Why Sheffield could become a new capital of chocolate
Sheffield has a sweet new string to its manufacturing bow - as two city chocolate-makers based in the same resurgent area have won global acclaim.
Anna Sterling, who makes handmade, imaginatively-flavoured truffles with her business Cocoa Mester, and Max Scotford, a producer of high-end 'bean to bar' creations with his company Bullion, have been given prizes at the Academy of Chocolate awards, which this year attracted entries from as far away as the Middle East.
Both operate close to popular Kelham Island, which has reinvented itself as a thriving hub of bars, cafés and modern housing following the decline of traditional heavy industry. Cocoa Mester has a small room at Krynkl, the development made from recycled shipping containers at Shalesmoor, while Bullion's home is a unit in Neepsend.
"It's good for Sheffield to get some recognition," says Max, 23, whose venture is the only one of its kind in Yorkshire. "Normally we're used to making steel but now it's chocolate. It's fantastic."
Their success could be viewed as a revival of a tradition started by confectionery giant Thorntons, which began in Sheffield in 1911 with a tiny family-run shop on Norfolk Street and now has stores nationwide.
The awards ceremony took place at Claridge’s in Mayfair; Michel Roux Snr, co-founder of Michelin-starred Le Gavroche restaurant, is patron of the London academy.
Anna and Max offer single-origin chocolate - where the cocoa beans come from one source, a practice that adds depth of flavour and confirms a product's provenance, setting it apart from bars sold in corner shops.
"There's a change in coffee, and beer - chocolate is the same," says Anna, 34. "It's for people who are really looking for something more than that sweet hit."
Max, from Dronfield, trained to be a chef at Sheffield College, where he 'fell in love' with the idea of being a chocolatier. He then enrolled at Hallam University to study events management, but was drawn back to his passion.
"Towards the end of university I started a food blog, and I was making chocolate at home as a hobby," he says. Researching the ancient Mayans, who valued cocoa beans more than gold, led to the name Bullion.
"Around two years ago I was in a position financially to be able to afford the equipment to start making it on a commercial scale, left my job and went for it. It's a passion that turned into a hobby and a dream business for me."
Anna 'did things the other way round'. She grew up in Walkley, and after leaving school took a degree in fine art at Liverpool John Moores University. After graduating she returned to Sheffield and worked in Freeman College, teaching craft skills to students with learning disabilities.
"I was doing a lot of baking and food stuff with the students and I think it reignited something inside me," she says. "I'd always made truffles and things, even as a child. I decided I wanted to train myself."
She went to Sheffield College, joining the diploma programme at level 3 - patisserie. She then worked in the pastry kitchen at Park Lane Hotel in London, but chocolate remained in her thoughts.
"I came back to Sheffield, and I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. I thought 'I'll set up my own business'."
The name Cocoa Mesters is inspired by the term 'little mesters' - self-employed workers who once made small tools and cutlery across her home city. "I think, in Sheffield, people really do like to see something that's made here and got that link to the heritage."
Her bijou workshop at Krynkl is lined with examples of her wares, all attractively bound in fashionably utilitarian packaging with the all important mark 'Sheffield, England'. One bar - containing chocolate made with beans from Tumaco, Colombia - is decorated with a stroke of edible gold paint, and she also sells 'shards' - big, jagged pieces of chocolate studded with ingredients such as sharp-tasting sour cherries.
Anna only makes small batches, keeping the flavours fresh and strong. "I don't put preservatives in there. I don't see the point."
There are eight steps to making a Bullion bar, meanwhile. Max sources cocoa beans from co-operatives in Haiti, Bolivia and Guatemala, where growers are paid four times the average wage, he says. Flavours are drawn from beans with different roasts - it takes seven days to grind them and another three weeks is spent maturing the chocolate.
Bullion won silver and bronze in the awards' 'bean to bar, under 80 per cent cocoa solids' category. The winners - which, like all Max's bars, come wrapped in luxurious gold-coloured paper - had complex flavours, with hints of figs, espresso and peach across the two. Cocoa Mester picked up three prizes in the filled chocolates section - silver for Anna's pistachio praline and gin, tonic and lime varieties, and bronze for her layered, dark morello cherry range.
Perfection is a must, Anna points out. "There can't be air bubbles and they've got to be perfectly, evenly coated, with a great shine."
Tempering - where chocolate is brought to a workable temperature in a controlled way without harming the look and taste - is crucial too, she adds. "You might have melted some chocolate and it's come out with grey streaks on it - that's untempered."
Customers can expect to pay more, but Max is confident the cost is justified. "You're paying for the quality."
The pair are now looking to the future. Max is moving elsewhere in Neepsend this autumn, and has just launched a 'mini Bullion' line as well as signing a brand deal with Ginetta cars for the Le Mans 24 Hours race. Anna, who runs courses, hopes to expand and sell in more shops.
"Sheffield's got that nice mix of supporting independents but being down to Earth. It's not too pretentious," says Anna.
"I felt very much supported in what I was trying to achieve," Max says. "With the growing craft culture in Sheffield it seemed like the perfect place to start a business."