Many mums-to-be famously develop cravings for odd “foods” such as coal.
It’s not usually something those that aren’t pregnant acquire an appetite for, however.
But it seems Londoners are getting a taste for bite-sized lumps of the black stuff imported to the capital from Northumberland.
Nine years after Ellington closed, the village of Lynemouth just a mile from what was the North East’s last deep pit, is again “mining” coal and sending it south.
And it’s flying off the shelves of world-famous department store, Selfridges, the founding of which more than a century ago on London’s stylish Oxford Street has been turned into a colourful ITV Sunday night period drama, currently mid-way through series two.
You won’t find this particular coal in the hardware department, though, and the only thing that will need burning is the calories.
This is edible coal, on sale in Selfridges’ new confectionery hall, and handmade by a small social enterprise based in Lynemouth, Northumberland , going by the name of Kenspeckle.
Inspired by the village’s long mining tradition, Kenspeckle may well have stumbled on a very rich seam with its Cinder Toffee Coal. Honeycomb coated in milk chocolate and then dipped in sugary black “coal dust” (it really does look like small lumps of the fossil fuel), the cinder toffee marketed under Selfridges’ own name but credited to Kenspeckle, had a quiet launch in-store in the run-up to Christmas.
Selling alongside Kenspeckle-made but Selfridges-branded Toffee Twists and a separate toffee slab, the 150g bags of “coal” caught the imagination of the present buying public looking for something different to put under the festive tree. It was, according to Selfridges’ press relations manager for food, restaurants, wine and spirits, Georgia Frost, “a big hit with our customers. It was a very big seller for Christmas”.
So much so that what was intended to be a seasonal line has now been promoted to year-round status.
It’s a remarkable coup for a company that was born out of the death of the region’s centuries old coal industry.
North East coal dug from deep underground and shipped out of the River Tyne once made up half of all that used by Londoners. And, in 1833, a third of the coal sent for export came through Newcastle.
All that changed as one by one the pits closed, with Ellington finally being consigned to the history books in early 2005.
Even the power at the Lynemouth Alcan Aluminium Works was turned off at the end of March 2012, ending four decades of smelting at the site overlooking the Northumberland coast. And Lynemouth Resource Centre in the middle of the village was set up to help develop the local economy and provide employment.
It’s in the wake of this devastating industrial decline that Kenspeckle (a Northumbrian dialect word meaning distinctive or easily recognised) arose like a phoenix from the ashes in 2009, although its history goes back further.
The brainchild of Andrew Gooding, 40, a former Northumberland County Council employee who in 2001 was tasked with pioneering the resource centre (a plaque on the wall by the entrance fittingly announces that it was in part funded in the early years by the Coal Regeneration Board) and Dawn Watts, a 41-year-old mum and grandmother, who originally ran the facility’s café, Kenspeckle started out life as Scrumptious Squirrel.
Midweek, the café was in need of a boost and, as Andrew explains: “We were faced with either cutting staff or finding something else for them to do.”
So they began looking for other money-generating opportunities, including making jams and chutneys. “But at that time that particular market was quite crowded and there weren’t the returns to be made,” Andrew says.
So he and Dawn visited the local shops and tourist businesses to see what customers most wanted to buy. The overwhelming response was fudge.
After experimenting with different recipes, Scrumptious Squirrel began selling its own distinctive soft and creamy take on the treat.
Things may have carried on in this sweet-toothed vein if it hadn’t one day dawned on Andrew that while “people were prepared to pay only so much for fudge, they were happy to pay three or four times more for chocolate”.
In the wake of this revelation, he and Dawn enrolled on a chocolate making course, phased out Scrumptious Squirrel and, from a specially kitted-out kitchen to the rear of the resource centre, began making Northumberland-inspired Kenspeckle confectionery.
Where possible using regional ingredients (Acorn Dairy from Darlington , Berwick-based Chainbridge Honey and Newcastle Brown Ale among them) the repertoire includes locally instigated creations such as Northumbrian vanilla fudge, toffee and honey truffles and Puffin beak pralines – a homage to the Farne Islands comical residents.
Great Taste Awards success (the equivalent of a food Oscar) has followed for many of Kenspeckle’s products, which is how, last June, Selfridges came to contact the firm – at about the same time Andrew and Dawn were experimenting with Cinder Toffee Coal.
They had wanted something “that recognised the area, who we were and why we were here,” Andrew says.
“After the pits closed and we then lost Alcan, morale in the village was pretty low.
“We wanted something that Lynemouth people could associate with and be proud of with it coming from their village.
“Mining has defined the culture in these parts and coal has a very special resonance.”
Traditional honeycomb has long been a Kenspeckle best-seller and, following customer feedback, they began dipping it in milk chocolate “which we thought looked a bit like coal,” Dawn clarifies.
They began developing the edible black dust and the next thing they knew they had a crunchy, craggy and distinctive confection that “honoured this area being built on coal.”
Andrew travelled to London to meet the Selfridges team, taking some toffee samples and the newly developed cinder coal – more as an afterthought than because he had any real hope of its being picked up commercially.
But undoubtedly spotting a marketing ploy, the “coal” caught the buyers’ imaginations.
“We got the invite purely on the quality of our products, but I think they also saw the PR potential of working with a social enterprise company and selling confectionery coal from a former coal-mining area,” Andrew says.
Out of the three lines Kenspeckle now supplies to Selfridges, the Cinder Toffee Coal was the best-seller in December, and has maintained a high level of interest into the New Year. In the run-up to Christmas the firm, which employs three full-time people, found itself taking on up to 10 seasonal staff to meet demand, with pallets heading south loaded with up to 500 bags of “coal” and toffee.
Internet sales also went “through the roof,” Andrew states. “We did more online sales in the last two weeks before Christmas than we had done in the last two years.”
He has his own theory as to why the Coal (the name Kenspeckle markets it under to distance it from the Selfridges’ offering) has proved so popular. “It’s the heritage, the story, the nostalgia and the fact it’s something different.” Kenspeckle isn’t sitting on its laurels, however. Andrew and Dawn are always looking at ways to add value to the company’s offerings and are currently developing a new line of chocolates inspired by artists such as Turner, Klimt, Pollack, Mondrian, Rothko and Kandinsky.
They haven’t worked the logistics out yet, but Dawn says: “It might be that we have a sea salt caramel based on Turner’s seascapes.”
Sadly, the Ashington-based Pitman Painters won’t be included – yet. Kenspeckle is hoping to move into the corporate market and, as Andrew says: “One of the things we learned is that what we do either has to have broad appeal or be led by the offer of another organisation, so if somebody was doing a Pitman Painters exhibition then we could work with that.
“It is what we can do that will add value. If the Theatre Royal in Newcastle is putting on a production of Swan Lake, what could we do that is a chocolate that has that ‘swan’ element or a Russian link?
“We are looking at being genuinely inventive, and that is what we have done with the Coal.”
It’s not quite carrying coals to Newcastle, but for Kenspeckle it’s definitely a canny case of mining the area’s industrial past and sugar coating it for the future.
- Kenspeckle Northumbrian Confectionery, Bridge Road, Lynemouth, Northumberland, NE61 5YJ, 01670 863 000, www.kenspeckle.co.uk Buy the Coal online at £5 a bag along with all Kenspeckle’s other confections. They also run special chocolate experience days.