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Issue 86 - Meet the Producer: The Highland Chocolatier

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016

 

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Meet the Producer: The Highland Chocolatier

Michael Morris meets Iain Burnett, The Highland Chocolatier

Nestled in a quiet corner of Perthshire, not far from Aberfeldy, and if you know just where to look, you might find a taste of something altogether unexpected. For if I said to you the words ‘artisan chocolatier’, you might be forgiven if the first country that springs to mind isn’t Scotland; perhaps you’d think of somewhere a little more... Belgian. Nevertheless, in the small village of Grandtully, nestled on the banks of the river Tay, one of the world’s leading artisan chocolatiers is exactly what you will find. “At the very beginning,” admits Iain Burnett, “when we started, people were like, ‘Scottish chocolate? No, I don’t think so.’” The consensus was that Scotland simply ‘doesn’t do chocolate.’ And yet Scottish chocolate is exactly what Iain, who is known as The Highland Chocolatier, does best; in fact his signature Velvet Truffle was recently declared ‘World’s Best Dark Chocolate Truffle’ at the world finals of the International Chocolate Awards. For nearly a decade he has been supplying some of the world’s top chefs with his, often bespoke, creations and one can find his chocolates as far afield as Dubai and Oman; or looking a little closer to home, Claridges in Mayfair, Gleneagles near Auchterarder and the three Michelin star Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road.

But how exactly did a man from the Hebridean Isle of Mull become one of Britain’s most acclaimed chocolate masters? As you may expect, his passion for flavour and texture started at a young age, when learning the foundations of culinary skill from his father; he taught Iain how to identify quality ingredients and, importantly, how to bring them together to create something new. From there Iain’s journey took him to the fine food haven of of Japan, where he was astounded by the quality of a particular chocolate truffle created by a master chocolatier: “It had no chocolate shell and none of the usual things people stuff in truffles nowadays: fat and oils and sugar additives to make it soft or to give it a long shelf life. This was fresh dairy and chocolate and nothing else,” he recalls with a smile.

It was a pivotal moment. Iain had been inspired and upon his return set about becoming a chocolatier himself, which led to his training under masters of the Belgian, Swiss and French schools of chocolate making. As the years passed, he was intent on developing his own additive and artificial flavouring free truffle, and one that would surpass those which he had sampled in Asia. It was no easy task; it took three years and over 120 ingredient combinations for the recipe and process to be perfected. To get exactly the desired flavour, Iain sourced cocoa grown in the volcanic soils of Sao Tome´, an equatorial island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western coast of Central Africa. Introduced alongside coffee in the early 19th Century, by 1908 the nation had become renowned for the high quality of its rich, fruity and spicy beans – which remain much sought after today and are considered some of the best that money can buy. Today, Iain and his team of five, all of whom he has trained himself, use around 13 tonnes of Sao Tome´ cocoa per year, combined with cream from a single herd of Fresian cattle that are reared on a hillside in nearby Crieff. The process is so delicate that the recipe has to be tweaked to account for seasonal variations in both temperature and the cows’ diet – both of which affect the characteristics of the fresh cream.

The Highland Chocolatier is also famous for utilising exotic spices and ingredients, such as the Japanese Yuzu fruit, and creating avant- garde flavour combinations such as caramel and liquorice, or raspberry and black pepper. Where does the inspiration for this flavour experimentation come from? First of all, from his team, who make suggestions when they come across exceptional local produce, such as Tay Valley raspberries and organic honey from a nearby apiary. Sometimes, ‘local’ literally means Iain’s own back garden and uniquely he has created an infusion, used in his Rose Truffles, utilising petals from the Duchesse de Brabant rose bushes he has cultivated at home.

In case you hadn’t guessed already, Iain is a perfectionist and it really shows when one fully considers the hand crafted nature of his product; each batch takes three days to complete and by the time the chocolates are finally packed into their distinctive cigar-box style containers, they have been handled more than six times by their creator. Day one sees the creation of the ganache, to Iain’s secret recipe, which is poured into frames and left to set overnight; on day two the slabs are cut to size and either dusted or enrobed in an ultra-fine layer of chocolate, which while still wet can then be inlaid with a cocoa butter transfer and left to dry overnight. Day three sees a rigorous series of quality checks made on each individual chocolate, before a ‘skirting’ method is used to ensure that they fit perfectly into their presentation boxes. It’s incredibly time consuming, but clearly the method yields results – over 800,000 chocolates were ordered and produced in 2015, with further growth predicted in 2016.

At least some of this success has come as a result of being the Scotch whisky industry’s preferred chocolate for pairing during tastings, and today there are at least 35 varieties of Scotch that have their own bespoke chocolate accompaniment. However, there’s no chance of a whisky infused truffle on the horizon; Iain feels strongly that such an addition would overwhelm the delicate flavours of the chocolate and the whisky, spoiling the experience of both and putting to waste the hours of work spent sourcing the best ingredients to create the ultimate sweet. In short, just because the respective flavours can excel when enjoyed in tandem, it doesn’t mean that they’ll complement each other when mixed into a single product – in fact, he believes quite the opposite to be the case.

As if setting up his own chocolate workshop and growing a successful business wasn’t enough, in 2010 Iain added the Scottish Chocolate Centre to the site at Legends of Grandtully. An education centre for the budding chocoholic, it takes visitors on a multi-media journey in the world of chocolate, from plantation to palate, and displays a number of his most sophisticated and decorative creations. There’s even a viewing window, which allows guests to catch sight of Iain and his team in action. In March 2014, a second shop was opened in St Andrews, and today visitors can enjoy gourmet chocolate tastings there each week.

But what’s next for the Highland Chocolatier? Iain’s sights are set high: “There’s constant R&D ongoing into new products and flavour combinations, then there’s awards to be entered – and hopefully won – and of course our team is always keeping an eye out for new partners to work with internationally. We hope to craft more than one million individual chocolates this year.” All very impressive, I’m sure you’ll agree, for a country that ‘doesn’t do chocolate’.

Visitor Information

The Scottish Chocolate Centre Legends of Grandtully, Grandtully, Perthshire, PH9 0PL
+44(0) 1887 840775

Tours and tastings are available throughout the year at the respective locations, while the website’s online store can arrange delivery internationally.

Iain Burnett – The Highland Chocolatier (Retail Store) 145 South Street, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9UN
+44(0) 1334 208 397
www.highlandchocolatier.com