Friday 31 December 2010

the year gone by

On the eve of the new year, having finally tidied up after the chocolate making marathon that is December, I have been thinking back over the year in general as one does, as well as looking forward to the next.

It has been a strange year - feeling very uncertain in lots of ways. The economic climate has not helped - everyone feeling insecure. The snow has been amazing - but definately limited Christmas sales - we had signed up for loads of Christmas markets, many of which were either cancelled or very poorly attended. The chocolate sector has got busier - lots of new businesses out there, lots of new ideas - all good but means a little more work keeping up with it all!

I did at some point early this year set myself an ambition to 'crack marketing' - well at least focus on it, gets to grips with it, invest in it. I don't think I have been as systematic about that as I had intended - but despite that do feel that I have learned alot and feel I have a clearer direction on this. I have spent a lot of money on advertising in the foodie press and yet to receive one order on the back of that, so one New Year's resolution will definately be to say No to Ad sales people when they phone.

One of the highspots was definately the Perthshire Open Studios week - I really did enjoy that and it opened up relationships and ideas, not least the work with Ruth Atkinson on printing chocolate and then the fantastic work she did on the 12 Days of Christmas images. It also connected me to other craft workers - I hadn't particularly felt isolated before that but it did really feel good to feel part of a group.

Another was a weekend of chocolate making at The Cocoa Tree in Pittenweem; this was great fun and Sophie Latinis prepared the most incredible chocolate themed dinner to round off a busy day of chocolate workshops (and another is planned for February 2011)

Flavour of the year must go to Scots pine - both as a ganache (that won 2 Great Taste Award stars in the summer) and as a thin chocolate - we could have sold a forest of that this Christmas.

And the year coming? I would love to find out more about making chocolate itself and I would really like to develop a link with cocoa producers (this has always been an ambition since I started the business - but I feel unless I start to articulate it and put the idea 'out there' it will be so hidden even to myself that I might miss the seed of an opportunity should it ever arise).

Purposeful walking

We went to Co Sligo for a week in October and as we wondered around the area and beaches we often saw women (mainly) walking along the roads with intent; sometimes on their own, but also in small groups. They walked briskly and deliberately – either this was a sign of poor public transport provision or a popular keep fit movement. It did not matter if we were on a small road or one of the fast well networked N roads, there they were and we began to refer to them as ‘the purposeful walkers’.

I was minded of them today as I went again to gather beech nuts; my meandering snail pace would have horrified those good ladies – however, it struck me though that although not as speedy and energetic as these ladies might have been, my walk is purposeful in a different sense. One of the reasons that I love gathering wild foods is that it lends a sense of purpose to a walk in the country; I know a walk should be purpose enough itself but my middle class protestant upbringing tends to guilt tinge anything that is as indulgent as ‘just a nice thing to do’; gathering wild food graces it with useful purpose.

Some years ago I was working and living in Nepal and for a couple of years lived in Solukumbu District, the area in which Everest is located. Walking was clearly very purposeful there – you walked to work, to the market, to socialise, to communicate. My work took me on long distance treks with colleagues to villages around the district and I was very privileged to be able to enjoy that breathtaking landscape every day.

One day I met some British walkers in a tea shop; they were the BBC crew that were accompanying and filming a small group of British blind trekkers as they made their way to the top of local mountain. As I descended down the track from the tea shop, I eventually met one of the trekkers on the path and as soon as I had introduced myself she launched into a barrage of questions about the area in which she was walking; what were the smells she could smell, the sounds she could hear? The tastes in the air? Fortunately I was able to answer most of them and as I carried on with my own journey I felt very humbled by the meeting. In a landscape so magnificent as the Himalayas, it is easy for the visual to take over all other senses, and the questions I had been asked made me think more about smells and sounds around me, and after that I often reminded myself to close my eyes and feel the landscape for a while.

In many ways gathering wild foods makes you step back in this way. Highland Perthshire is an amazing landscape and on a frosty November morning such as today, with autumn colours just beginning to fade, but with crystal clear light – it is easy just to focus on the large landscape – breathtaking and heartbreaking in its magnificence. Delving around in the fallen leaves though, looking for beech nuts I am forced to enjoy the small landscape under my hands – the smell of leaf mould, the crispness of the surface new fallen leaves, the cold leatheryness of the soaked ones underneath, the semi rotten ones below that. There are sudden flashes of colour as small green bugs scuttle to find cover, pink brown worms disappear, and there is my goal, a chestnut coloured beech nut. When gathering flowers in the spring and early summer – trying to work out the best way to efficiently collect them, when are they at their best to collect – when fully open or before, the difference in scent after the sun has warmed them, the difference a few hundred feet can make in when things are ready to pick; the beautiful regularity and pattern of plants, the competition with other animals – squirrels and birds. It is all part of the process and links me to the knowledge and folklore of thousands of years of living on this island

Gathering forces me to look at the small and reminds me constantly of the purposefulness of the landscape itself.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Squirrels 2 - Charlotte 0

The last couple of months have seen me pitted against the nimble pawed wits of the Sciurus vulgaris, red squirrel. And I have to confess that I have more or less been beaten. Gathering hazelnuts is a race against these little darlings and then when it comes to beech nuts, I feel outdone by evolution really.

