York! A medieval walled city in Northern England with a vibrant history dating as far back as Roman times and beyond. Defined by it’s medieval cathedral or ‘Minster’ – built in the 13th Century, and extensive Roman wall (since rebuilt in various places), it is also famous for playing its part in the chocolate and candy revolution of the British Isles.
I was up in York for a few days back in July, for adventuring and to discover some old haunts of my childhood, York centre being where I spent much of my school holidays as that’s where my grandparents lived. I remember Betty’s Tea Rooms being a favourite of mine, to press my nose against the glass and just imagining trying all the sweet treats. It was always too crowded, so it wasn’t until many years later I managed to venture in, and yes, ALL the cakes were just as good as I had imagined as a child!
But this trip was to take a different turn, focusing on some of the newer stores that are celebrating York’s rich cocoa heritage. As any expert of the British Chocolate scene will tell you; York, and other English cities, played a huge role in developing Britain’s chocolate industry – Rowntree and Terry’s are both founded in York, with Cadbury founded in Birmingham, not too far away. These days all are owned by mass global conglomerates, but their early stories are humble and all begin with Quakers. As a result of their religion, many were barred from entering much of the trades and professions – including joining the armed forces or going to university. As a result, many of them ran some of the most successful apothecaries, and many used cocoa as an aide in medicine administration. This meant they were proficient in using cocoa, after the substances’ arrival in Britain as a drink in the 17th Century, and there was a gap in the market for them! It wasn’t long before this fatty grainy drink was transformed to something more appealing, this time by the Fry’s brothers (also Quakers) of Bristol in around 1840, with their creation of a solid pastille. This paved the way for the likes of Cadbury and Terry’s to start creating other solid chocolate creations – the most popular of Cadburys’ being the Dairy Milk Bar – originally created to help support workers’ families with young growing children, as the bars contained two pints of full fat milk – giving enough calcium and fat to nurture the child, and Terry’s – the famous chocolate orange, although, as we all know, it’s not Terry’s…it’s mine!
Fast forward to 2016 and although Cadbury’s is the worlds second largest confectioner in the world, it is just that – a confectioner, and right now there is a new chocolate revolution occurring, not just in the UK, but globally. Some call it ‘craft’, ‘true’, ‘artisan’. But what it essentially is, is a Chocolate revolution, not a Candy revolution. And this is what I am discovering in York, as with many other cities around the world – there is the second Chocolate Revolution, a Chocolate Revival if you will for real chocolate, and the great many chocolate shops up here are testament that this movement is going strong.
Our first stop was Monkbar Chocolates, nestled in an amazingly wonky building on the Monks Bar end of the famous Shambles street. We’re faced with a fine variety of chocolates to choose from, but what really tickled our fancy was the dark chocolate rum truffle with a fine dusting of cocoa powder. We grab a small bag of 2 and head on our way, keen to get to the farmers’market before it closes. Hunting our way through the market we discovered some of the finest true mead I’ve ever come across, and some delicious honey, giving me ideas for some magical chocolate creations of my own. (Reviews on the mead coming soon.)
After stocking up on fresh produce for the house, it was time to venture out again, for one last chocolate fill up before hunting down dinner. York Cocoa House was next on the list and one I’d been excited about since their official launch back in November 2011. Sophie Jewett, the owner, is an inspiring story of a young girl and her adventures in chocolate as she grew up, that eventually led to her opening her own company – York Cocoa House. It’s not just the truffles here that get you going (reviews of each one we tried in the pic below can be found here), but the inclusion of port as a drink option on the menu, the ingeniously delicious creation – cacao nib and goats’ cheese scones (seriously, they are amazing warmed and with butter, so make sure you get some when you come in!) and the fact that they (used to) have their own cacao tree named Henry in the store. *Sadly Henry had already passed when we came to visit, but his legacy lives on with his own write up in the menu.
The chocolate spirit is strong in here; ladies chat excitedly over hot cups of chocolate, men rush in to buy their girlfriends’ favourite chocolates, mothers come in with their children to marvel at the chocolate counter and choose ‘just one’ as a treat for later for their little ones, the more adventurous children begging their parents to come on one of the many chocolate making classes York Cocoa House offers. Chocolate shops that carry a vibe such as this are on the rise, but it’s not a hipster vibe, it’s more a sense that you have walked in to a place where time stands still, as if you are experiencing the decades, centuries of this magical substance all at once. It’s the feeling you imagine you would get if you had just stepped into Vienne’s shop in Chocolat. To be able to create that very unique sense of place, of otherworldliness, before you’ve even eaten a chocolate, really is a skill in itself!
After immersing ourselves in this warming chocolatey blanket it was time to move as they were closing, and so we headed off for dinner. Still on a high from the chocolate we merrily wandered the streets finding it harder and harder to find a place to eat. The sight of a young man, wrapped in his butchers apron, slicing iberico ham with expert precision drew us near to Mr P’s Curious Tavern, a mysterious and exciting looking place, that had just closed for food, and so was only open for drinks. We came in for drinks, and after commenting ‘I’ve just see your kitchen, PLEASE can we eat here?’ our offer was accepted, and oh boy, we were not disappointed! Still some of the best food I’ve tried to date!
We started with a selection of 6 hams – to go with our gin and tonics, an odd combination that worked surprisingly well, before moving on to an exquisite ceviche, followed by a mind-blowing squid ink risotto topped with octopus – so SO good we licked the plate! Then back to more meat, we tried the toasted pigs’ ear and the figs & veal. Not normally the fare I go for, but when in York in a place like this, and you know everything is locally and ethically sourced you can’t not eat it! Too full for desserts, we opted for more gin and tonics, before merrily turning in for the night.
The next day saw us explore the more historical side of York – with a walk all the way round the Roman Wall, a brief trip to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, stocking up on a variety of cocoa treats at York Cocoa Story in the main Kings’ Square – you can even take tours and learn all about York’s rich chocolatey history, one bite at a time – and of course, the Minster. Starting the day, as was necessary, with a fine crafted coffee courtesy of the amazing baristas at Kiosk Project Space, right next to the Merchant’s Hall. We took chairs outside the cafe and basked in the sun, charging up on those rays and coffee to fuel us for the day.