Most people would love to receive an expensive box of handmade chocolates for their birthday.
There’s something very indulgent, personal and caring about getting a beautifully presented, handcrafted selection of gourmet chocolates – even if your tastes do usually veer towards the savoury rather than the sweet.
But Bev Stephenson is an exception to the rule.
There’s a saying that nine out of 10 people like chocolate, and the tenth person always lies. Bev isn’t being dishonest when she says she wouldn’t thank anyone who bestowed such a gift on her, however.
The topic has arisen because Bev is chatting on what is her 47th birthday.
She’s got no time to sit back and be made a fuss of, though. There’s work to be done – namely making another batch of her much sought after artisan chocolate bars.
Hence the affronted look when her birthday and the so-called ‘food of the Gods’, as chocolate has been dubbed by its admirers, are mentioned in the same breath.
Bev runs North Chocolates from her home in Forest Hall, North Tyneside. The fledgling business launched in January 2013, has taken the North East local food scene by storm.
A growing list of independent and big name retailers (Fenwick Food Hall, National Trust North East shops, Tyne and Wear Museums and Carruthers and Kent all now stock Bev’s chocolates) along with an appreciative public have fallen under the spell of her range of very grown-up artisan flavours.
In a busy week she can find herself making up to 500 bars covering the 20 or so different varieties she specialises in.
It explains her aversion to chocolate birthday treats. “People say I must have a fantastic job making and tasting chocolate. But that’s the problem. I have to taste everything I do. I get sick of chocolate!
“Other people enjoy having a few squares of chocolate on an evening, but for me that’s a complete no-no.
“Last summer and this summer with the weather being so warm, I have been getting up very early to make my chocolate to beat the heat and ensure it’s at the right temperature.
“By 8am I will have made a lot of bars, and what I would kill for more than anything is a bag of crisps or something salty and savoury.
“I do like my chocolate, but you really can have too much of a good thing. Birthday? Chocolate? No thanks,” she says, shaking her head.
Getting a surprise box of chocolates may be a busman’s holiday for Bev, but luckily she has thousands of devotees across the region who would love to receive a selection pack of North Chocolates’ bars.
Hers is always one of the busiest stalls at food festivals and her specialities attractively wrapped in foil in a rainbow of jewel-like colours and tied with matching ribbons, certainly draw the eye in any shop display.
She’s grabbing the attention of food specialists too. Her unique and unusual Ginger and Toasted Fennel combination was recently awarded a coveted gold rosette at the Eat! Newcastle Gateshead food and drink festival.
The now annual Eat! Gold Awards are bestowed on a handpicked selection of local artisan producers attending the Food Heroes Market.
More than 60 products were entered for this year’s awards with the judging panel given the difficult task of crowning just 10 top winners.
Unsurprisingly, Bev says she was “chuffed to bits” to win. “It was a bit of an odd weekend with the tail end of Hurricane Bertha whipping through the market, but it’s a great feeling to know other people appreciate what you’re doing, especially as I don’t do run of the mill flavours.”
Her Ginger and Toasted Fennel is a good case in point. Bev makes a Peppermint Crunch “because there are some flavours that just can’t be beaten,” but you’ll also find Chilli and Lime, Grapefruit and Pink Peppercorn, Geranium and Orange, Rosemary and Lemon Sea Salt and Lavender.
Bev’s background has played a huge part in the direction North Chocolates has taken.
Originally a journalist and editor of a culture and listings magazine, she says one day “I realised I didn’t want to go clubbing anymore; all I wanted to do was sit at home and watch Gardeners’ World and write a gardening column.”
So she threw herself into the freelance fray and carved out a niche writing restaurant reviews while at the same time studying horticulture at college.
Having gained the necessary qualifications she teamed up with an Irish-based company that specialised in harvesting cut foliage for the floristry trade.
It didn’t set her creative juices flowing. What had was interviewing a number of chocolatiers when she was a journalist, and being fascinated by the process of turning the finest couverture (high quality chocolate containing extra cocoa butter) into an edible work of art.
Bev believed there was a gap in the market for her brand of floral-based confectionery blending her passion for horticulture with one of the world’s most popular foods.
She learnt her craft under the tutelage of Roz Tinlin of Coquet Chocolate in Rothbury and Ruth Hinks – a UK World Chocolate Master and UK Confectioner of the Year – at the acclaimed Cocoa Black in Peebles.
North Chocolates (Bev wanted the name to reflect her roots as well as the businesses location) was finally born in January 2013.
The venture quickly gained a following, but it wasn’t until September last year that Bev felt confident enough to go full-time.
She works without the aid of fancy equipment and has converted what was a north facing office into her chocolate studio. The room’s aspect in what is a stone built house makes it the perfect location for Bev’s expanding chocolate empire.
“It’s quite cool which is ideal. Chocolate is very temperamental. Too hot or too cold and it just won’t work,” she explains. “To temper it (a method of warming and cooling chocolate which gives it a smooth and glossy finish) it needs to be heated to between 43C and 45C and then lowered to abut 29C. You then need to get it up to a working temperature of 30C for milk and between 31C and 32C for dark.
“I temper by hand in small batches. A lot can go wrong and you can have lots of traumatic experiences with shouting and swearing. My neighbours have sort of got used to me exploding when something doesn’t work.”
Bev is constantly experimenting with new flavours and enjoys the element of surprise. “I don’t do routine flavours; I don’t do things with marshmallows. What’s the point of putting more sugar on a sugar product? That’s not me and that’s not what I’m about.
“A huge part of the enjoyment for me is testing and trialling. For the Eat! Festival I did a coffee and cardamom bar and a white chocolate with lemon and poppy seeds, which both went down really well and sold out.
“That’s what I like about doing festivals. You get really good, instant feedback.
“It’s great when people don’t know if they will like something or not, like the Geranium and Orange, and then seeing their look of surprise when they realise it’s actually really nice.
“I love ginger but putting the toasted fennel seeds on was a risk that has thankfully worked. I like the crunch of the seeds. They add a whole new dimension.
“It’s just playing with the classics and adding a new twist. Chocolate shouldn’t have to be boring.”
And that goes for the children’s offerings too. North Chocolates may focus on grown-up gourmet flavours, but that doesn’t mean the kids have to miss out. There are DinoRoars, Androids, Goldfish and Squirrel lollies and Buttons for Gluttons shaped like the fasteners in bags secured with little ribbon tape measures.
It’s this attention to detail which means North Chocolates’ confections cost more than your average bar. Prices are from £3.50 or three for £10 at food festivals.
“I spend a lot of time on the packaging and the look. It is expensive chocolate because I use very high quality ingredients. This is chocolate bought as a gift or a treat.”
While personal chocolate consumption may not be top of her list of guilty pleasures these days for obvious reasons, does she have a favourite from her collection?
“Ooh, I think it has to be the Lavender. It always makes me think of heavenly summer days sat in the garden with a Pimms.”
A bite-size taste of summer to savour as we head into autumn.