There was a time when chocolate lovers in the northwest of England faced something of a dilemma when looking for decent fare beyond the usual Cadbury’s, Thorntons and Nestlé offerings. But a quiet evolution seems to have been taking place of late, driven by changing tastes and the enormous cultural and economic energy of the region.
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For those whose taste in chocolate starts with quirky English novelty there’s the 1657 Chocolate House in Kendal, a quaint dolls’ house of a place that has become a bit more than just a popular tourist attraction. Granted, it’s small and cramped, but that’s all part of its olde worlde charm. What it lacks in space is more than made up for in exposed beams, higgledy-piggledy stairs, waitresses in pinafores, and spicy cups of hot chocolate. I’d like to say it’s positively Dickensian, only Dickens, his characters, or anyone else for that matter, wasn’t drinking hot chocolate in the 1650’s.
Down the way in Ambleside is the Old Bank House, on Lake Road, where the chocolates are made in a kitchen that overlooks the street, providing an interesting diversion for curious passers-by. Chocolate crèmes, caramels, cherries in Kirsch etc abound but, best of all, the bank’s former vault is now unlocked, and customers can just walk in and help themselves to the bars and mints on offer (as long as they pay for them on the way out of course). While we’re in the Lakes, mention should be made of Cocoa Hearts in Stock Lane, Grasmere, which opened in August 2012. Run by family team Maggie and daughter Gina, the chocolates are very attractive looking and most of them have interesting, fruit-based fillings. For the creatively-minded, Cocoa Hearts run seminars on a come-as-you-are basis, so within an hour of walking in you could be carrying out a box of your own personalized assortment.
On the edge of the Lakes, not far from Penrith, is Kennedy’s in the village of Orton. Now a Cumbrian institution in more ways than one (the shop and factory are located in the old school), Kennedy’s have been making their own chocolates since 1991 and supply several posh eateries in the region. At one time they were even supplying British Airways with chocolate for the Concord service.
Chocolat, on 24 Main Street, Kirkby Lonsdale (a picturesque town lying on the Lake District / Yorkshire Dales border), was established in 2003 by a couple inspired by the book and film of the same name. Although Chocolat sell their own hand-made chocolates alongside an assortment of imported Belgian pralines, the boutique has become equally well known for – and this must truly be the world’s first – the ‘chocolate mine’ located deep in the basement. Accessed by a set of narrow stone stairs and for which, in the interests of health and safety, hard hats are provided, customers can visit for free and later buy samples of the chocolate ‘ore’ that is mined there.
Into the Lancashire heartlands, in Ramsbottom, there’s the brightness and bustle of the Chocolate Café at number 2 Bolton Street. This chocolatier is regionally famous for the large and colourful assortment of chocolates on offer, a range which includes traditional English favourites such as fudge and Turkish Delight, alongside bars with flavours such as Candied Mint Leaves, Tikka Masala and Banoffee Pie. Most notable, for those who can’t get enough of the stuff already, are the chocolate pizzas, complete with dark chocolate bases, chocolate ‘olives’, white chocolate 'cheese' and chocolate fudge 'sausages'. And, as you’d expect from any decent outlet, the pizzas can be delivered to any address in the UK.
One of the great benefits to chocophiles over the last ten years has been the steady northward advance of quality supermarket chain Waitrose. Not so long ago there were no branches in the region and now there are ten: six in Greater Manchester, and one each in Preston, Formby, Chester and Knutsford, with several more planned for the future. While Waitrose used to stock some really great boxed assortments – ganaches from Valrhona and tasting boxes from L’Artisan du Chocolat, for example – these gems have now been dropped. Though that’s not to say Waitrose have lost all sense and reason. Branches continue to stock Rococo’s English Chocolate Selection, Grand Cru bars from Valrhona, quality bars from both Montezuma and The Granada Chocolate Company, and more or less the full range of Willie’s Cacao.
In Liverpool, the bow-shaped glass and steel John Lewis is the acknowledged retail temple at the heart of the new Liverpool One development. Good news for shoppers of course, but even better news for chocophiles, because now local residents don’t need to travel so far for Charbonnel et Walker, Prestat, Rococo, Godiva, Chococo and Fauchon.
Anyone remotely familiar with Rococo Chocolates knows that for originality, choice of fillings, quality of ingredients, and sheer visual impact of packaging, the brand takes some beating. So it was very welcome news to chocophiles living north of Regents Park that Rococo opened, to great fanfare in March 2012, a boutique in the heart of Chester’s historic centre.
Located just to the side of the colonnaded Grosvenor Hotel, in Eastgate, here it is possible to obtain almost everything you would expect to find in the London boutiques: the full range of artisanal bars, the various novelty figurines, the chocolate collections, and Rococo’s exquisite, freshly made ganaches, with flavours such as Wild Rose, Single Islay Malt, Popping Champagne, and Blackcurrant. In fact these ganaches are particularly welcome because the Chester boutique is the only outlet outside London where one can get them.
Of all the great shopping towns and cities in the northwest it is, unsurprisingly given its population and wealth, Manchester where much of the chocolate action has been happening. Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, both conveniently located in Exchange Square in the centre of the city, sell a range of top end brands to suit all tastes: Amedei truffles and pralines, Valrhona bars and assorted ganaches, Michel Cluizel bars and ‘maracolats’ (chocolate macaroons), bars from Domori, Enric Rovira, Dolphin, and Willie’s Cacao, as well as boxed selections from Prestat, and gold ballotins from Godiva.
There’s also a Selfridges in the Trafford Centre, located south of the city centre, off the M60 in Trafford Park, with an equally diverse range to choose from. But what makes this branch a real must-visit destination is its L'Artisan du Chocolat concession. Here, too, the range is comprehensive, and includes the ultra-fine ‘couture’ chocolates packaged in white, drawer-like boxes; the original salted caramel balls; the wafer-thin ‘O’s (discs skillfully filled with caramel, fruit coulis, praline, honey etc.); the chocolate mints; the speciality truffles; the origin bars made from cocoa beans from countries as diverse as Vietnam, Congo, Haiti and Panama; and the fusion bars with exciting flavour combinations such as Chai Tea, Lumi (Black Lime, a spice from the Middle East), Tobacco and Mole Chilli. The fact that the staff are very friendly and knowledgeable about the products can make shopping at Manchester’s L’Artisan du Chocolat a most rewarding experience.
So, with outlets like Rococo and L’Artisan du Chocolat now making their mark in the northwest, and big names like John Lewis, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols providing welcome back-up, along with the continued expansion of stalwarts such as Waitrose and Hotel Chocolat, all against a background of interesting and quirky independents, it’s clear that decent chocolate is no longer a stranger to this part of the country. Of course, there’s always mail order, and The Chocolate Trading Company in Macclesfield, Cheshire, do a fantastic service in next day deliveries of Amedei and Michel Cluizel, but for those who want the sheer sensory delight that shopping for chocolate brings, it’s always good to have somewhere, not too far away, where such pleasures can be attained. After all, as all chocophiles know, shopping for one’s favourite wish fulfilment is the making of many great memories.
Where's your favourite chocolate shop in the north west of England? Share your tips in the comments below.