Between heavy showers this morning I managed to time a walk up the falls behind the house and started to have a look for beech nuts. This takes on the nature of a labour of love really – it took me an hour to gather just over an 1oz (or a good handful), so on a minimum wage this would make them about £84.34 a pound, or £179.70 a kilo. And that is with their shells on – take those off and we are talking caviar prices really!

As I was scraping through the leaf litter looking for the little darlings my mind mused a little. I looked up and caught the eye of a red squirrel in the tree above – not pleased to have competition however inept. Oh, to be able to train those nimble pawed creatures – rather than delve on the ground. A friend came across me gathering beech nuts one year – she was walking her dogs and saw in the distance what she described to be as a ‘scene straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel’. There was this crouched figure, muffled up in an old oversize coat, unrecognisable with thick hat and scarf, on their knees (unable to tell from the distance or even close up! if male or female) scratching around in the leaves. It is cold and damp picking those nuts even on a clear frosty November day. But actually pleasurable and very fascinating. The life under those leaves – small bugs, fungi, worms and then behold – a chestnut coloured nut. Is it empty or not? A quick squeeze between thumb and forefinger will tell.

Yes the squirrels are so much better adapted to this than I! But I have read that in famine years people would rely on beech nuts for food. They are delicious – but I wonder how energy effective it must have been to pick them – you have to pick a lot to make a meal. And timing is everything – so many factors to take into consideration – is it a year when the trees fruit? When will they ripen – when will they fall? I haven’t been able to work out how else to pick them other than from the ground – although I suppose you could put sheets on the ground beneath the trees and hope to catch them as they fall. But that would also make it easier for the squirrels!

Monday 11 October 2010

Another bravo award!

We were delighted and slightly astounded to be shortlisted in the Noval Trophy last week - a competition to find perfect chocolates to go with two Noval ports. The judging was carried out at the Academy of Chocolate conference last week in London and we were one of 7 finalists - and the only one from Scotland. So we sent off 100 lovely honey and wild hazelnut chocolates down to London - unaccompanied little babies they were - I felt very guilty - but was unable to travel down to the conference. So they arrived and I am told they looked very smart on the platter. The judging was partly by tastings by participants at the conference and partly by a panel of judges, and so the results were not announced at the conference. But I have just heard this evening that we didn't win - argh! - but the very nice lady who organised it said we came close. But I did get a very gorgeous bottle of Noval port - to help us develop the perfect accompaniment - so I am very happy!

Anyway - although a little sad not to have won, I wasn't really expecting to and when I saw the shortlist of finalised I wasn't at all surprised. Reward enough to be on that list I have to say.

So getting ready now for the next market at Logierait - the last of the year. Also getting chocolates ready for The Cocoa Tree in Pittenweem ( who are taking a stand at the BBC Good Food show in Glasgow and have very kindly given some space on their stall for some of our chocolates. If you are going - do check them out - they do the absolutely best hot chocolate in the world.

And if you cannot get there, but happen to be around Logierait on the 16th Oct- then come along and have possibly the second best hot chocolate in the world and try out some of the honey and hazelnuts runner ups. (but sorry - the port is all mine...)

Monday 19 July 2010

Bravo awards

I spent rather too much of Friday evening last week pouring over the Great Taste Award website, looking through the results to see who had got what and for what and so on (and by the way did I mention that we got 2 Gold Stars for the Scots pine ganache?). Very impressed to see my neighbours Kenmore Bakery got a bouquet of 2 stars - well done Keith and Sheila - and further down the valley, Iain Burnett got a covetted three stars for his Velvet Truffle. A gourmet valley indeed.

This year the Guild of Fine Food have got very clever and you can log in to see the judges comments on your entries. This is wonderful for the terminally disorganised such as myself - last year I never really got my act together to write and ask them for their feedback - but this year they are just there; so grateful that someone else has been so organised and thoughtful.

