On 4th July I was invited to the launch of the Hotel Chocolat Metropolis, the first of its kind in the UK, which the company had the good sense to locate in its Leeds store on Boar Lane. If you think that I am going to use this event to churn out a string of chocolate-related puns then I would just like to thank you for being one of my regular readers.
The company was founded in 1988 by Peter Harris and Angus Thirlwell and after a couple of company name changes to reflect their output and distribution methods at the time, it became Hotel Chocolat in 2003, although their famous Chocolate Tasting Club has been running since 1998. It now has over 100,000 members who receive a monthly box in which new recipes, to date over 1,500, are trialled. Fortunately, the range of samples on offer at the launch party was a little more limited so I was able to try them all, and have the odd second helping.
In 2006 they bought the 140 acre Rabot Estate in St Lucia which makes them the only UK chocolate maker to own its own cocoa plantation. As the Fair-trade scheme only covers small growers they set up Hotel Chocolat Engaged Ethics Cocoa Programme and have created over 100 new jobs. It pays its farmers a guaranteed 30-40% above the world cocoa price and does so within a week of their selling the crop. In 2011 they opened the Boucan Hotel in St Lucia, again on the Rabot Estate which has six lodges and a restaurant. I should imagine that being in such an idyllic place and being cocoa themed it is much like that other hotel where ‘you can choc out any time you like but you can never leave.’ You were warned! As of today, they have 158 boutiques, 28 cafes, 51 concessions, 1 restaurant and 14 schools. Not bad in just 15 years.
I had the pleasure of being able to have a few words with the co-founder, Angus Thirlwell, who told me that their aim was to become the Number 1 luxury chocolate brand in the world. Coming from a lot of other entrepreneurs I would have found this to be either brash or arrogant, but Mr Thirlwell is such a thoroughly pleasant chap that I am sure it is a sincere aim, meant not only to raise the company’s profile to global status, but also to benefit the communities with whom they deal.
At this point I must comment on the rest of the staff who were present at the launch. They were, without exception, welcoming, charming and more than helpful. I am not stupid in that I realise they were there to make a good impression on the media people and the regular customers who had also been invited, but they oozed sincerity. By sheer coincidence, one of the members of staff lives quite near me and we caught the same bus home. We chatted about life in general but the one abiding message was how much she loved her job and how the company had been extremely good to her. She was also buzzing about having been voted ‘Employee of the Month’ recently, which is no mean feat considering the number of staff in the various establishments.
Back to the ‘do’. I was greeted at the door by not only the manager, Sam Long, a larger than life character who never stops smiling, but also more importantly by a glass of prosecco and a salted caramel brownie. The brownie was incredibly light and melted in the mouth, unlike the chewy fudge-like creations served elsewhere. After doing a bit of mingling and getting my bearings I decided to go upstairs and investigate the various activities on offer.
I cannot believe the myriad ways in which the cocoa bean can be used. In the Chocolate Lab a group of ladies were pampering themselves with the beauty products available, the hand cream seeming to be a favourite. I decided not to take part as I doubt that even chocolate could restore my good looks, unless it was being eaten by a plastic surgeon. Samples of the various flavours of chocolates were laid out around the lab and, as it would have been rude to ignore them, I had a taste. My two particular favourites were the Eton Mess, based on the public school pudding, and a Mexican based chocolate which contained a chilli and lime flavour along with alcohol. The initial sensation is of soothing chocolate which pacifies the taste buds before the chilli attacks like a scooter raid. It was truly amazing, so I had another. Might I suggest a hard core selection comprising these and maybe a wasabi-based confection to be eaten as petit fours after a vindaloo?
At this point I thought that another drink would be in order so I had a cocoa based beer. I am a traditional ale man and don’t like my pint being messed about with, but the chocolate was no more than a hint to bring an extra dimension to the taste spectrum of this pale brew, rather than to overpower it. They also do a porter, which I am sure will have a more intense chocolate flavour.
Meandering through the various exhibitions on the first floor I came across a table set aside for the younger VIPs, a chocolate decorating table around which were seated children having a great time adding toppings to slabs of chocolate, and to their hands, arms and faces! The adults meanwhile were having just as much fun creating slabs of chocolate from the raw bean and getting it on their hands, arms and faces. Who wants to behave like an adult in a choccy paradise?
As I was watching this culinary artistry word reached me of a cocktail making class downstairs. From being a young lad it was always my ambition to be a barrister but being a barista is about as close as I will ever get so I thought I would give it a go. Surprisingly the main ingredient of the concoction was, you guessed it, chocolate. We started with flakes and added hot water rum, triple sec and ice cream. After a good shake, of the cocktail not me, the liquid was strained into a glass and the result was the most potent nightcap you have ever tasted. A creamy, chocolaty, alcohol laden liquid satin. Tom Cruise, who’s he?
All good things must come to an end and so, replete with chocolate and given a goody bag to stop me having to go cold turkey when I got home, I set off into the still warm and light night a most contented cove. You can tell how much I enjoyed the evening as my report for once has not been choc-a-block with puns. Should you decide to pay the place a visit I would be happy to join you; just wake me up before you cocoa!
On a serious note, the inaugural Metropolis, as it is known, will be running various courses and events for the chocolate lover, when I am sure that the process will be treated with a little more reverence, although I am equally sure that the wonderful staff at Hotel Chocolat will make your experience with them one to remember. Keep looking at their website and don’t forget, if you just want a luxurious chocolate experience without having to do it yourself, you can always pop into your local branch and buy it off the shelf.
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.