland and London, in the company of my younger son, and along with the jet-lag, I am already missing the castles, the beautiful rolling hills and country walks, the witty, warm-hearted people … and craving British Sweeties.
Jelly Babies, Minstrels, Fry’s Chocolate Creams, and especially Flakes. There is nothing better after an afternoon traipsing ‘round a castle (and we saw many fabulous ones – oozing bloody and heinous history) than stopping at an ice cream van for a 99 Flake.
While the ice cream or “soft serve” in the 99 can be anywhere from forgettable to delicious, the addition of that Flake, stuck in the top makes the drippy mess all worthwhile. Originally produced when a worker in the Cadbury’s factory noticed that the excess chocolate draining from the moulds fell off in a stream and created folded chocolate with flaking properties, the Flake has been a favourite in Britain since 1920. It shatters satisfyingly when you bite it, and rains flakes of chocolate into your mouth, and all over anything in the near vicinity. Messy good fun.
I sat on the fortified wall at Stirling Castle, eating a 99, and contemplating the long walk the condemned had to the Beheading Stone, from where I sat. Come to think of it, if they’d had the means for making Flakes when public executions were still happening at Stirling Castle, I have no doubt the vendors would have made a “killing” in sales of 99s (please forgive me), as public executions were a real crowd pleaser and a day out for the masses.
But we had many miles ahead of us, and many a castle, to visit, and while Scotland is not a country known for chocolate (fudge and superlative baking, oh yes!) we visited a few lovely little gems of chocolate shoppes in our wander through the homeland of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots (and my family).
After spending a few days visiting Inverness, heading northward to pony trek in Brora, watching falconry at Dunrobin Castle, and standing on the windswept battlefield at Culloden Moor, we headed back toward Stirling, and detoured off the A9 to Grandtully, a tiny community between Pitlochery and Aberfeldie, and the home of Iain Burnett, the Highland Chocolatier.
Absolutely famished after a morning of detours and getting lost up country lanes, we followed the driving directions on their website, and arrived at Ian’s Burnett’s coffee house, gratefully collapsing down to enjoy and excellent hot chocolate, latte and lunch, before popping next door to view the “chocs”.
By far, for me, the most delicious and eye catching pieces are the dipped fruit. We knew we had to try the Orange Sunrise: Tangy slices of real orange, exquisitely candied over days, then dipped and dressed in Sao Tome dark chocolate, the whole Clementines: Juicy whole clementines, expertly candied, then dipped and decorated in Sao Tome dark chocolate and (for my son) the cherries: Real juicy cherries, delightfully presented on their natural stalks
I popped the whole orange into my mouth, closed my lips and was transported to heaven. The candying process is just enough to seal in the flavour of the fruit, rather than becoming cloying, and the smooth, dark chocolate swims around the rich citrus. Do not eat these while driving. They deserve every ounce of your concentration and enjoyment.
I also chose a small selection box of 20 chocolates for my dear cousin and host, in Stirling. She later claimed Iain Burnett’s truffles to be “rich, dark, a long velvety finish”, and “keep your hands off them, they’re mine”. I think I need to order her another box.
After ditching the wee car in Stirling, we ventured on (with much less stress, I must admit) to Edinburgh, using the excellent First ScotRail train service. This allowed me to actually gaze at the gorgeous scenery to the left and right, including many sheep and “coos” (Scottish for cows) rather than having my eyes locked on the road ahead. Within an hour, we pulled in to Waverly Station, and set off to find The Chocolate Tree.
“Artisan chocolatiers specialising in hand crafted chocolates, organic chocolate bars, continental baking and Italian style ice cream. Based in East Lothian and Edinburgh, we work in small batches only using the finest natural ingredients, where possible locally sourced and organic. We believe in offering the finest in ethical and organic chocolate at the best value possible, providing artisan quality that doesn’t cost the earth.” – from their website
Edinburgh is an easy “walking city”, and the Chocolate Tree is on Banchory Street, about 20 minutes – ½ hour on foot, from Waverly Station. The walk on a pleasant day is just what is needed to build an appetite. When we arrived it was mid-morning, the perfect excuse, as if we needed one, to sit down at one of the tiny outdoor tables with a slice of mouth-watering chocolate cake.
The Chocolate Tree began as an idea (from their website): “to build a travelling chocolaterie with which we would tour the British music festivals. This is a very important part of our business and every summer we are to be found travelling the length and breadth of the country to set up our chocolaterie at festivals and fairs.”
I love this idea, but am reserving judgement until I taste “the goods”. The very friendly and helpful Olivia, behind the counter, is happy to make suggestions and help us decide between the many scrumptious looking tortes, all made in-house. She is knowledgeable about every ingredient, its source, and how many miles it has had to travel to get to them. She explains that the chocolate bars, truffles and chocolates are made a few miles away in the Chocolate Tree’s kitchen in East Lothian.
We settle on the Vegan Berry Cake, for me, and the Strawberry and Raspberry Truffle Cake for my son.
It is one of those many moments, as we sit there together and take our first bite, that will make this trip memorable for me. Perhaps it is because we’ve had a brisk walk, have actually managed to find the place, and it is a fine day, but that first bite of this exquisite torte makes me relax and feel I could stay in this tiny cafe all day. Dense, rich and tempered with fat raspberries, my Vegan Berry Cake is slowly disappearing, until my son decides to help me. I open my eyes and realize he is already finished with his piece of Strawberry and Raspberry Truffle Cake, and is “helping me along”, a huge smile on his face.
“How was yours?” I ask.
“Gone – sorry, did you want a bite?”
