Fancy a few squares of bacon chocolate? Or how about a bar of two of something with a venomous sting in the tail? Jane Hall enters the Bizarre world of The Chocolate Smiths.
The Chocolate Smiths sounds like a great name for an indie pop band.
And if things had turned out differently, Steffi Smith might by now have been making her fortune in the music world.
A proficient pianist, guitar player, singer and song writer, she was studying music at Teesside University, having set her heart on earning a living as a composer of sweeping video game soundtracks, when she decided half-way through that it wasn’t the degree course for her and left to become a chocolatier.
What may have seemed like a reckless move turned out to be the best thing Steffi has ever done.
The wonderfully named The Chocolate Smiths only launched onto the region’s burgeoning artisan food scene in March, but the venture is already making a big impression.
And with its aptly named Bizarre range setting taste buds’ tingling in all sorts of unusual ways, The Chocolate Smiths is fast becoming the confectionery name on discerning chocolate lovers’ lips.
At 23, and newly married to Chris Smith, the man she met at Teesside University, Steffi can’t quite believe how momentous 2014 has turned out to be.
Especially as just two days after Christmas 2013 she was made redundant and potentially staring a bleak New Year in the face.
Luckily Steffi, from Whitley Bay, is a firm believer in fate and everything happening for a reason.
“I got offered places on music courses at both Leeds and Huddersfield but for whatever reason decided to choose Teesside.
“The course may not have been what I wanted in the end, but if I had picked somewhere else I would never have met Chris and I would never have got married.
“And in the same way, it was losing my job that spurred me on to realising my dream of founding my own very different chocolate company.”
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could do anything radically different with chocolate.
But Steffi and friend-turned-business partner Amy Francis, 24, have managed to create something unique for the North East with their luxury handmade confections, combining some truly unusual flavours with indulgent white, milk and dark chocolate that produce some very surprising but ultimately tasty treats.
There’s Bacon Bizarre which, as the name suggests, contains ‘bacon’ bits made from soya, so the chocolate’s fine for vegetarians too. But it still tastes like silky smooth Belgian chocolate mixed with salty, smoky bacon.
Pork and chocolate really shouldn’t work as a food combo. The brain says it’s all wrong, but the taste buds tell a different story.
Then there’s Bombay Bizarre with turmeric, cardamom, cumin and chilli encased in white chocolate for a taste of India.
Burning Bizarre is a 70% dark chocolate featuring Trinidad Scorpion chilli pepper. There’s no actual sting in the tail but it will put some fire in your belly.
Bashful Bizarre offers a taste of the English countryside with rose and garden mint. Americana Bizarre is perhaps the easiest flavour grouping to get the head around: pretzels and peanut butter.
Banging Bizarre would have been an ideal one for Bonfire night with its popping candy, cinder toffee and chewy marshmallows.
Bahama Bizarre, meanwhile, offers a taste of the Caribbean with banana jam, coconut, rum and caramel.
Baba Bizarre is filled with mouth-watering sour raspberries and rum.
That’s not to mention The Chocolate Smiths’ limited edition bars, which this festive season feature Yuletide Bizarre with spiced pineapple, roasted hazelnuts and a glug of rum.
Cherry Xmas Bizarre has cinnamon spice and scrummy fruit.
But perhaps the two most bizarre Bizarre bars are the Festive Cheeseboard and the Crimbo Dinner.
The former are chocolate bites with cranberry, crackers and cheddar cheese flavouring.
The latter offers what it says – sage, onion, garlic, black pepper, salt and locally sourced gooey cranberry jelly. It’s another so very wrong but ultimately so very right creation.
The most amazing thing about this grouping is the way the flavours seem to be layered so it’s not an all-out assault on the taste buds. Each ingredient makes itself known separately, eking out the savoury-sweet experience.
There is also a ‘normal’ classic range of milk, white and dark bars, along with hot chocolate and novelty lollies.
But it’s The Chocolate Smiths’ Bizarre range that’s getting them noticed. Just eight months after setting up shop, Steffi and Amy are already supplying Fenwick with its own branded bespoke range of exclusive Bizarre-inspired confectionery.
