The Perthshire chocolatiers supplying the high-profile chefs
Two Scottish chocolate makers with very different approaches
On the banks of the Tay are two of Scotland’s finest chocolate makers. Malcolm Jack took a trip along the river to unwrap their story
By chance they’re based just a few miles apart and they founded their businesses at almost exactly the same time around 2005. But the paths of Perthshire’s finest chocolatiers Charlotte Flower and Iain Burnett rarely cross.
‘It’s funny, we only seem to meet each other at events in London,’ says Flower while she heats a vat of molten chocolate in the spare room workshop of her old schoolhouse home at Acharn by the banks of Loch Tay, using a tool no-more-sophisticated than an old hairdryer. Burnett makes the same point sitting at the boardroom table of his Highland Chocolatier headquarters in Grandtully, a pair of his award-winning, luxury velvet truffles warming to optimum sampling temperature on a plate in front of him.
In any case, their shared proximity is sufficient to support the notion of the Tay as the chocolate river of Scotland. Elsewhere locally you’ll find other quality chocolatiers such as Perth’s Wicked Chocolate and Cocoa Mountain in Auchterarder, along with newcomer Rainbow Organic Chocolates in Milnathort. But Flower and Burnett’s products are leaders in their respective couverture specialisms – even if much about their businesses and backgrounds could hardly be more different.
Where Flower taught herself in her own kitchen after being inspired by a box of Pierre Marcolinis brought back from Brussels by her husband, Burnett trained under master chocolatiers of the Belgian, Swiss and French schools. While the former has a single part-time assistant, the latter employs eight co-chocolatiers, each of whom took or are taking three years to train fully. And where Flower uses basic tools including the above-mentioned implement easily purchased from Argos, Burnett’s glistening kitchen is equipped with elaborate-looking, custom-made machinery shipped from Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands.
‘If it’s not absolutely perfect, if it’s got a tiny air bubble, or the tiniest fleck, we don’t use it, we don’t even sell it,’ explains Burnett, whose esteemed customers include Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles and Albert Roux’s various Chez Roux establishments around Scotland. ‘One chocolate like that to Gordon Ramsay and,’ he claps his hands, ‘end of contract.’
It’d be easy to assume there’s something snobby about a chocolatier who caters chiefly for the dining elite, but far from it – anyone is welcome to drop by Burnett’s relaxed café and visitor centre to watch him work, learn about artisan chocolate craft and shop for a box of his finest creations. His artisan training, boffin-like understanding of chocolate chemistry and innate perfectionism drives him to make products of the finest quality – and his exquisite Velvet Truffles, 300-plus variations and counting in the perfecting, have few rivals. To support this ambition he needs to supply the finest of restaurants.
Flower’s operation is more down-to-earth – she’s ‘the foraging queen’, as Burnett puts it. Her fresh chocolates are flavoured with everything from forest fruits to herbs, Scots pine, sea salt and other seasonally changing ingredients drawn directly from nature. ‘If they’re not wild, or from my garden or from a friend’s garden, I’ll buy them from a shop in Aberfeldy,’ she says. ‘The landscape literally goes into my chocolates. Literally.’ All sales are done direct to customer, or via local shops such as Aberfeldy Farmfresh, and she can never make enough product to satisfy demand.
Burnett too draws from the local larder: Scottish apiaries and fruit farms are among the very best he reckons, while a blind taste test of creams from as far afield as France found the best to come from, of all places, just down the road at D&D Dairies in Crieff (‘it was like comparing sour milk to yoghurt with honey’). A business of the Highland Chocolatier’s calibre could be based anywhere in the UK and probably should be closer to London, but Burnett chooses to stay rooted in a tiny out-of-the-way conservation village against financial prudency because, well, they like it that way. ‘It’s a lifestyle choice,’ he says.