Posted 14th Oct 2013
There's no better excuse to start enjoying chocolate than Chocolate Week, the nationwide celebration, from 14th to 20th October, honouring our finest chocolatiers and their decadent goodies. To give you a taste of life as a chocolatier LandLove's Natalie Mason spoke to Julia Wenlock, founder of Toot Sweets artisan chocolates and modern day Willy Wonka, living the life of sweets glorious sweets in Shropshire
Let's start from the beginning, where did your interest in chocolate come from?
As a small child I had always been really interested in sweets and chocolates and my favourite film growing up was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At Easter we'd have these delicious chocolate hens and chocolate always seemed such a massive treat and a real family occasion as children. My mum was always in the kitchen teaching us new recipes so I grew up interested in cooking too, particularly using locally produced food.
How did you become a chocolatier?
When I went to university in Manchester I worked part-time at the Godiva Belgian chocolate concession in Selfridges and I really enjoyed it. I didn't originally plan to be a chocolatier, as I was studying television and radio production at university, but I ended up staying on at Selfridges for six years eventually becoming the department manager for in-house confectionary and groceries. After I finished university I continued working at Selfridges but my mum fell ill so I moved back to Shropshire and at one point commuted back and forth to my job. My mum sadly passed away in 2007 and it was then I decided I wanted to do something for myself, so I opened up a sweet shop where I sold local chocolates. I had dabbled in making chocolates for friends over the years but wasn't confident about making them for the public, so went on a few courses to learn. I soon realised I'd actually been doing it for years. In November 2008 I opened Toot Sweets and in September 2009 began making and selling my own chocolates.
Why did you call the business Toot Sweets?
Another one of my favourite films I had grown up with was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which is where the inspiration for the name came from.
Describe a typical day in your kitchen?
My work is quite seasonal so my main period of work is from September to Easter, whilst in summer I do quite a lot of shows. In the summer months I make chocolates maybe two or three times a week and in winter I can be making chocolate every night, particularly around Christmas and Easter. A typical day might start with some admin before I get into the kitchen and start making the ganache and caramel fillings for the truffles. I also make lavender chocolates, using lavender from a local Shropshire farm in Newport, so I often start infusing the cream in the morning as I like to leave the lavender in there for a good couple of hours. I then move on to tempering the chocolate and, although I have a small tempering machine, I still do much of it by hand. Over the week I mainly pipe, fill and roll the truffles. My Christmas rush starts around October when I start to receive orders. My chocolates are fresh and last four to six weeks, so I usually take orders and make them ready for December. I also sell chocolate bars which last three months, so I sell a lot of those in advance. I'll be exhibiting at the BBC Good Food Show in November and it really all kicks off from there.
What made you so passionate about using locally sourced ingredients?
Well I am now a local producer myself so it's important that I support other local suppliers in the area. Also, most of my customers are Shropshire-based so they like to support local produce and hear stories of where the ingredients have come from. I source as much as I can locally, though obviously I can't source the chocolate locally because it can't grow here. I buy my chocolate from an importer that is based just down the road from me and he knows the cocoa bean growers personally, which makes it more trustworthy as I know that the growers are properly paid and that they grow high quality cocoa beans. It's nice to be able to tell that story. I think it's brilliant that we have the best quality ingredients available in our local area, so there's no need to travel all over the world to find them. In Shropshire we like to work together and support one another.
Tell me more about the kind of chocolates you make?
I make lavender and salted caramel truffles all year round, as those have won awards, and the rest are quite seasonal. In spring and summer it tends to be light and fruity and in the winter more alcohol and nuts, like chestnuts. I make chocolate hearts filled with cinder toffee, chocolates with fruit and nuts, chocolate figures such as hens at Easter and Santa at Christmas, as well as Easter eggs and this year I will be making chocolate wreaths. I'll make a large one to be shared by families and a small one to hang on the Christmas tree.
What are some of the locally produced ingredients you use?
I get my lavender from a local farm in Newport, my cream from Mawley Milk and my honey from a guy called Tom Oliver, who is Shropshire's youngest beekeeper at 18. He learnt how to be a beekeeper at 14 and started making this really beautiful honey from the age of 15, when he took over the hive from his grandparents. I also get wine from Monkhide and I try to source fruit and nuts from local independent suppliers wherever possible.
Where do you sell your chocolate?
I have a small selection available to buy online, though will be uploading more at Christmas, the rest I sell at my shop in Shrewsbury, Shropshire (Unit 8, The Market Hall, Claremont Street). I do accept bespoke orders online and over the phone as well.
What are you doing to celebrate Chocolate Week?
I will be doing chocolate sampling in the shop all week and I will also be running a Chocolate Film Night on 17th October at the Lion Hotel, Shrewsbury, watching Chocolat with tastings and a pop-up shop where people can buy my chocolates. The day before Chocolate Week, on Sunday 13th October, I will be hosting a pop-up Chocolate Café at Alfie And Billy's Café in Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury. I will also be exhibiting at the Salon Du Chocolat at London Olympia from 18th to 20th October.
Visit www.tootsweetschocolates.co.uk to find out more and to buy some of Julia's delicious chocolates.