Jasmine Kershaw and Juliet Sampson

Much Ado About Chocolate

26th August 2011

Chocolate first reached England’s shores in the 1650s and the British have had a guilty love affair with it ever since. Jill Glenn meets two women who live, breathe and drink it…

With the astonishingly rapid rise in interest in ‘real’ food over the last few years you wouldn’t think that there was a niche product as yet unexploited… but two local women – Bushey-based Juliet Sampson, 29, and Jasmine Kershaw, 26, who grew up in Radlett and now lives in London – found one. Or rather, it found them…

They met as housemates in a vegetarian houseshare. A casual conversation in the kitchen one evening, over a cup of tea and a bar of gourmet chocolate from Juliet’s secret stash, revealed that they were both chocoholics – and not idle chocoholics. This was a serious love affair. Juliet had adored chocolate since she was a child, with very fixed views on quality, and as well as eating the stuff she loved to drink it. Where, though, was the hot chocolate of her dreams? Sugary, syrupy gloop (resulting from the fact that there is more sugar than cocoa in most commercial brands) didn’t satisfy her demanding tastebuds. She’d begun to play around with making her own, grating down good quality solid chocolate and mixing it with hot milk. Jasmine’s chocolate passion was less sophisticated; she was even known… sssh… to eat Dairy Milk on occasion, though she wouldn’t turn her nose up at finest Valhrona either. The pair figured that if they would pay good money for good hot chocolate they probably weren’t alone. Six weeks later, they were trading.

Those six weeks were a whirlwind of testing, sampling, sourcing in a bid to create the perfect blend of chocolate, spices and essences, so that all the customer would have to do would be to grate it into milk. Their flatmates soon became used to returning home from work to find the kitchen covered in chocolate, with a big pan bubbling away on the cooker. They weren’t complaining though, and they could definitely see – and taste – the potential.

Jasmine and Juliet buy their base chocolate from a co-operative in Grenada, which employs just 15 people. It’s an ethical business through and through, with the plantation house, for example, run on solar power, and everything produced organically. Back here in the UK, Jaz and Jul temper the chocolate and then add the flavourings while it’s still liquid; the powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla and ginger etc, are bought from UK producers and again are all organic. Then it’s poured into 2.5 kg containers, and allowed to cool, before being grated (not by hand, of course) and packaged. Their daily production limit is 20kg, restricted mainly by the speed and power of the grater.

The flavour combinations have been carefully concocted, and they’re constantly experimenting with potential additions to the range (it has to be said that for women who consume chocolate on an industrial scale they are both extremely slim). Of one of their latest ideas, a distinctly spicy affair, Juliet observes that “you have to be adventurous to try it, but once you have it doesn’t seem adventurous, it just seems right.”

All the flavours in the current range have quirky names, that hint at the special ingredient: Orangeytang; Mintchievous; Caralimelicious; Gingerbread, Man!; Chilli con Choccy; Quite White, and the straightforward Perfectly Simple. Jaz’s favourite is the ‘sweet, tangy and delicious’ Orangeytang, which she describes as “a grown-up take on a childhood favourite”; with cardamom and a touch of cloves, this is a drink to linger over. Juliet’s favourite – “at the moment” – is the Chilli con Choccy: a subtle, spiced warmth (with a kick). “The Aztecs used crushed chillies in their chocolate,” she says, “and when we tried it we could see why”.

They were thrilled to receive peer recognition earlier this year in the Academy of Chocolate ‘Best Hot Chocolate, flavoured’ category, winning Gold for their Caralimelicious, an unusual lime and caramel combination that captured the judges’ imagination and catapulted them in amongst the glitterati of the chocolate world. “The other people who won were all,” says Juliet, with a note of awe, “people we admire.”

Jasmine and Juliet are specialists among specialists; there exist plenty of artisan chocolatiers, but none who focus exclusively on drinking chocolate. For all the others it’s an aside; for Jaz and Juliet it’s everything. I wondered why, given that they both love to eat chocolate, they had chosen this route. “There are so many amazing producers out there,” they explained. “We couldn’t compete, and you’ve got to do it properly or there’s no point in doing it at all.”

It’s hard work (yeah, right, I hear you say) but they are unashamedly dedicated to the cause of producing the perfect drinking chocolate, and converting their potential audience away from the cheap substitutes. After reducing their hours gradually they’ve both now given up their previous jobs entirely (Jaz was in tv production; Juliet in charity administration), and so they are devoted to the business full time. They sell at markets, festivals and online. Seasonality adds an additional challenge, too. Hot chocolate is essentially a winter product, although the poor weather means that even at summer festivals people are happy to stop by their stall for a restorative mug.

It must be difficult, I suggest, working so closely together, 24/7, covering everything from production to retail. They laugh; they are good friends as well as colleagues, but admit that there are times “when we’d like to kill each other…”. They have no time for partners, rarely get a day off, and consider chocolate the love of their life. “But the good things far outweigh the stresses,” says Juliet. As their Facebook page says, ‘Chocolate is the answer, the question is irrelevant’.

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