Thursday, April 3, 2014

York's Chocolate Story, York, England

While my brother was in town, we visited the York's Chocolate Story, a museum and confectioners in the heart of York. It has a fairly unassuming storefront but may be the most amazing place to visit in York. It's certainly the sweetest. Now that we've got that painfully obvious bit of humor done, let's move on!

York's Chocolate Story

Tours start here!

The tour begins with a quick overview of the city, pointing out the grocery shop of the Rowntrees, whose sons were pioneers in the York chocolate-making business. Then we quickly moved back in history to see what brought chocolate to Europe and to York

Since the Incan days, chocolate was a drink that people enjoyed. We saw a video describing the Incan customs of cocoa drinking, which came to Europe via the Spanish conquistadors. First European royalty enjoyed chocolate drinks, then regular folks. The big revolution in York was turning chocolate into a solid, e.g. bars, candy-coatings, fruit-coatings, etc. By the late 1800s, the York initiative to make solid chocolate began.

In the next room several TV screens are made to look like portraits of various chocolate-making families from York (most of whom were Quakers!). The tour guide talked with the screens and the screens talked amongst themselves about their lives and their contributions to chocolate making. When the tour guide offered us some chocolate samples, one of the chocolate matrons said, "Handing out chocolate for free, not very Yorkshire!" which got one of many good laughs along the tour.

After the history, we went downstairs and saw a simulated factory floor where our guide described the chocolate-making process. The tour included some interactive bits for the kids on the tour. Alas, J and L weren't there but someone else brought children who helped out.

The factory bit

Right after that, the tour guide discussed proper tasting technique for chocolates. You may notice the face in the chocolate tasting wheel is odd.

The tasting wheel (click to enlarge)

That's not actually a face, it is the four senses used in tasting chocolate. Hearing was the surprising one for me. Tasters need to listen for the sound of chocolate when it's broken. Good chocolate gives a nice snapping sound. Other senses were more obvious or guessable--seeing good chocolate means seeing a fine sheen or shiny surface, smelling and tasting follow the variety of terms on the wheel. The guide said that since everyone's tastes are different, they will have different descriptions of the flavor. No one is right while another is wrong in their assessment of a particular chocolate.

After the tasting, we had time to explore the exhibits on the history of chocolates, mostly from the British perspective. The Royal Family sent tins of York chocolate to all the soldiers during the Boer Wars and World War I.

Royal chocolates for the soldiers

In the early 1900s, several employees at Rowntree's raised money for Captain Scott's expedition to the South Pole. He visited the York factory and gave lectures and lantern shows of his accomplishments and his plans. He left with a lot of cocoa. He did make it to the South Pole but died on the return trip. When his tent was discovered, this can of Rowntree's cocoa was found there, along with a diary entry that described how his men looked forward to having a hot cup of Rowntree's cocoa.

Capt. Scott's cocoa tin

We also saw a variety of advertisements from across the years.

Chocolate adverts

Another display shows the various wrappers KitKats have had over the years. The blue wrappers come from the World War II era when milk for milk chocolate was scarce. Those KitKats were made with dark chocolate. Once the war was over things went back to normal.

KitKats through the years

Our next stop was the chocolate lolly-making experience. We lined up on sides of a counter while one worker squirted chocolate onto individual wax papers. We then put little wooden sticks in the chocolate and various toppings on the chocolate.

Chocolate lolly making!

My creation

While those were put in the fridge to harden, we saw one of the expert chocolate makers at work. He showed us how he made filled chocolates and let us sample some fresh-made truffles.

The most important job in the place?

That gigantic Toffee Crisp is in fact a real chocolate bar made for its 50th anniversary. He went to a garden shop and bought a window planter to use as the mold! He's made a few over-sized treats on order--once he made large chocolate shells as centerpieces for a wedding. The wedding guests were given small hammers to open the shells which had truffles inside.

Working the chocolate with a mirror above to show the machine in action

After that demonstration, we received our chocolate lollies and headed downstairs to the gift shop and cafe for some last shopping.

Considering the amount of chocolate we consumed during the hour and a quarter tour, this is definitely a bargain and highly recommended!

A sign in the toilet!

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