Is York to be scoffed at for declaring itself Britain's home of chocolate, 150 years after a young George Cadbury and Lewis Fry served their apprenticeships with Joseph Rowntree at a cocoa shop in the city? A new museum opening this month lays claim to a heritage visitors might more readily associate with Mexico, where chocolate was discovered, or Belgium, where its elaboration was raised to an art form.
Foodies may be tempted to mock the city's fathers for celebrating their association with the nation's most famous confectioners, a world away from the artisan chocolatiers who tempt our palates today. Joseph Terry was an apothecary whose Chocolate Orange came out of an experiment with flavour infusions, and the Kit Kats, Aeros and Yorkies created and still made in York are a very different product from the fine bars high in cocoa solids we have come to recognise as proper chocolate.
But scoff ye not; Kit Kat is the world's most successful chocolate bar – six million of them are churned out every day within a stroll of the city centre. So beloved is the product in 100 countries that rare bars of the defunct peanut-butter Chunky variation – it was given an official funeral in 2009 – are currently changing hands for three times the retail price on eBay. "We have bowed to pressure from our Facebook fans and tweets from the likes of Nigella Lawson to reintroduce it," says James Maxton of Nestlé, which owns Rowntree's. It expects an avalanche of sales following the April relaunch.
And while the foodiest of us may seek out Valrhona to cook with, or Green & Black's or Menier if our pockets are less deep, we remain addicted as a nation to the iconic branded bars we grew up with and believed throughout our childhood were the chocolate standard.
Even those with the finest palates – top chefs and award-winning chocolatiers – confess to an undying place in their hearts for the milky, sugary cheap sweet treats they grew up with, and still can't quite live without.
"I'm still partial to the odd Kit Kat I had a soft spot for as a child, and enjoy a Terry's Chocolate Orange, too," admits Theo Randall of the InterContinental restaurant in central London. A fellow alumnus of the River Café, Sam Harris, is also hooked on Kit Kats: "There's always one chilling in the fridge at work, just waiting to be eaten," confesses the chef patron of Zucca.
Ritual plays a big part in our affection for our childhood treats, it seems, with foodies falling over themselves to 'fess up to eating the chocolate off their wafers first, getting the nuts out with their teeth or some even more sensuous act: '"I would lick all of the centre out of a Creme Egg first, then shove the whole chocolate shell into my mouth," says the New York-based British chef April Bloomfield, who has become addicted to Twix bars, and brings a stash with her back to New York to sustain her at the Spotted Pig.
Even Paul A Young, who studied in York before becoming a master chocolatier, admits to a weakness for the ridges in Aero bars – "designed so you could break off perfectly portioned chunks – they take me right back to my grandma's kitchen". Paul's mother still buys a jar of Cadbury's Roses every Christmas, and because his grandmother spoilt him with Mini Eggs at Easter he now regularly buys a bag for himself.
Rival London chocolatier Marc Demarquette admits to seeking out the gold-wrapped toffee finger whenever a tin of Quality Streets is proffered, and to the influence of the brand on his own prize-winning creations: "It's a timeless collection of classic recipes and flavour combinations that you are still sure to find within the best-selling ranges made by the modern chocolatier. I see it in my own collection of caramels and ganaches."
Happily for the artisan producers who have followed Rowntree's to the confectionery capital, an appreciation that fine chocolate is also worth pursuing has spread north against the expectations of sceptics. "Three years ago, I was told they would never buy my products in York," says Sophie Jewett, whose Cocoa House is on the city's new chocolate trail, and who has been asked to make the best she can muster for the Queen when she makes her Jubilee visit to the city next month.
"Things have come a long way since I came up here for uni 13 years ago and the whole town was pervaded by the sickly sweet smell from the Terry's and Rowntree's factories. People do still love their Kit Kats and Aero bars, but I'm not the only one making a living from fine chocolate in York."
The new museum is also determined not to get trapped in a nostalgia timewarp: "We are dealing with the present as well as the past of chocolate," insists Ann Gurnell, group general manager of Continuum, which opens "Chocolate – York's Sweet Story" on 31 March.
"So as well as telling the story of Britain's confectionery industry we will also invite the public to taste with a modern-day chocolatier to see whether they really do prefer a bar of Aero to a 72 per cent single-origin from Venezuela." Chances are, the answer will be yes.Reuse content