Over the last few days I’ve been reading Steve Almond’s Candy Freak, and I’ve really enjoyed it. In the book he spends time visiting some of the independent chocolate factories that still operate in the US. Much the same as over here in the UK, a lot of the companies that used to make chocolates on a small scale have gone out of business, or been taken over by larger companies.
The book made me wish that I had had the idea first – I would have enjoyed, as he did, visiting all the chocolate factories and accepting large amounts of free samples. I have visited three chocolate factories in my life though, which is a pretty good record. I went with my grandfather on a tour of the Rowntree’s (now owned by Nestle, sadly) factory in York – this was wonderful, as the factory is not open to the public but Grandad worked there for over 50 years and so was able to pull a few strings. We had to wear big white labcoats in the factory, and every time we passed any of the production lines, Grandad grabbed a few samples and stuck them in the big pockets on my labcoat. There was a small exhibition room showing products that had been made by the company and its partners and sold around the world – Grandad took a few liberties here too, re-arranging the displays so that he could remove one or two items. This meant I got to try American sweets, which, to my 10 year old mind, was about the most awesome thing in the world.
The second factory I visited was the Cadbury/Bournville one in Birmingham – on a school trip. (I’m not sure why my convent school thought a tour of a chocolate factory would be of benefit to our educuation, but I am grateful.) Again there were many free samples to be had.
Finally, in 2005 we went to the Caillers factory in Switzerland – this was a lovely old building out in the countryside, and you could see happy dairy cows munching on grass in the fields all around. The tour was a bit weak in that you couldn’t get close to anything, but they had mocked up a few big vats of melting chocolate and had big windows you could look through. They compensated for the tour by having a large – and mostly unsupervised – tasting room in which you could eat as much chocolate as you liked. (There are some pictures of the factory and the free chocolate on Flickr.)
I don’t know how many small confectionery firms still operate in the UK – I would love to read a book about them all. Candy Freak was great in that it made me feel nostalgic for all these candy bars that I have never even tried (and probably never will, since so many of them are confined to being sold in small geographical regions within America). Anne at I Like has written in the past about the Tunnock’s factory and bakery, and that would certainly be one to put on the list for a UK tour. While in York the other week I went past the Terry’s factory, and was sad to see it’s all been sold off and will be converted into flats and offices. Terry’s now get their chocolates made elsewhere, and this always affects the taste – there’s definitely something different about a chocolate orange these days…