Easter at New Forest Chocolates
- Credit: Archant
Easter doesn’t have to be all sickly sweets and naff chocolate as Elizabeth Kirby discovered when she went to meet chocolatier Lizzie Skinner from New Forest Chocolates
Around Christmas, words like luxury and gourmet are banded about so frequently that the thought of buying a gift without such phrases adorning the packaging is quite frankly… sacrilege. Why then, when it comes to Easter, will a cheap choccy egg or a packet of jellied rabbits do the job? Both significant religious holidays, one sends the nation in to a present buying frenzy… the other – I hate to say, has become a bit naff.
Thank god then that our wonderful county has an Easter trick up its sleeve! It’s rich, dark… and many would say very handsome, and it’s waiting in a village shop near you. No, it’s not Idris Elba… calm down – what we’re craving this Easter holidays is the good stuff. Homemade chocolate creations from local artisans hell bent on bringing decent quality eggs to the residents of Hampshire.
In the nature of research I felt I needed to represent you all with a spot of sampling, so I headed off to Hale in search of chocolate heaven. Lizzie Skinner, owner of New Forest Chocolates, it turns out has the key to the golden gates. As behind her and husband Simon’s traditional Forest chalet, lies a chocolate filled cubby that would impress Mr Wonka himself.
The smell fills the nostrils as soon as you walk in as chocolate pours from spouts in to swirling vats. Chocolate bars, bunnies, bags and boxes are piled high in preparation for what Lizzie tells me is her “second busiest time of the year”.
Previously, Lizzie worked as the Director of Safety at NATS (Air Traffic Control to you and I), and before that she was a scientist. How then does one go from technical boff to artisan chocolatier?
“My husband brought me a voucher one Christmas for a pottery course, but I swapped it for chocolate making and really loved it – so I went back again and again and finally decided to start up on my own.”
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That was four years ago, and since then Lizzie has crafted a niche business in the Forest selling delicious chocolate products and hosting workshops for other chocolate enthusiasts.
She uses local ingredients such as double cream from Maplefield Milk and Artisan Dairy, and honey from farms around Totton and the Forest. She also works with local companies to produce bespoke products, such as chocolate bars for Lavender Fields and various vineyards and breweries. Her chocolate is sourced through Callebout Wholesale, who use cocoa from ethical farms across the world, and arrives to her in the form of chocolate buttons which can be melted down and reworked - and flavours adding of course.
Trying just the buttons on their own opens up a whole new relationship between chocolate and me… the flavour is fruity and delicious – much like a fine wine or a coffee blend, I’m beginning to realise why this luxury commodity would appeal to a former scientist.
“It’s actually very technical, working out how much of each chocolate variety I need, and taking in to consideration different flavours, melting points and setting times”, says Lizzie.
She can see I’m itching to have a go, and before I’m tempted to stick my head directly in to the stream of molten chocolate, mouth open wide… she’s handing me an egg mould and a ladle.
A large part of the business that Lizzie was keen to get right from the start was the packaging and the ‘look’ of her products. Brand was big on the agenda, and when you see her designs on the shelf, she wanted them to stand out.
“The UK is leading the way when it comes to innovative chocolate products, and we are leaning more towards modern designs, than the traditional box of chocolates. Chocolate is one of the UK’s biggest exported commodities, with brands like Hotel Chocolate changing the way we buy chocolate bars and gifts.”
Much like Hotel Chocolate, Lizzie likes to showcase her ingredients and chooses to adorn her bars and discs with the very essence of what’s gone in to them. Whole hazelnuts scattered amongst chocolate coffee balls make no illusion as to what you can expect this particular bar to taste of. While fun heart gummies protruding from a marbled white and milk chocolate bar went down a storm for Valentine’s Day.
This style of branding suits Lizzie’s workshops to a tee, encouraging visitors to be creative and using plenty of ingredients to enhance their final creations. Before she let me loose on, what I’ve come to look at the tempering machine as, the ‘chocolate fountain’, it was time to have a go at making it look somewhat professional. A tray of decorations included white chocolate biscuit balls, mini smarties, pieces of fudge, freeze-dried raspberries and plenty more. As I sprinkled a handful of ingredients in to the base of the egg moulds, Lizzie explained: “Chocolate is a lovely thing to work with, you can’t really get it wrong.” Piping milk chocolate to keep the decorations in place, she encouraged me to get creative with designer dollops, and a few stripes here and there – I wasn’t sure about her ‘not getting it wrong’ take, as the chocolate started to dribble down the sides. “It will all look fine once it’s set”, she promises. Clearly very comfortable in a teaching role, and with a gentle manner, I can see how much enjoyment Lizzie gets from passing her tricks of the trade on to others. It’s very infectious, and as we fill the moulds with the delicious dark stuff, I’m intrigued to hear what her plans are for the future.
“I currently have 30 fixed products on sale and run around 50 workshops a year so I’d like to continue in this format. I don’t want to get too big! I like being a sole trader, it gives me time to create bespoke pieces for companies and customers, as well as go to local and national events to find out what people think of my range.”
Lizzie likes to experiment with chocolate, and has created sculptures in the form of dogs, trophies, handbags and even a little chocolate campsite. While my Easter egg sets, she shows me the pattern transfers she’s come across, which she says the hen party groups love! She’s planning on adding a transfer printing machine to her studio, so that she can add that personal decoration to any future bespoke work.
Despite being a one woman band, Lizzie says she enjoys working on her own… and, “Simon often helps out at fairs and events, and I have two teenage boys that don’t mind sampling my latest creations every now and again.” Gazing out over her beautiful Forest garden, I can’t help but envy her situation. Clutching my, very exquisite looking, eggs if I do say so myself, I tell her it must be lovely to watch the seasons change as you sit here doing something you really love. Her smile widens, eyes sparkling – “It certainly is”.
Have a go
If you’re tempted to try your hand at a bit of chocolate crafting, Lizzie’s courses start at £45 per person for three hours of tuition for groups of 4 - 8. She is very flexible and can create the course to suit your group, including dates and times. Visit www.newforestchocolates.co.uk to find out more and discover the local stockists closest to you or call 07725 262615.
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