Caroline McArdle had moved on from handcrafing chocolate hearts, special presentational gift boxes and other delicate treats for Valentine’s Day to Easter eggs when I spoke to her at her home near Moira.
It’s been a busy time for the artisan chocolatier who runs Cobden and Brown, one of our most successful businesses in a dynamic and creative sector.
Indeed, all local chocolatiers have been enjoying success and especially during the coronavirus lockdown.
Apart from Cobden and Brown, the sector features Deirdre McCanny’s CoCouture in Belfast, the first artisan chocolatier here in 2008 and still the only one to hold Academy of Chocolate awards for her creations; NearyNogs in Rostrevor, now a key supplier to renowned retailers such as Fortnum and Mason in London; Coleraine’s Geri Martin of Chocolate Manor, which opened a dedicated chocolate shop in Castlerock last year; Derry’s Monto’s Chocolates; and Tara Mullan’s Refuge Chocolate in Belfast, an award winning producer of drinking chocolate for a local charity.
Most of the chocolatiers have also won UK Great Taste and Blas na hEireann awards for quality and outstanding taste.
Caroline McArdle says: “I’ve been busier than ever this year with orders from delis and smaller shops for my luxury boxes of truffles, chocolate hearts and other sweets.
“It appears that the Covid-19 lockdown and home working have led to increased demand for premium treats and especially those from a local artisan producer. Business was also immensely encouraging over Christmas.
“While seasonal ‘specials’ at Christmas, Valentine’s and Easter continue to be popular, our website has also been very busy throughout the year with orders for my nine-strong range of handmade chocolate bars,” she adds.
Caroline and the other chocolatiers specialise in handmade products from premium ingredients, especially cacao beans with the absence of any processed ingredients. This means that chocolate lovers can count on the quality and provenance of all the ingredients and processes.
A recently launched development from Caroline is two varieties of drinking chocolate, which also reflect her concern about health.
“I launched two drinking chocolates from premium cacao,” she explains. “One of the chocolates is made from 60 per cent dark chocolate, the other is a low sugar milk version.
“People are increasingly demanding healthier products that offer reduced sugar. Cacao is sugar-free and natural. There’s also been a growth in demand for darker chocolate products which are also perceived as being healthy,” she adds.
Research, she continues, showed dark chocolate to be rich in nutrients and one of the best sources of antioxidants that can boost health.
“In addition, my drinking chocolates are made entirely from quality cacao sourced from small growers in Ecuador and Ghana and not powder, which is the case in some other products,” adds Caroline.
“There’s been a surge in sales of the drinks over the winter because of the awful weather and, I believe, from a developing trend towards local food treats due to lockdown fatigue.”
The company also benefited from the growth in popularity among consumers of delis and other specialist food stores, including farmshops, as shoppers have opted for local produce offering authenticity, provenance and safety.
Many of these retailers now include Cobden and Brown chocolates in their seasonal hampers.
“My small business has been built on the support and loyalty from these shops and especially from recommendations from their staff to customers.
“I really appreciate this support since the launch of my bars and other products,” Caroline says.
While her business is growing steadily, Caroline shares the concern of other smaller food companies here over Brexit.
“All my cacao from growers in countries such as Ecuador in South America comes via Europe, and it’s not entirely clear how Brexit and the Irish Sea border will affect this vital business for me in both short and long terms,” adds Caroline.
Geri Martin, of Chocolate Manor, in Castlerock, who also owns a chocolate shop, has used her expertise to develop a novel Valentine’s gift pack of quality ingredients for luxury truffles to be made at home.
“It’s a genuine chocolate experience in a box,” Geri explains. “Our Make Chocolate at Home kit makes 14 delicious milk chocolate truffles and comes with simple instructions. This isn’t just a box of ingredients – it’s the chance to make memories, to experience something new, to handcraft a special gift. It’s a little box to bring joy, when we need it most right now,” she adds.
Chocolate makers Shane and Dot Neary of NearyNógs have created a diversified business model that features an attractive website and the only local online subscription service that’s now drawing good business from many parts of the world. Occasions like Valentine’s, Easter and Christmas create spikes in their very steadily annual sales.
The duo’s strategic focus is on developing relationships with major retailers, especially the iconic Fortnum and Mason store in London’s Piccadilly.
Shane says: “We’ve been working with Fortnum for quite a time and contributed to their highly original Sailboat emission-free and organic chocolate, which proved extremely successful with shoppers.”
NearyNógs began making chocolate in 2011 and sources cacao beans ethically from Sâo Tomé, Dominican Republic and Ecuador.
Beans are sorted by hand by Shane and Dorothy, then roasted, cracked and winnowed, stone ground and tempered to produce fine chocolate.