Meet Kent-based chocolatier Oenone Thomas

Oenone Thomas

Kent-based artisan chocolate-maker Oenone Thomas - Credit: Oenone 1

 Kent Life's resident Masterchef, Julie Friend, talks to artisan chocolate-maker Oenone Thomas.

A lifelong passion for cooking and some spare time during lockdown gave Oenone Thomas the opportunity to research and bring to fruition her dream of a running micro bean-to-bar chocolate business, Cocoa Retreat, from her home in Penshurst. 

How did you get into producing chocolate?
I've loved eating good chocolate from all over the world over many years, so I got to know great quality when I tasted it.  I began to follow a few emerging UK craft chocolate makers a decade or so ago in their quest to make distinctive bean-to-bar chocolate on a small scale.

Those first makers had the know-how to modify machines, and I didn't - I burned through many a coffee grinder trying! Then, at last, it became possible to source equipment on a small enough scale and to begin to make bean-to-bar chocolate in micro-batches. I was off!

Cocoa beans and pods

Cocoa beans and pods - it's all in the flavour and the preparation - Credit: Julie Friend

Where does your company name come from?
The cocoa bean had to be up there first and foremost. Each single-origin cocoa bean has its own character, its 'terroir', taste and flavour. And the word 'retreat' for me brings to mind time out for yourself for something special, for stepping back, slowing down and appreciating life. Coca Retreat was born. 

Where do you source your chocolate from?
I work with organisations committed to transparent, ethical trade and to paying direct-trade prices so that specialist farmers, fermenters and the communities and environments where they live can be supported. I'm currently working with beans from Costa Esmeraldas, Ecuador; Marañón Valley in Peru; Tumaco Estate, Colombia and the Anamalai Estate in India.

What processes does the bean have to go through before it becomes a bar?
First, I sort the beans to remove any that don't make the grade. Then I choose a roast profile depending on whether I want high notes or deeper flavours to come through. After that, the cocoa nibs are separated from the husk and pre-ground to make cocoa nib liquor.

Next, they are stoneground and 'conched' [stored and stirred by machine] for anything up to three days and combined with supporting ingredients, such as organic unrefined cane sugar and organic natural cocoa butter.

The end result is then stored for up to a month to allow the flavours to develop. Finally, I temper [heat and cool] the chocolate to get a good shine and snap and mould it. 

What's your favourite way to use chocolate in a recipe?
Hard question as I have a favourite chocolate for every time of day and day of the week. I use my unsweetened chocolate in savoury as well as sweet dishes to bring richness and depth. But when chocolate is at its best, and I want to really appreciate a particular cocoa bean, I think it shines through in a chocolate mousse.

Where can we buy your products from?
I have an online shop and am at Penshurst Farmers Market on the first Saturday of the month. I am also talking to other local outlets.

Cocoa Retreat Fortunato No 4

With its caramel and cherry notes, Fortunato No 4 is Oenone's current go-to bar of choice - Credit: Julie Friend

If you were going out locally to have a hot chocolate or piece of chocolate cake, where would you go?
The brownies at the Porcupine Pantry at Penshurst Place and Gardens are just delicious.

Does chocolate really have health benefits?
This is a hot topic. There are certainly many studies that say that the antioxidants and flavanols concentrated in dark chocolate can lower blood pressure and improve blood flow, and good dark chocolate is certainly high in soluble fibre and minerals.

When you were little, what was your favourite chocolate bar?
My brother and I were allowed to have sweets on a Saturday morning, and I loved a Cadbury's Flake. The way it crumbled seemed to make it last so much longer.

Chocolate for breakfast – yes or no?
Yes, no question, no hesitation. I do my chocolate tasting first thing in the morning while my palate is clear. 

Dark, milk or white? My favourite is dark; my go-to bar at the moment is my Fortunato No.4 68% - it naturally has caramel and cherry flavours. I'm enjoying making Dark Milk, though, bringing the bean's creamy notes to the fore. And a white chocolate made with organic natural cocoa butter shows off added ingredients beautifully.