Spicy chocolate, truffles and change

Chocolate, the perfect business

As I sip my spicy hot chocolate, the flavour hits the tip of my tongue. Cinnamon, cloves, chilli and star anise. It’s warm, exotic and luxurious.  Just like hot chocolate should be.spicy spoon and mug

I stir my chocolate and think of Nicola Eaton.  When anyone mentions living the ideal life and having the dream job to Nicola, she shrugs and smiles to herself. She considers she already has her ideal lifestyle.

“I don’t need to go up Everest. I’m very happy with the life I’ve got.”

As the owner and creator of The Really Expensive Chocolate Company, it might be easy for some of us to see why Nicola is so happy with her choice.

So, how did she make the transition from children’s nurse to running her own chocolate company?

At the workshop

As I sat down and got ready to interview Nicola, she whipped me up a hot chocolate. She used cacao powder from her new source. It’s the same powder that she uses for her hot chocolate cubes.

I first met Nicola at a network meeting, so I know a bit about her already, but I was keen to find out more.

We settled down with our chocolate and some almond and lemon curd biscuits that Nicola bought at the Doynton market on Saturday.  I was feeling rather privileged to be spending an hour of a Monday morning sipping hot chocolate and listening to Nicola’s story.

Nicola has converted her garage into her workshop. It’s bright and light. There’s a table in the middle, two chocolate making machines and a small kitchen area. A corner with paperwork and a printer where Nicola prints transfers to go directly onto white chocolate.

box of chocs
Assorted truffles in orange, lime and strawberry chocolate flavours

Nicola has been making chocolate here since 2009. In this quiet, tranquil room this is where it all happens. The chocolate gets designed, made, tasted, packed and sent out. She also runs adult workshops here.

How it all started

It might be fair to say that chocolate-making found Nicola rather than the opposite. Although chocolate has always had an influence in her life, as Nicola’s great uncle used to work for Cadbury at Bournville. She remembers going there as a child and her great uncle would bring home misshapes for her to eat.

“Chocolates with caramel in them; they were bashed about, but they were lovely.”

In 2006 Nicola’s family gave her a voucher for Betty’s in Harrogate.  Betty’s, a well-established tea room with a cookery school, offers a wide range of courses. Nicola chose to spend her voucher on a chocolate-making workshop. She had a lovely day there and came back with a big bag of chocolates she had made. Wanting to make the most of her new skill, Nicola began making chocolate as presents for family.

From children’s nurse to chocolate maker

At the time Nicola began making chocolate, she was involved in research for palliative care for children.  She started her working life as a children’s nurse in Great Ormond Street, moved to Wales to study a PHD and then taught nursing and computing at university.

People liked the chocolate she was making and started to ask her if they could buy it.gift box

“Would I make some for them to buy?”

There’s a slight hint of amazement in her tone, as though she still can’t quite believe it.

From her kitchen, Nicola started making chocolate by hand. She approached a local village market in Doynton and started to sell her chocolate there on a Saturday morning.  In 2007, she set up a little business using the smallest of the three machines that are now in her workshop.

Nicola began to understand her clients and what they would buy.  In 2008 a three-day business course helped her with branding. She had called herself Nicola’s Chocolates, but decided that, if she was going to make this work, she needed a name that sounded more business-like. She chose The Really Expensive Chocolate Company.

As Nicola began to sell more, she took the decision to give up her day job to concentrate on making chocolate full time in 2009.

Nicola now works with Julie who helps her taste, make chocolate and pack, and she regularly works with freelancer, Jo Rymell, photographer and graphic designer from Hot Hibiscus Design. Jo designs the personalised labels that are Nicola’s speciality, making the chocolate bars an ideal gift.

At busy times of the year she also employs local students looking for some extra income to construct boxes for her.

Getting her business off the ground

Nicola sells most of her chocolate online via her website and has an Etsy shop called Belgian Chocolate Shop.belgian choc shop

She goes regularly to local markets and craft fairs. She also does talks and demonstrations at Women’s Institute meetings, friendship groups and Rotary groups. She had just received a phone call before I arrived to book her again for next year.

“I take a lot of chocolate samples. I take champagne truffles ganache and I make truffles while I’m there and I dip them in chocolate.”  No wonder they keep inviting her back.

