IT’s all for the love of chocolate

Mary Hillard with rose cream hearts with crystalised rose petals.

Mary Hillard with rose cream hearts with crystalised rose petals.

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THE quiet countryside drama of the Archers is playing on the radio perched on the window sill as Mary Hillard bustles efficiently around the comfortably sized kitchen. Jars of spices – organic nutmeg, crystallised lemon peel and pink peppercorns – sit on the immaculate marble worktops as Mary painstakingly adds the final details to her latest creation.

“The caramel bit is fiddly because you have to pipe that into the chocolate like a sandwich,” she explains.

Coco Chocolate's cranberry, cinnamon and nutmeg white chocolate stars

Coco Chocolate's cranberry, cinnamon and nutmeg white chocolate stars

Mary, 25, is hard at work in one of Scotland’s few chocolate factories, Coco Chocolate, tucked away in a quiet corner of Midlothian, preparing for National Chocolate Week, which begins on Monday.

Factory is a rather industrial word, though, for the operation here. Aside from the modest kitchen, there’s only one other room, used to pack the handmade organic confections, and just two chocolatiers, with Mary the only one full-time at the factory. There’s certainly no room for oompa-loompas here – but then Coco is rather more chocolat than Willy Wonka.

Because these are decidedly chocolates for grown-ups as opposed to kiddies’ treats, from the dark lime and coconut or hazelnut and sea salt bars, to the rose cream hearts – a favourite for wedding favours – and triple-dipped kirsch cherries, dipped once in fondant and twice in chocolate, all of which the tiny factory near Roslin churns out by the thousand every week.

Size can be deceptive – Mary and her colleague Jen Forrest get through more than 100 kilos of chocolate a week in order to keep up with demand from Coco’s two Edinburgh stores, in Brougton Street and Bruntsfield, and its two Australian shops in Sydney.

It was set up around three years ago, when founder Rebecca Knights-Kerswell could no longer cope with demand in her own kitchen.

“I fell into it,” explains Mary, who lives in Morningside. “I went to Edinburgh College of Art and studied tapestry. But I was always interested in food so when the advertised for an assistant chocolatier I applied. I rang up every day for a week after the interview to see if I’d got the job!

“Rebecca had been a graphic designer so I think so took pity on a poor arts graduate who was never going to get a job in tapestry.”

Now she has what many would call a dream job, although there are downsides, she says: “My dentist knows all about it.”

Of course, tasting the chocolate is an important part of the job and has to happen throughout the day, according to Mary. “It tastes different in the mornings and afternoons,” she insists, before she admits: “I don’t eat anything else during the day, except an apple to try to clean my teeth.” Her favourite is dark chocolate with salt. “I am a bit of a savoury freak, and that’s savoury and sweet at the same time – it’s dangerous to have around. But white chocolate is good when you have a hangover.”

Coco’s cocoa beans come from the Dominican Republic and are made into couverture, chocolate button-style pellets in Belgium, before arriving at the factory. There it needs to be tempered – heated, then cooled, then heated again, before it can be moulded. Tempering is either done in a machine rather like a giant bain marie, or by hand, cooled on the marble worktops and heated using a Bosch paint stripper. “We found it works best,” laughs Mary.

Cocoa beans are made up of two elements – the mass which is the dark part and the butter which is white. White chocolate has no mass in it – hence its colour. The darker the chocolate the more mass there is. “We do a 99.9 per cent cocoa mass chocolate, which tastes pretty much like cocoa powder but some people just love it.”

And like all high-end chocolate-makers, Coco uses 100 per cent cocoa butter. “Palm oil is more likely to be in a mass-produced chocolate,” explains Mary.

Once the chocolate is at the right temperature – generally between 18C and 21C but it does depend on the type – it can be poured into moulds or flavours added. As Coco is always bringing out new products, it’s a chance for Mary and Jen to get creative. Their latest concoction is haggis chocolate which Mary says will be a winner. “It doesn’t contain actual haggis,” she explains. “Just the spices which appear in haggis.”

Not every experiment makes it on to the shelves. “It is hard to make something disgusting with chocolate but we did do an elderflower wine truffle that wasn’t nice, that never made it past the experimental stage.

Not surprisingly, Mary adores her job – but not just for the chocolate-eating perks. “It’s a growing industry. It’s an affordable luxury and we have a big food culture now. And it’s acceptable for adults to have their own chocolate. It used to be very unusual to have a chocolate factory but there are a few around these days.

“There is never any waste either – we either retemper it or I eat it.”

n Coco Chocolate, 174 Bruntsfield Place, 0131-228 4526, and 71 Broughton Street, 0131-558 2777, {http:// www.cocochocolate.co.uk|www.cocochocolate.co.uk.} To celebrate National Chocolate Week, on Thursday the Broughton Street branch is holding a free party, 7pm to 9pm, with tastings. Visit itison.com to book. And there will be special offers every day next week on Twitter