We get down to business and, with Olivia’s help, pick out a selection of chocolates. Everything is made in small batches, and the Chocolate Tree does not always have everything they make in stock. I am not sorry we could not purchase the marmite or the beer and gingko selections, but we could have tried absinthe and peppermint. Instead, we opted for mango and chilli, raspberry and ginger, marmalade, blackcurrant and licorice, and a dark chocolate truffle.
As well, we picked up some dark chocolate bars, their longer shelf life making them more likely to make it back to Canada. We selected Orange (with wedges of crystallized orange), Dark Forest (raspberry crumble, brambles and organic wild blueberries), and Bramble with Cardamom.
We say good-bye to Olivia, who directs us across the street, and one block down, to another Edinburgh chocolate gem, Coco Chocolate.
Specializing in fine organic chocolate, Rebecca Knights-Kerswell’s tiny shop (there are actually two – the other, larger one is on Broughton Street) reminds me of an old fashioned sweet shoppe, with glass fronted cases, almost at nose level, filled with lovingly hand-made artisan chocolates and bars.
“Coco Chocolate is made by our artisan chocolatiers in Scotland using the finest ingredients. We hand temper our chocolate on marble slabs and create a range of stunning chocolates with fruits, spices and peppers.”
If we hadn’t already been filled with torte, I am sure we would have sampled more of Rebecca’s wares, but we come away with some lovely bars, each one hand wrapped, batch number and best before dates hand written on each re-sealable wrapper, each wrapper looking like a hand-painted card.
Her flavour combinations are intriguing, ranging from Organic Handmade Dark Chocolate with Rose & Black Pepper (A Gold Award Winner – Great Taste Awards) to tobacco with cocoa nibs! We take the Lime and coconut, cinnamon and cardamom, and organic peppermint (my older son and I are peppermint lovers).
Our final destination on this wonderful holiday is London. Arriving at the beginning of a heat wave, we make our way around this hot, noisy, exciting and history-filled city, by tube and on foot, and after a few days seeing some fantastic theatre, visiting Hever Castle for jousting and archery, walking up the Thames River, visiting the bustling Portobello Road Market, where my son buys a debonair top hat, we are exhausted and looking for a bit of cool and quiet.In the tony Belgravia neighbourhood, home of the Royal Court Theatre* around the block from the Sloane Square tube station, we find just that, at William Curley, Patissier Chocolatier.
William and Suzue Curley have two boutique stores in Begravia and in Ricmond-Upon-Thames, and as of July 2011:
“After Five consecutive years of receiving the prestigious accolade ‘Britain’s Best Chocolatier’ (2007-2011) awarded by The Academy of Chocolate, it was finally time for the William Curley team to enter Harrods, and we are very pleased to say we have very fine patisserie and chocolate concessions in this world-famous store.” – from their website
William Curley first came to my attention, for his Nostalgia Line, featuring artisan, hand-made versions of some of Britain’s favourite tea-time treats, such as the Bounty Bar, Tunnock’s Tea Cake, Jaffa Cake, Millionaire Shortbread and Snickers.
In William Curley’s take on this sometimes questionable treat, a Bounty bar becomes: Nostalgia Coconut Bar. White chocolate and toasted coconut ganache, coated in Toscano 70% dark chocolate.
I absolutely LOVE coconut, and quite enjoy wolfing down a Bounty Bar, when the urge strikes – but I have been permanently spoiled. The William Curley version of this bar is buttery rich, heady with the smell of coconut and the merest hint of white chocolate to pull out all the stops and make this sinfully smooth rich and, oh my gosh, I am salivating all over the keyboard. Fortunately, when I sampled it in the lovely and very high-end shop, the generous and well brought up clerks had the decency to look the other way.
We brought some Nostalgia Coconuts home with us, but I ate them before anyone else got a chance to try them.
We sampled the Nostalgia Jaffa Cake (have I mentioned my son’s addiction to them?) and he pronounced them to be very good – although he actually prefers the ones from Marks and Spencer! I loved the fact that there is a good quantity of heady orange jelly in this version, rather than relying on the sponge cake to hold it up. The chocolate is an entirely different experience to the “chocolatey coating” of the mass produced ones. At about twice the size of a regular Jaffa Cake, these tasty bites would make a charming dessert, on their own.
I have a love/hate relationship with Millionaire’s shortbread, which can be a sticky, condensed milk, glutinous mess, or a triple slice of heaven (shortbread, toffee, and chocolate). Mr. Curley’s version is just that, with the proportions in equal measure and the toffee not too cloyingly sweet. The shortbread is thin, has a good snap, and does not taste at all fatty or cakey. And the dark chocolate, which coats the whole thing, as opposed to just the top, prevents the goodness from squishing out the sides.
William and Suzue have a delicious range of chocolates, which I was happy to sample, and to bring some of them home (we were leaving the next day, or I don’t think I would have risked it, with the heat). They have, amongst their more traditional flavours, an interesting range of Japanese inspired morsels, such as apricot and wasabi, which I found delightful, as the hint of wasabi provided just enough of a hit to pull the full apricot taste up through my nostrils. Green tea was also very fresh tasting, as was the juniper berry and blackcurrant.
I will need to pay a return visit to do justice to the truffle range, as I didn’t try the cassis and hibiscus, which has a lovely purple hue.’
After refreshing our palates with a raspberry sorbet, and with Nostalgia Bars and chocolates carefully packed for the journey home, we headed out again into the cooling early evening of a London summer, fortified with some wonderful memories of a trip filled with re-connecting with family, gorgeous rolling hills, fresh air and country walks, history, magnificent castles, and some very good chocolate.
*It breaks my heart that this is the company’s summer hiatus, and makes me determined to come back to London as soon as possible – this theatre has been the launching pad for ground-breaking scripts and playwrights.