Sitting in the Velvet Bean’s chocolate kitchen, beside the shop in Church Street, Ledbury, was a deep breathing moment for me. Paddles slowly turning the gently warming chocolate in three “bain mairies” that look like they mean business immediately attract my attention . Ben Boyle, Ledbury’s chocolatier, offers me a seat.
This is not Ben’s first career, he spent many years teaching horticulture and worked as a landscape gardener and taught horticulture in colleges across the South of England. Ten years ago Ben and his wife, Mel moved to Herefordshire. “We looked around the area and agreed it was a settling down sort of a place”, explains Ben; at the same time the couple looked for a career that would allow them to work from home and combine looking after their young family.
“I’d always loved cooking, my Mum got me going. There seemed to be a gap in the market for independent chocolate-makers and the process gave me scope to be creative. I am an optimist at heart so I just launched in and taught myself. It was a slow start, working from home and selling at farmers’ markets”.
Ben’s day length varies, the year being punctuated by regular chocolate-friendly occasions – Christmas, Valentine’s Day and, of course, Easter which can extend his normal 9-5pm day to midnight or beyond. The first thing he does each morning is to temper the chocolate which has been very slowly heating in the paddled bowls from early morning, thanks to automatic timers. Tempering is a process in which chocolate, in this case Belgian couverture chocolate with high cocoa butter and cocoa solids, is heated and cooled in a specific way. One of the properties of couverture is its polymorphous crystallization; tempering stabilises five different types of fat crystal by heating to 45 degrees centigrade, followed by careful cooling to 28 degrees and then heating again to the working temperature of 35 degrees. The process prevents “bloom” and allows the chocolate to work well with moulds and as a “robe” to Ben’s truffles and a variety of his original fillings.
“I’m not computer-minded, I enjoy the chance to experiment and play with new ideas. I’m very happy running the shop – people come, buy and then call for one-offs or something particular. I think its good to have a High Street with artisan products – a more independent High Street. I’d like to see more makers here. When you make what you sell the future is yours, you are in control” says Ben. One of the creative parts of making cased chocolates is to formulate unusual recipes: rum and plum, vodka and orange, grappe, champagne, peanut butter and masses more, changing all the time. A novelty millennium falcon alongside a very decorative stiletto shoe also caught my eye.
Talking of future, Ben and Mel have exciting plans to move up the road to number 33 The Homend – still on the “High Street” but into their own premises, formerly known as “The Cartoonery”. The new shop which will open after Christmas 2014, will allow them more scope to, for example, run chocolate-making day courses.
Just as we finished talking, I asked whether the Chocolatier was keen to nibble a choccy or two of an evening or whether working with it all day long put him off. “Why wouldn’t I? A good strong 96% chocolate without too much sugar, full of anti-oxidants, good for seritonin levels and coupled with a nice bottle of wine”, Ben says with some relish.
After taking a few close-up photographs of The Velvet Bean’s selection, I could stand it no longer and packed little collection to take back to Tinsmiths, convincing myself that the rum and plum filling counted as one of my five a day – needless to say they didn’t last until evening.