We discover the secrets behind Chocolate Heaven Made in Devon
- Credit: Archant
Chocolates handmade in Devon - what could be sweeter? CHRISSY HARRIS meets a self-taught chocolatier who creates award-winning treats in her kitchen
How about this for a collection of words to make your mouth water: salted caramel cream liqueur, dark ginger, milk, Devon honey…?
The very sound of these rather delectable ingredients can make a person feel quite gooey inside. Just imagine being surrounded by them all day.
Leonie Rees has spent the past 16 years blending, melting and infusing an incredible selection of chocolates, constantly coming up with new combinations and flavours.
Her skills - all self taught – have earned Chocolate Heaven Made in Devon some of the highest awards on the local food and drink scene, as well as a stint on a recent BBC television series with top chef Tom Kerridge.
Former sales executive Leonie is still on a high after her much-deserved rise to fame in the rather competitive world of handmade confectionary.
Although it sounds like a dream job – making chocolates in the comfort of your kitchen – Leonie says it hasn’t all been sweetness and light.
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“It does get really stressful from time to time,” she says, sat on the sofa in her pristine living room at her home in Torquay.
“There are so many other people out there doing the same thing and it can get quite cut throat.
“I’ve had a few set backs but I’ve just hung on in there and kept going. Now I just can’t believe what’s been happening.”
Chocolate Heaven has just won platinum for the second time at the Devon Food and Drink Awards.
The top accolade was presented to Leonie for her dark chocolate lemon and thyme sea salt truffle.
Her winning flavours are a celebration of local ingredients and the very best Belgian chocolate.
Leonie uses high-quality ‘couverture’ cacao, which contains a higher percentage of cocoa butter than ordinary chocolate.
She then works in various Devon delights, including vanilla (from LittlePod in Farringdon, near Sidmouth) to coffee (Owens in Ivybridge) honey (Mrs Westcott’s Honey in Brixham) as well as liqueurs from Lyme Bay Winery in Axminster.
Other fruits, such as raspberries, are picked from her sunny back garden, perched on top of a hill overlooking the Torbay countryside.
“I really enjoy the chance to use my artistic side,” says Leonie, who used to be a singer and regularly belts out a few classics while she creates.
In fact, it was a homemade video of her singing along to Annie Lennox that caught the eye of researchers working on Tom Kerridge’s Top of the Shop programme and earned her a place on the series, which aimed to find the UK’s best fledgling food producers.
‘That was really good fun,” says Leonie. “For weeks after the show went out, I had people coming up to me in the supermarket and saying they’d seen me on TV. I have a saying: ‘bring it on!’ and they were repeating it back to me.”
Fame hasn’t gone to this chocolatier’s head, however, and Leonie still remembers the hard slog to the top. She first started making chocolates when a friend asked her to make her wedding favours.
“I’d never made chocolates in my life!” says Leonie. “They were only truffles, nothing too fancy but then everybody said they were amazing. It just kind of went on from there.”
Leonie experimented and upgraded her truffle prototype, before touring the local farmers’ markets with her increasingly luxurious selections.
“The markets were great fun,” says Leonie. “I met some great people along the way – but I also had a few scares.”
She describes how she once had to fend off a pack of hungry hunt hounds, which came sniffing around her truffles at Widecombe Fair.
And then there was the time her gazebo, stall and chocolates took off down a Bovey Tracey street during a particularly stormy day. She chased after them for a while before trying to salvage her stock.
Leonie, laughing at the memory, says she still does the occasional market but much prefers selling her chocolates to her online customers and retail outlets.
The orders are piling in, especially in the run up to Valentine’s Day.
“I never stop,” says Leonie, admitting she’s more of a workaholic than a chocoholic.
“I do sometimes get tired of the sight and smell of chocolate, although I have to say, the salted caramel cream liqueur truffle is my favourite.”
She hands me a bag to take home, telling me to eat them soon because they were made with fresh cream. I took ‘soon’ to mean ‘within ten minutes’. Delicious.