Anyway, the comments on the Meadowsweet thins that I put in made me smile and think a little. The Meadowsweet thins are really popular - but I think it is one of those things that you either like or you don't. I love them, they are my mother's favourite, and to those that know and love meadowsweet already they are a source of familiar contentment. Clearly though, the Great Taste Award judges have not reached that level of familiarity with the fine herb.

The comments went something like this: 'Presentation is lovely [thank-you] but we felt that the aroma and taste is perhaps too unusual, verging on unpleasant. Bravo for trying something unusual, other herbs or flowers might work better.' I loved the 'Bravo' bit - this sort of feels like an award in its own right. It made me think back to the brave Logierait market customers who took wild garlic truffles in their stride; they certainly got my own 'Bravo' award for that. 'Bravo' for having a go - this is what we say to people who we think are slightly foolish - attempting something foolhardy but interesting. I choose not to read it as a condescending salve, sweetening the rejection of our entry, but rather a good natured 'Good on you girl for trying something new'

Maybe we are flavour pioneers up here - ready to push boundaries and explore. I wonder whether we might be on the forefront of a meadowsweet 'wave'. A couple of years ago, when I first tried sea buckthorn as a flavour - I could not find anyone else in the UK using it as a flavour - not through Google anyway; now - it is an essential must-have ingredient of swanky Edinburgh restaurants, and Likwid Ice cream parlour in Perth serves sea buckthorn flavoured ice cream.

Who would like to join me in a little sweepstake on how many years will it be before meadowsweet is as common as elderflower in the flavour lexicon of soft drinks and posh puddings? 2011? 2012?

Tuesday 1 June 2010

sex and the chocolate

Back from TASTE in Edinburgh but not sure I have yet recovered. It is a fairly full on experience - from the moment they open to some time after each session closes - so about four and a half hours - the stall is busy - offering tastings, talking about the product, trying to stop people eating the demonstration chocolates, making sure they all take a card, wondering who the very gorgeous looking bloke is who asked us if we wanted to have our photo taken with him (we were so surprised and said 'No'! turns out it was one of those celebrity chefs!)

anyway - exhausting and I do not really know yet how successful it was - few people buy at these events and we just need to monitor orders and try and gauge how many came from the event. But it has left me wondering about marketing and how I should do it better. My son made an interesting observation about how others market chocolate - the dark seductive colours used, the images, the language - it is all about sex and indulgence - and not about the taste or the chocolate itself. In my own marketing I have been attempting to portray the freshness and the taste - and maybe this is why people don't respond to it so well - are we programmed in this country to only respond to chocolate as sex and indulgence? the Flake adverts, the 'because the lady loves milk tray' - this must all run very deep.

I began to wonder how chocolate is marketed in other countries and thought of the chocolate shops in Brussels - these are definitely not dark indulgent parlours of seduction - they are bright and fresh - the chocolates sold on their own terms for what they are. Is it only the British who think of chocolate as sinful? When doing stalls at markets, people often recoil with horror when offered chocolates - as if I am offering the hearts of new born babies; often people say things like 'tempt me not Satan', or refer to chocolate as 'food of the devil'. This is all really quite weird! The stall next to me was Cambus o'May cheese - really, really lovely cheese - but I don't think they were ever accused of being the Devil's accomplice! And not sure cheese marketing has ever really used the sex and indulgence tack has it?

Not sure where all this is taking me - I don't think I do want to start 'sexing' up my product - but I know I do need to be more savvy on the marketing front.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

TASTE of EDINBURGH, 28th to 30th May

I am busy doing last minute preparations for this food market in Edinburgh this weekend and have been trying to update my website since last week - but for some reason my computer won't speak to the server or vice versa and I have no time to sort it out! So I haven't been able to put anything on the site about TASTE - so ever the last minute junky that I am - I thought I would BLOG it instead!

I have never done a TASTE event before and am quite anxious not knowing what to expect. There are the other two local Edinburgh chocolate businesses there (CoCO and Chocolate Tree) and I know competition is good but even a confessed chocolate addict like myself wonders if you can have too much of a good thing!

These shows are exhilarating and exhausting in equal measures and as it takes a lot of preparation to get ready for them - lot of toing and froing to be at them, it is a huge investment in time and energy. I never know how many boxes to make - will they sell or won't they? (and what do I do with them if they don't?); will it be so hot that no one even wants to think chocolate never mind buy them (we had a stall at a Perth Race event last year on the two hottest days in July - it was 30C plus each day and we sold one box of chocolates over two days! people couldn't even taste the chocolate - it melted as soon as it left the cool box), or so wet that no-one comes. Will we be tucked away in a corner that no-one goes to? or stuck next to a fairground machine that makes so much noise only 10 year olds can bear it; or south facing so that we have to display our wares at the back of the stall in an attempt to keep the sun off them - and we end up looking like we really don't want anyone to see what we have to sell at all! I think I must be one of the few stallholders at markets that asks for the shady spot; my alert aversion to sunlight must make people wonder if I have vampire connections

And then there is the emotional armour required to carry on smiling all day, when so tired you could cry, and the slightest suggestion that someone doesn't think much of the chocolates - a blank look, a shrug of indifference - can really cut deep and leave you wondering why you are there at all.

