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The White Rabbit Chocolatiers in Beverley prepare for Easter

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 March 2018

March hares in dark chocolate

March hares in dark chocolate

Andy Bulmer

It’s Easter, which can only mean one thing – a wonderland of chocolate!

Mmm...cherry brandy truffle Mmm...cherry brandy truffle

As founder of White Rabbit Chocolatiers, it seems only fitting that Sally Hawkes is running a little late. It’s hardly a chore, however, waiting in her lovely little boutique café-cum-shop, watching the world go by as her dapper son Ed brings over a steaming cup of coffee with a large chocolate button on the side, chosen specially to taste-match the brew.

‘The coffee is from Dark Woods (in West Slaithwaite Road, Huddersfield) and the milk is from Cherry Tree Farm (in Cherry Burton), so it’s pretty much fresh from the cow,’ said Ed. ‘We try whenever we can to source close to home, depending on the quality of course. The herbs in our rosemary truffles come direct from mum’s garden – you don’t get much more local than that.’

White Rabbit in Dyer Lane, Beverley, has built an enviable reputation since launching in 2004 for both the quality of its chocolate and its pioneering approach to flavour. Among its numerous award winners are the aforementioned rosemary caramel with salt truffle, as well as blood orange caramel, blackcurrant with juniper dark truffle, lemon and sea salt, raspberry and amaretti and, a long-standing favourite, Yorkshire honeycomb.

Although the café is not exclusively a paean to the glories of chocolate – salads, soups and bruschetta topped with chorizo and smoked mackerel are also on the menu – it is, at heart, a temple to the complex cacao bean. So, expect choco beans on toast, chocolate fondue, chocolate granola and chocolate afternoon tea.

Moulds for Easter hens filled with luxurious chocolate Moulds for Easter hens filled with luxurious chocolate

There’s also toasted Irish tea loaf, a nod to owner Sally Hawkes’ heritage as part of a County Down farming family.

‘When I had my own children and took them back home, it was like they were tasting food for the first time,’ she said. ‘They’d never had potatoes like County Down potatoes and refused to eat any I cooked for them when we got home to East Yorkshire. I love it that food can make you feel that strongly. It can be very emotional in that way; taking you home and making you feel cared for.’

Sally’s natural love of food was taken to a new level as a child when her aunt treated her to tea at Bewley’s Café in Grafton Street, Dublin; one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.

‘It was so glamorous and exciting,’ she said, her eyes gleaming with the recollection. ‘The food was fantastic of course, but it was more than that. It had a unique buzz; an electricity that has stuck with me throughout my life.’

When looking for a new opportunity after 20 years in teaching, it seemed obvious then to reignite this inner spark.

‘I visited London and was excited by its amazing chocolate shops, by Rococo (founded by Chantal Coady in Chelsea) and L’Art du Chocolat (in Kensington),’ she said. ‘When you opened the doors, your senses were flooded with pleasure. I knew then that I wanted to set up my own chocolate emporium, creating the same sort of magic for customers here in Yorkshire.’

Sally started by curating a range of luxury brands from her base in Beverley, hosting tastings in people’s homes, at WI meetings, Young Farmers gatherings, wherever and whenever she got the chance. Then, someone suggested she should try making her own products.

‘They said it was easy. Although I’ve since found out that while the process is straightforward, there are about a million things that can go wrong along the way,’ she explained. ‘I know all the pitfalls because I’ve fallen into each and every one of them.

‘It’s fascinating though, and wonderfully complex; much more so than coffee and wine. And, at the end of the day, you’re creating beautiful products, which is quite something when you consider that your starting point is basically a brown lump. I don’t want to sound too cliched, but there is a certain artistry to it.’

While Ed works front-of-house, Sally and her daughter Amy now work above the shop creating an incredible range of chocolate products, many of which are made bespoke for individual customers.

‘I love to be creative, but I always bear in mind what my customers will like,’ said Sally. ‘I know the main selling point for them is that our chocolate is handmade and fresh. We make everything in small batches – which isn’t the way to make a lot of money – but means that it doesn’t stand about on the shelves for long.’

White Rabbit’s cute 3D chocolate shapes have developed quite a following in recent years, not least because each one contains something surprising – a shot of wit to ensure they don’t tip over into sickly sweetness. Open a cat, for instance, and you’ll find a mouse inside. There are bones in the dogs and, in the unicorns, a star for you to make a wish on.

‘At Easter, there are certain products you just have to have,’ said Sally. ‘There is no escape from eggs, rabbits and hens. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. We started selling Easter turtles a couple of years ago – well, they come from eggs too, you know. And baby turtles are called hatchlings, so they couldn’t be more perfect.’

Her everyday bestseller is a blackcurrant and juniper truffle, echoing modern trends for sharp fruits and hedgerow gin flavours, but she’s constantly striving for the next bestseller, and the one after that, by experimenting in the kitchen and following the latest foodie fashions.

‘Amy and I are always looking for new directions to explore,’ said Sally. ‘At the moment, that means more non-dairy products. We already offer a very popular blood orange caramel that’s dairy-free and are experimenting with our truffles, which traditionally have a cream-based centre, to offer fresher, fruit-based alternatives.

‘Luckily, Amy is a supertaster, which means she can pick out every little nuance. She’s like a shark in that she can pick up on the tiniest hint of something in a vast ocean of ingredients. It’s an invaluable skill to have when you’re trying to put together new and intriguing recipes.’

And there is, apparently, no better place to test out these new and intriguing recipes than right here in Yorkshire.

‘Yorkshire people are not easily impressed,’ said Amy, ‘and they want to feel that their money is being well spent. If we get it right here, we know we’ve cracked it and can get it right anywhere.’

White Rabbit’s army of repeat customers suggests they’re consistently getting it right. Their chocolates sell well online, but most customers like to buy in-person from the shop, choosing individual treats for themselves and their loved ones, taking almost as much pleasure from the buying as the eating.

But, for some, chocolate remains the guiltiest of guilty pleasures and, even now, Sally says some customers – especially men – feel embarrassed to be ‘caught’ treating themselves.

‘There is so much misinformation 
about chocolate,’ she said. ‘Lots of people feel incredibly guilty about eating it, 
while others think there are health benefits in all chocolate, including the corner shop brands.

‘We run a lot of educational sessions so people, from fledgling chocolate-eaters to those who have had many years of practice, can learn about the real benefits of eating quality chocolate as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

‘Chocolate can really boost your mood. But my advice is never to short-change yourself. Cheap and cheerful is all very well, but not when it comes to things we love. It you’re going to treat yourself, treat yourself well.’

To find out more about White Rabbit’s chocolate workshops, parties and tasting sessions, visit whiterabbitchocolatiers.co.uk.

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