Curry and chips? That’s one of theirs. Garlic and herb? Another. Tropical punch and spiced crème caramel? Yep, they, too, have both sprung from Steffi’s and Amy’s over-worked imaginations.
It’s not just Fenwick that’s spotted the new confectionery talent in the region’s midst. The Chocolate Smiths is working with the Duchess of Northumberland on her two new confectionery ranges launched earlier this month.
There’s the Duchess of Northumberland collection, with its fragrant and homely flavours, and the altogether more dangerous Belladonna Jane quartet inspired by The Alnwick Garden’s famous Poison Garden.
You will also find a selection of Bizarre bars selling in House of Fraser in the Metrocentre this Christmas, as well as selected independent food outlets such as Tynemouth’s Deli Around the Corner and Felton’s Gallery 45.
The Chocolate Smiths can also be found laying out their stall at Tynemouth Market every weekend, held in the village’s beautiful Victorian station.
Since business is booming, Steffi and Amy have already taken on an apprentice chocolatier, Aimee Carroll, 18, to help meet demand, and have just moved to bigger premises in Benton, Newcastle, from their original base in North Shields.
Aimee, too, was destined for another life. “She worked with us over the summer and was set to head off to study media at university,” Steffi explains. “I knew I needed to hire someone as Amy and I couldn’t cope on our own, and Aimee said, ‘Well, I could do it.’
“I said I hadn’t liked to ask as I knew she was preparing to go to university in the autumn. I told her to go away and think seriously about it. The next day she rang and said ‘count me in!’”
When The Chocolate Smiths launched with just £2,000, Steffi couldn’t even pay herself a wage.
At that stage Steffi, who learnt her chocolatier skills working at Curiously Wicked in Morpeth before its closure (a new branch has since opened in Cramlington and they too sell at Tynemouth market), developed the whacky flavour combinations and made the products.
Amy, who had worked alongside Steffi at Curiously Wicked, came up with the eye-catching packaging with its Monty Pythonesque/Victorian circus connotations while employed at the Clarks shoe shop in Morpeth.
“I worked full-time in the business while Amy had her full-time job,” Steffi says. “The business just couldn’t support us both. But we both knew we wanted to work together.
“She had worked alongside me as a trainee chocolatier. I had the idea for The Chocolate Smiths and Amy is very creative. She had brought a few of her doodles into work and they had made us all laugh.
“When we were both made redundant last Christmas I saw it as a positive opportunity and told Amy I was starting my own business. I said to her, ‘Do you fancy giving it a go with the packaging?’
“I already had the idea for the Bizarre range and we came up with the flavours and the design concept. It’s all gone from there. Now Amy is working with me full-time as a chocolatier and designing the packaging.
“Amy and I just gel so well and we’re great at bouncing ideas off each other. Ideas just seem to spring out of our heads! I’ve always been a foodie, if not a chocolate nut.
“But when I started working with it I thought, ‘there’s lots that can be done with this.’ And that’s what we’re doing. We have the cocoa, the craftsmanship and the creativity. The only limit is your imagination.”
Of course, as both Steffi and Amy will tell you, the real star of the show is Cedric Bizarre. He’s the adorable moustachioed, top hat-wearing, penny farthing-riding frog in a stripy jumper that started out as The Chocolate Smiths’ logo but has developed a life of his own.
In fact, he’s been getting ideas beyond his station of late and has even taken to sending customers their own Christmas message from the North Pole where the Bizarre travelling circus has pitched up to give Santa and his Elves a festive treat.
“It’s all part of the fun,” Steffi says, laughing. “We aren’t the norm. We like to have a laugh and we want to make others laugh and smile too.
“We like to say ‘we want you to have as much fun eating it as we did making it’.”
You can’t argue with that.
For more information go to www.thechocolatesmiths.com
The Chocolate Smiths can be found selling their wares at Tynemouth Market every weekend, or buy online through the website and direct from The Deli Around the Corner, Tynemouth; Gallery 45, Felton, Northumberland; House of Fraser, Metrocentre, Gateshead; Fenwick, Newcastle; and some Tourist Information Centres.