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Champagne Truffles

“I give them a history of chocolate, how it’s made. Just a few facts I’ve picked up along the way,” she said modestly. The audience also get a 10% discount to spend on her products. She told me about the Mayans and how the Spanish took cacao beans back to Spain and made a thick chocolate drink with them. Nicola liked it when I told her the Spanish still make this drink. I made a mental note to bring Nicola some Spanish hot chocolate on my next visit to Spain.

We talked about the importance of finding support at networking groups. Nicola regularly attends a local ladies networking group, Ladies Who Latte .

“When I met the group about two years ago, my business sort of turned a corner. It was really helpful. Through Ladies Who Latte, I had the impetus to set up a new website. I met Jo, she did lots of photos for me. We’re friends now.”

She often takes samples of her work with her for us to taste. At meetings Nicola tells us how wonderful it is to work with Jo. She’s very generous when it comes to recommending the people in the group that she has worked with.

Tasting time

Spicy Hot Chocolate Spoon based on 17th century recipe.

Nicola has also been approached by the National Trust to make spicy spoons from a 17th Century recipe found at Dyrham Park, near Bath.
“You have to get all the spices right. Julie and I spent ages drinking hot chocolate, just to try and get the flavour right”

She laughed as she remembers that one sample had too much chilli.

“We couldn’t taste anything for the next hour!”

She told me that the volumes of spices used vary, depending whether the spices are in the powder or in the chocolate itself. When milk is added to the powder it affects the quantity of spices.

“So, we had to taste quite a few of those too,” she added.

Nicola likes to be able to identify all the spices, “I don’t particularly like very strong chilli, but actually, in chocolate it’s very nice.”

I have to agree.

“When you are making things like this, you have to try a lot of hot chocolate” joked Nicola.

The feel-good factor

We talked about the benefits of chocolate.

“It lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s good for your heart. It’s good for senile dementia. It reduces stress” It also contains iron and magnesium.

The Really Expensive Chocolate Company uses Belgian chocolate. Nicola uses only cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar and milk (if it’s milk chocolate). All her chocolate is gluten free and the dark chocolate is dairy free. She makes a range of Moo free chocolate and the 80% dark chocolate has very little sugar.

As well as the health benefits, Nicola understands how chocolate connects to others. It’s a way of showing you care.

“Of course,” she reminded me, “the three Quaker families (Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry) who advocated the drinking of chocolate in the U.K., instead of alcohol, were philanthropists who looked after their workers.”

Show you care with chocolate

For businesses who are looking for something special to give their clients or members of staff, Nicola can “make chocolate to help their business.”

Personalised wrappers
Personalised wrappers

Nicola’s speciality is personalisation. She makes bespoke labels for her bars, making them ideal gifts for events, place names at weddings and dinner parties and thank you presents.  Or, have your logo printed straight onto white chocolate with edible ink. It’s a bit like putting a transfer onto chocolate and looks fantastic. A great touch for business. She also makes letters and numbers and is currently exploring with Lego®.

logo on white choc
Company logo on white chocolate

The philanthropist and chocolate fits. While Nicola has changed her career, she’s still very much involved in caring for children. She’s a trustee of the Jessie May Trust, a volunteer at a messy church play session and sometimes looks after some local children. Until recently she was also a school governor.

Time to go

I left with a spicy spoon and instructions to report back. The sort of homework I like. I have enjoyed talking to this warm, generous and unassuming lady. Later as I drink my spicy spoon, I realise that Nicola’s nature is reflected in her chocolate. I feel peaceful, relaxed and content.

It would be hard to say which of Nicola’s chocolate is my favourite as it is all so good, but as a dark chocolate lover, I am going to go for the 80% dark chocolate. And, I highly recommend the spicy spoon.

choc spoon

Where to buy  

Website: https://www.recc.co.uk/

Etsy shop – https://BelgianChocolateShop.etsy.com

Doynton Market: http://www.doyntonvillage.org/events.html

 

 

 

 

Alicia in the land of ceramics

At 5.00 pm the white hilltop town of Ubrique is just beginning to start all over again. During the mid-afternoon heat the locals shut shop and go indoors for lunch. Now, the town is getting ready for the evening. The shops open their doors again and the bars and cafes start to fill with people drinking coffee.

