A traditional chocolatier in Scarborough

There's no better time than Easter to try the eggs crafted at one of the country's oldest chocolate factories, as Annie Stirk discovers on her tour of the county in search of Delicious Yorkshire.

Bonnet’s of Scarborough has been a familiar landmark in the town since it was established in 1880 by Louis Bonnet.  The original shop was on St Nicholas Street, but it has been a firm fixture on Huntriss Row since 1960, with its distinctive shop frontage and candy coloured window display.  The display changes with the seasons, and at Easter it’s a feast of chocolate eggs of all shape and sizes, wrapped in cellophane and decked out in pretty ribbons. 

There is also a cosy tea room and restaurant, and behind all this a warren of corridors leading to Scarborough’s best kept secret – Bonnet’s little chocolate factory. You know you are getting close when the sweet heady smell of chocolate hits you. Bonnet’s has been in the Fairbank family since 1959, and it is John Fairbank who now owns this little slice of chocolate heaven. 

Originally from Huddersfield, the Fairbanks used to love their regular trips to Scarborough on the breezy Yorkshire Coast and when Bonnet’s came up for sale, John’s father Lewis Fairbank, jumped at the chance to buy this iconic piece of Scarborough history.

As a young boy, John often helped out in the chocolate factory and fondly remembers how he learned the specialist art of hand dipping chocolates at the tender age of 12. ‘It was quite a responsibility being trusted with dipping and coating almonds and other fondant centres in delicious warm melted chocolate,’ said John. ‘It really is a very precise craft, but fortunately I had the best teacher in town – Dolly – she trained at Rowntree’s. Dolly was fantastic and the best hand dipper I have ever come across.

‘That’s the secret really; a good chocolatier needs a cool hand to be able to check the temperature of the chocolate. The skill of hand dipping is not to get too much chocolate on the fondant centre – or you are in trouble.’

Since the days of Dolly the Dipper many of the specialist chocolate processes are now mechanised, but you still need a good eye to make sure the texture of the chocolate is just right.  Like most craft skills you need a good eye and a feel for the product, something that comes with years of experience but which also requires a bit of artistic flair.

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Luckily John’s background has helped, his mother and father both attended the Royal College of Art and John himself was a student at the Royal Academy.  He even managed to combine lecturing at Scarborough Art College with running the business.

Alongside the Easter eggs Bonnet’s also produce a whole range of traditional English cream chocolates, with evocative and old fashioned flavours such as Lily of the Valley, Violet, Rose and Lavender. Shepcotes, the long established family owned business in Driffield, supply all the top quality handcrafted edible decorations, such as sugar flowers and stars. Shepcote’s decorative roses in particular, are one of their signature products and in fact were used to decorate Princess Anne’s wedding cake in 1973.

After many years in the business John is still fascinated by the chocolatier craft skills. ‘I find it exciting looking back at the history of chocolate and seeing how all the old flavours are becoming fashionable once again,’ he said.

‘But we do try to move with the times and create innovative and contemporary flavour matches. We have produced a delicious chocolate with an infusion of rosemary, chilli and cardamom – it is pretty special.’Bonnet’s is not all about chocolate though, the cafe and restaurant is much loved by residents, visitors and tourists alike, and long serving loyal staff are the cornerstone of the business. John remembers them all well.

‘There was another Dolly, then there was Vida, Gertrude and of course the lovely Effie – she was a very delicate creature, who just seemed to float around the caf�,’ John said.

Perhaps drawn in by the aroma of chocolate or being able to sit discretely enjoying a cuppa, many big stars of stage and screen have been through the door at Bonnet’s. 

When the Oscar nominated film Little Voice was being filmed in Scarborough, Bonnet’s became a bolt-hole for its stars – Michael Caine, Jane Horrocks and Ewan McGregor, all loved the quiet charm of this Scarborough treasure. John insists that he wasn’t a bit star struck.

‘I didn’t make a fuss of them. I made sure I gave Michael Caine a table round the corner so he wouldn’t be disturbed. He was a really nice bloke who liked to chat and he always had a good bit of banter with the girls while he tucked into his plate of delicious Scarborough fish and chips,’ said John.

It is easy to see why everyone loves Bonnet’s – it is unpretentious, comfortable and easy with itself. Some of the cast of  The Royal, Heartbeat, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, also regularly pop in for a cuppa and a snack. 

Scarborough is full of tradition and Bonnet’s is very much a part of the town’s proud history, and as we head towards the first Bank Holiday break of the year, there couldn’t be a better place to enjoy the bracing sea air, coastal scenery – and perhaps a bit of celebrity spotting – than Bonnet’s.