But there is much that is fun and uplifting: lots of lovely customers that really do enjoy the flavours - it is such a delight to watch as someone tries a flavour - for example basil - that they have never thought about in connection with chocolate - and they are sceptical but give it a go - and they melt visibly as the flavours melt in their mouths. And their face lights up and it is fantastic. Other stall holders are also great - encouraging, helpful, fun. I always learn a lot at these events and come away exhausted but full of ideas.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Sping at last

Late May and I have finally managed to start using some great wild flavours; at the Logierait market last week I had Scots pine and Sloe Blossom flavours on offer. People were interested in them - but not as interested as they were about the wild garlic; amazed that folk were asking for these and disappointed that I didn't have any on sale this month.

I am watching the wild mint closely - this is almost ready to pick - but I don't want to leap in too early and just wipe it out for weeks. It is one of the best flavours I think, and hope it will be OK for next week when I am getting chocolates ready for a food show I am doing a stall at in Edinburgh next weekend - TASTE.

Monday 19 April 2010

Wild garlic truffles? really?

I had first made wild garlic flavoured ganache a couple of years ago (I really do try everything!); it was interesting - a sort of Heston Blumenthal snail porridge sort of experience (not that I have tasted that) that gets your brain and taste buds going in a way that familiar food just doesn't do - new connections in your brain need to be created to experience a completely new flavour combination and it is really exciting. Anyway, the testing panel here at cocoaflower HQ were split on the original experiment: the panel of three (J, A and R) had various reactions. J just raised eyebrows and would not commit to any opinion; R loved it and claimed it was the perfect combination of two favourite foods - garlic bread and chocolate, and A thought it tasted like cold pizza, and not very nice cold pizza. So, we sat on the idea, and I used the experiment merely to evidence that I would try anything as a flavour.

However, last week with the first Logierait Country Market of the year coming up and uninspired by the late spring and the need to still use 'store cupboard' favours as I call them - I thought it was time to really test the water with a challenging flavour. I made small cocoa powder covered truffles with the wild garlic flavoured milk chocolate ganache, rather than include the flavour as one of the four in the normal selection box. I was curious to know how people would react - both on being offered the flavour but also if brave enough to eat it what they actually thought of it.

My first customers were a group of Japanese tourists who either spoke no English or were so shocked by what they ate that they were unable to speak English. I think they understood chocolate and so eagerly took samples - but at that point communication broke down as they rushed on to the next stall. Not an auspicious start. However, I persevered and to be honest thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Most of the people that I offered the truffle to eagerly tried it - what a wonderfully adventurous crowd. Only one person used the word 'disgusting' and actually most thought it was 'not unpleasant' just 'strange'. We agreed that the challenge would really be when you would want to eat it - this is no cosy end of the evening treat - more a wake up call to the taste sytem - so an unusual aperitif?

Monday 5 April 2010

must try harder...

Well - that didn't go too well did it! Not sure whether to abandon or persevere - and I think will do the latter. I listened to a Radio 4 Food Programme in which Sheila Dillon explored the use of new social media in marketing - and inspired by this and driven by the need to really develop my marketing skills, I established Facebook and Twitter pages. I hope these will not go the way of this blog's last few months - but know that if they are to succeed then I have to work much harder at them than I have in the past

So what have I been up to in the chocolate world since I last posted an entry? Since August I have done a big food show (BBC Good Food Show in Glasgow) which went very well and was great fun (but exhausting!), Christmas chocolates - exhausting and to a degree quite good fun, and then we have had the gentle early year chocolate eating rhythm of Burns Night (I have been trying really hard to develop this as a new chocolate centred occasion - please join my campaign, I feel sure Robert Burns would have approved - he would have written poetry and ballads about chocolate had he been around a century or so later!), Valentine Day, and of course Easter. We had Simply Chocolate workshops - Hearts and Tarts in February and then the Easter one last weekend.

And I went on a great training workshop down in Banbury and discovered a gorgeous walk from the railway station to the Barry Callebaut factory - entirely on canal path, park paths and small back lanes.

So - coming up soon is the first of the monthly Logierait Markets on 17th April - 10am to 2pm