A tree-lined avenue provides shade and a home for the chattering birds. It takes you through the more modern part of town before winding up the hill into the old town. The hustle and bustle of Ubrique is a completely different atmosphere from the tranquillity of the white villages. I drive around trying to find a parking space. I’ve arranged to have coffee with Alicia, the local ceramist.

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I first met Alicia some years ago, in Grazalema at a craft exhibition. She was giving demonstrations on her potter’s wheel. I had always had a desire to learn to throw clay and readily rolled up my sleeves to have a go. Alicia’s patience and never ending cheerfulness were amazing as I clumsily tried to hold my piece of clay in the centre of the wheel. Alicia sat next to me, propping up my lump of clay and rescuing it every time it fell, with her expert hands. It became evident that I would need much more practice when Benjamin sat down for his turn. Within a couple of minutes Alicia had let go of the clay and left him to it, commenting that he was a natural.

I finally park and meet Alicia. We sit down in the busy pedestrianised street. The streets are lined with tables and it takes us a minute to find a spare one.

After ordering our coffee, Alicia tells me her story. I strain to hear over the noise of clinking coffee cups, singing birds, children playing and people talking. It’s hot for the time of year. The heat rises from the pavement which is still warm from the day’s sunshine.

Alicia working on aplate
Alicia at work

In the year 2000 at the age of 33, Alicia started her ceramic course in Cadiz. She’d decided to embark on a new life after a relationship broke up. She had always loved pottery and decided to pursue her passion. Alicia regards her potter’s wheel as active meditation. A connection with herself. She finds it therapeutic.

“I spend hours and hours in the workshop. Time goes by. It could be Saturday or Sunday, but I love it in there.”

Alicia now teaches her skill to others. Her pupils, she tells me, leave her classes feeling relaxed and having enjoyed themselves.

When we have finished our coffee, I accompany Alicia to her studio. She has a three-storey town house. The bottom floor serves as her workshop and display area for clients. She lives on the middle floor and has another apartment with a terrace leading out to a view of the mountains on the top floor. It’s great for anyone who wants to take a course in pottery and needs accommodation.

selection of pots

Miranda, an Australian lady, recently stayed in this apartment. Miranda combined a visit to Spain to learn about the language and the culture with a pottery course. A perfect way to learn the language without having to attend formal language classes. I met Miranda, when I popped in earlier in the week to pick up some bespoke gifts Alicia had designed for the writing retreat. Miranda was having a fantastic time and I was reminded how much fun learning a language is through another activity.

When we arrive at the studio, two of the students are waiting outside. We go inside and they settle down. Even though it’s an adult class, Alicia tries to contact the two that haven’t turned up yet. Her concern for her learners is evident. One of her pupils thinks that one of the ladies has a mother who isn’t well and won’t be coming today. There is clearly a feeling of companionship in this special space. These ladies care about each other. They chat, they share news and offload their problems. They worry about each other, they empathise and they make each other laugh.
group 3 edad

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When I ask why they come to the class, a lady called Inma tells me it’s “Because I love arts and crafts”.
She backs this up with a huge smile before starting work on the tile that she is decorating.

“Which colours would you like?” asks Alicia showing her a tile with a selection of colours.
Inma decides on her colours and sets to work painting the tile she has designed.

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Hand painted celebration plate and personalised thimbles
weding day plate
Bespoke gifts

While Alicia is showing Marta how to make the handle on her mug, the door opens and Teresa bursts in. She chats to everyone as if they were long lost friends, including me. She comes to “get away from the stress in her life” as she finds the classes distract her from the daily tasks of looking after family members. The ladies talk to each other and ask me questions. It’s clear that these classes are a social event as well as a learning opportunity.

I make my way out of the door amongst cries of “come back soon.”

I smile to myself as I walk down the road. I haven’t even picked up a piece of clay and the feeling of wellbeing has been contagious. I make a mental note to do one of Alicia’s courses one day. I just hope she has enough patience.

In case you are wondering, for the handmade gifts on the writing retreat I ordered a bookmark.
bookmarks Alicia
I collect them wrapped up individually in small paper bags ready to go and I generally leave them with the welcome pack for my guests to open when they arrive. For this year’s gift, I have another idea, but that’s a surprise waiting to be revealed.

To see more of what Alicia does, click here:

Alicia’s pottery

pots

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