The city of York reclaims it's chocolate heritage
PUBLISHED: 16:00 12 April 2012 | UPDATED: 11:24 24 October 2015
Meet two women helping to put chocolate back on the map in York. Our food and drink consultant Annie Stirk reports classics Photographs by Andy Bulmer
Sophie Jewett has always had a sweet tooth and remembers well watching her brother, a chef, cooking and creating with chocolate. ‘I would always hang around, wanting to interfere and have a go myself. When I look back there were lots of pictures of us making chocolate things,’ she said.
Today, as the founder of Blake Street’s York Cocoa House – modelled on a 17th century-style cocoa house, selling high-quality chocolates alongside tastings and classes – Sophie has taken her passion for chocolate one step further by organising the city’s first Chocolate Festival (April 6th-9th). It is just one of several spectacular events planned for 2012 to celebrate York’s chocolate-making past.
‘With 2012 being the 75th anniversary of Smarties; 150 years since Rowntree purchased the Tukes chocolate drink which led to the manufacture of its famous confectionery and now the year the first chocolate museum opens in York, it’s going to be an incredible year for chocolate in the city,’ said Sophie.
‘York’s fantastic chocolate history is really something to shout about. Between the 17th and 19th centuries it was a hotbed of cocoa houses and today, there are still amazing things going on in the city, yet no one has ever brought it all together into one festival,’ she said. ‘In April, dozens of venues around the city will be offering all kinds of workshops, tastings, chocolate-themed menus, chocolate tours, Easter egg hunts and even a chocolate tea party in York Minster Tower.’
Indeed, Sophie hopes the tea party will give a bird’s eye view of the city’s chocolate making past, which started in the 18th century with the three kings of confectionery who were Rowntree, Terry and Craven.
Joseph Rowntree, who opened a grocer’s shop in Pavement (where it’s claimed George Cadbury Junior and Lewis Fry were both apprentices), was York’s first chocolate pioneer, expanding his business into a chocolate factory in Haxby Street, eventually producing British classics such as Kit Kat and Yorkie, now owned by Nestle.
Later, Joseph Terry created a factory in Bishopthorpe Road – now owned by Kraft – where, during peak seasons, more than 700 people were employed to create household favourites such as Terry’s All Gold (in fact, it’s said you can still see a Terry’s chocolate shop and restaurant in St Helen’s Square now a modern-day jewellers).
Thomas Craven, son of an East Riding farmer who arrived in York as a 16 year-old apprentice at his brother-in-law’s growing confectionery business, went on to set up his own business at High Ousegate.
‘At its height, more than 14,000 people were employed in the chocolate industry here and through my own shop I’ve met some amazing people who used to be employed by the industry and have extraordinary memories to share,’ said Sophie.
Flying the flag for York’s chocolate innovation and history and re-establishing it as the city of chocolate is a passion shared by Ann Gurnell, group general manager of Continuum, the York-based operator of cultural visitor attractions, and the company behind the museum to chocolate – Chocolate: York’s Sweet Story, which opens in K
ings Square in the Shambles this month.
‘Kit Kat is now one of the leading global brands (with 45 different flavours in Japan alone) but most people don’t know it was created in York, and while Birmingham has its Cadbury’s World, York’s unique chocolate making past hasn’t really been told before,’ said Ann.
The innovation behind the chocolate making families of York is something museum curators are keen to focus on. ‘Many of these early manufacturers did things with confectionery that had never been done before such as using high temperature sugar skills and making boiled sweets for the first time,’ said Ann. ‘Terry, for example, was a pharmacist by trade, and started by literally sugaring the pill, trying to make medicinal lozenges more palatable by coating them in sugar, and this led to the first flavoured sweets.’
Instead of a traditional museum with rows of glass cases, Ann said they want the museum to be an immersive and, for some, a nostalgic experience. ‘There will be opportunities to taste, smell and learn more about chocolate, you can even discover what you chocolate personality is,’ said Ann. ‘But there will also be a look back at long-lost favourites such as Toffo, and also the many, many stories that people have to tell about living and working during York’s chocolate manufacturing peak.
‘We’ve been contacted by people from all over the world. Two people who now live in California met when they worked together at a chocolate factory in the city; we have footage of people putting the swirly tops on Black Magic chocolates by hand and one person (who will remain nameless) told us they had fallen asleep while working on the Smartie Easter egg production line as a student and, as a result that month, lots of children got Easter eggs without Smarties in them. There are so many fond memories of the industry in the city that need to be told,’ added Ann.
While a number of takeovers and closures have seen the number of people working in confectionery in the city fall to just over 2,000, Ann and Sophie both believe there is a bright future for chocolate in the city. After all, York still produces 80,000 tonnes of confectionery each year (Kit Kat is officially the world’s most famous chocolate bar) and it is home to sweet manufacturer Tangerine (most famous for its Butterkist Popcorn) as well as many young and up and coming chocolatiers.
‘It’s obviously sad that the closures and takeovers have happened but it’s all part of the city’s fascinating story and we want to tell that. I like to think the museum will reinvigorate part of people’s pride and ownership of the wonderful confectionery history in the city,’ said Ann. ‘Chocolate is still very much alive and kicking here and we want to celebrate the city’s past, present and future in confectionery.’
Sophie agreed. ‘I hope all of this year’s chocolate events will re-establish York as a centre for chocolate again and, at the same time, help people to learn more about it,’ she added.
Sophie, as someone who comes from a farming family and who grew up with a passion for good quality ingredients, is keen that people learn more about real chocolate. ‘I’ve always wanted to help people learn more about the process of making quality chocolate. There’s so much information out there about teas, wines and cheese these days – how to taste, the different flavours, the history and production – but chocolate is quite behind as a product here.
‘Now there’s Fairtrade chocolate, organic, single origin and vintage, and more consumers wanting to buy and eat food with good ingredients and learn more about where they came from. It’s time the UK started having some exciting conversations about chocolate.’
York Cocoa House,
York. YO1 8QJ
York’s Sweet Story
Kings Square, York. YO1 7LD
0845 498 9411