This writer is originally from York and knows its history well, but for visitors to the city, nationalgeographic.com recommends a tour of the York Chocolate Story (in the city centre) to discover its rich confectionery heritage.
National Geographic also mentions York Cocoa House, which produces small batches of sustainable premium chocolate on-site from its Castlegate café and workshop.
The next evolution for us is to be a fully open and accessible learning centre, where people can come and learn about chocolates and cocoa.
ConfectioneryNews caught up with Managing Director Sophie Jewett in the summer for a special podcast, where she talks of some of the issues not only affecting the cocoa industry per se but also the challenges of running a high-street business in today’s economic climate.
“I didn't realise we've been going as business 12 years, and I didn't realise when we opened the factory, that I was basically ripping the carpet out from underneath us and actually working with couverture, originally buying it from Belgium to make chocolate ourselves. So, when Covid hit, we weren't really that comfortable, and we were still kind of pushing things forward and having to deal with challenges and figure things out.”
Sophie said she took the decision to close the café part of the business, which was in separate premises on the other side of the city, and run the café from the workshop in Castlegate inside the city’s historic medieval walls.
“Our main focus has been to really celebrate York. It's a place that I love, it's a very special place. It's a place that obviously is steeped in heritage and the stories that inspired the city. The next evolution for us is to be a fully open and accessible learning centre, where people can come and learn about chocolates and cocoa.
“It’s not about large-scale manufacturing. It's actually about making sure we can share what we've learned, and if other people can adopt some of the lessons that we've experienced and gain from it, then good.
“And if it means that we consume better cocoa and more sustainable cocoa and really unlocking the most precious elements of cocoa, as a medicine, for example, then absolutely we are on the right path. I've tasted some phenomenal cocoa … that tastes like roses, and some cocoa that tastes like peaches and the flavours that you just think you'd like to know more about how on earth is that achieved.”
York Cocoa House primarily sources cocoa from South America, which is known for its premium flavour and more sustainable farming processes.
“I've seen some good sustainability examples developed in coffee, and just before the pandemic, I was out in Colombia on a really interesting trade mission with the British Embassy, and we were looking at coffee transparency, and cocoa transparency, and the data that is now available,” she says.
“Some things have come a really long way, but we’re also talking about global diversity and different communities having different systems and different structures. And so, I was thinking about how these things really perform. If we're talking about blockchain … are we talking about a global currency? That then raises questions about who owns and really drives the data-capturing modules.”
York is an affluent city, but it hasn’t escaped the recession caused by the pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine, as well as the consequences of Britain leaving the European Union. Like many high streets up and down the country, there are vacant premises, with the hospitality and pub sector particularly hit hard.
York Cocoa House has managed to weather the storm so far, says Sophie, “But there's been a whole range of different challenges the last few years for everybody in the sector. And sadly, I had two amazing suppliers that both their lives to Covid, in Peru and in Colombia.”
With the retail side of the business thriving again, York Cocoa House is now involved with farms directly, and Sophie says it has been working with the 20 degrees portfolio, helping them develop different flavour profiles.
Sophie has also been looking at cocoa farming in Cameroon. “It has so many challenges around rainfall there. It's kind of gained some notoriety around excessive moisture and sometimes a smokiness. And so this particular group has been doing fantastic work; they came to me during lockdown, and sort of said, we want to create a chocolate brand here in UK and in Europe. So, for us to really be able to direct that sourcing and supply chain to places where it can actually make a real strengthening impact has seen our journey and story starting to really come full circle.”
- Listen to more of the CN interview with Sophie Jewett on our latest podcast.