I’ve always been lucky. But never luckier than when invited by Joanna Brennan to tour Pump Street Chocolate’s factory with her father Chris Brennan, family owners of foodie icon Pump Street Bakery.
Under a clear blue sky, we congregated on Sunday morning, small groups converging on Pump Street’s Orford Chocolate factory as 11 o’clock drew closer. In the middle distance, the bells of St. Bartholomew chimed the appointed hour and Chris Brennan appeared in his immaculate whites, to usher us though the porch and into his spick-span shrine of chocolate. With reverential hush, we foregathered in the “chocolate room”, where the introduction slide of an AV presentation was playing against the wall.
With the BBC’s “Best Food Producer of 2012” award under Pump Street Bakery’s belt, Chris wears his pre-eminence lightly. And his first utterance was a master-stroke: reminding the foregathering that we were in a working food-production environment, he bade us all wash our hands. The message was powerful: so, guys, pay attention : this isn’t a cinema or leisure centre – it’s the hygienic core of the chocolate-making universe and here we do things the right way. Our ritual cleansing completed, we turned our shriven attention to our host.
His native Jamaican accent syncopated with Canadian vowels, Chris commanded our attention with the simple revelation that bakery and chocolate shared a common trait – that they both require expert fermentation to make a perfect product. The width and breadth of my ignorance was evident from the outset – and I was determined not to miss even a nuance of the words from the pulpit.
Indeed, Chris then delivered an eloquent homily on the evils of the bulk cocoa-trade. Purchases at exploitative prices through a chain of intermediaries meant that the (now largely African) independent producers of cocoa beans receive such rock-bottom prices that they are compelled to use the cheapest available form of labour – children. A swift admonition for those sinners amongst his flock (complicit with the big UK chocolate brands, most of which, ironically, were descended from Quaker families – Terry, Cadbury etc – who sought to offer the masses a temperate pleasure to displace alcohol) and Chris moved nimbly on to the sweet brown stuff. “Bean-To-Bar” is the nub of Pump Street Chocolate’s proposition. In practice, this means that Chris deals directly with the cocoa bean growers, deliberately paying 4-5 times the buyers’ cartel prices and 2 ½ times “Fairtrade” prices, to ensure a high-quality, ethical (no child-labour) and traceable supply of raw material.
So we started with a cocoa pod: big as a veined brown skittle, this was where it all began. Inside would be a white pulp, the fruit wrapped around 20-40 seeds – the precious cocoa beans. These are fermented, then sun-dried before being shipped directly to Pump Street Chocolate. That’s the whole supply-chain. We left the “chocolate room” and went out into the sunshine to peek inside the container with its hessian-sacked bean-bags, each variety and vintage neatly labelled.
Next, we stepped inside again and observed saw the custom-built ( by a local engineer with long F1 driving experience) winnowing machine for separating the cocoa bean husks from the chocolatey “nibs” and sampled a shaped, lightly-roasted cocoa bean.
A question was asked about how Chris ensured the consistency of his product for the marketplace. The answer was candid: “I don’t. Once you get to the realisation that no two batches will ever be the same, it won’t bother you.” The message is iconoclastic for modern food shibboleths : forget the mediocrity of equal outcomes, instead embrace inconsistent excellence. As I listened to Chris, it was slowly dawning on me that his fervour for excellence in his chocolate production had multiple parallels with my own beekeeping principles!
We processed back into the chocolate room, where the machines were devotionally whirring and churning, as we had left them. The chocolate/sugar grinders, paddling chocolate as smooth and dark and as a wet mink’s coat, were disclosed to be modified Indian spice-grinding drums, massively pimped with an American engine, rebranded and supplied to smaller-scale chocolate producers.
Summoned forward, communion-like, we look our turn to the glossy torrent, reverentially dipping our wooden spatulas into the spate, withdrawing it taking a step back, while obeying Chris’s injunction to: “Raise it to the vertical”. The sight of a dozen people in procession, raising their chocolate-wands heavenwards on instruction could have been mistaken for a cabbalistic gesture. But it was simply Chris’s technique to prevent the rivulet of chocolate dripping off the spatula as we stepped down from the high altar of the cocoa bean.
One particular heresy was exposed by our celebrant of the true chocolate. Chris uses milk powder when making milk chocolate. I recalled the assertion of a “glass and a half of full cream milk” in every half pound of chocolate with which one English chocolate company used to market its mass-produced, purple-wrapped product. This is now inaccurate – milk solids are described by the mass-manufacturer as 28% of the ingredients and indeed, the EU intervened in 2010 to insist that each pack should read: “The equivalent of 426ml of fresh liquid milk in every 227g of milk chocolate”. Serves the whole damned lot of them right, if you ask me !
Precision of temperature and time were evident in all of the processes. There were trials, Chris pointed out, as he roasted each new bean under different conditions until his tasting team had agreed on the correct treatment of the beans. After looking at the tempering machine for Pump Street Chocolate’s new breadcrumb/chocolate hybrid “Sourdough and Sea-Salt Chocolate” confection, we were convinced of the science-lab accuracy of the art of making fine chocolate.
We could sense that we were approaching the final stages of the “bean to bar” process when Chris, a man with a mission – and a strong sense of the theatrical, urged me to take down from the shelf next to the person-sized fridge a monstrous slab of chocolate, the result of 70 hours of warm metal caresses, now cooled and rested.
The next short step is to reheat the chocolate and put it into the bar-making machine for a final melt and hold at a precise temperature. A simple plastic tray received the exact fill of chocolate and the bean had finally become a bar !
It was almost an anti-climax when Chris asked us to sample his chocolate. The door of the fridge swung open to reveal racked shelves, closely spaced, and a wonkaesque panoply of chocolate bars – and three plates with a different chocolate style on each. But the tasting soon overcame any lingering reserve amongst the disciples of Chris’s chocolate. I can confirm that I am now a convert, as autumn takes hold, to the colour brown. The rich, deep, sleek textures of the Pump Street Chocolate which we sampled (Madagascar – Milk 58%; Sourdough and Sea Salt ; Grenada – Crayfish Bay Estate) won us all over. Never has “brown food” been so appealing !
His Sunday service concluded, Chris was even more generous with his answers to the questions which were put to him, shaking hands as we departed, chatty as a country parson. I can wholeheartedly recommend a pilgrimage to Pump Street Chocolate, to celebrate the dedication, devotion and ingenuity of Chris and Joanna Brennan’s enterprise.
But there’s more….. Pump Street also won a 2014 Wallpaper Design award for the simple (and resealable!) packaging. Its website has won accolades and Cédric The Van is a charming accessory to spread the Pump Street gospel over the immediate neighbourhood. So let’s add effortlessly cool design to great bread and extraordinary chocolate. Almost impudent excellence!
Tempted ? Well, the last Chocolate Tour scheduled as part of the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival is on Sunday 12th October – please book, as instructed below:
The last of our chocolate room tours as part of Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival Fringe are running this weekend – still some places left for Sunday, if you’d like to come please book here: http://www.pumpstreetbakery.com/bookings/aldeburgh-fringe-chocolate-room-tour-9
In fact, it turned out that my tour was even luckier than I had first thought. As I listened to the messianic Chris Brennan describe his chocolate making as “bean-to-bar”, the words “bee-to-jar” sprang on to the tip of my tongue – the perfect encapsulation of my one-man, beginning-to-end honey production. Thanks for the inspiration, Chris ! “Bee-to-jar” it is, then!