Oh chocolate, how I love thee.
Whether in the form of bars, truffles, thins, buttons, spread, cake, biscuit or ice cream, you make life just that little bit sweeter – on good days, bad days, big days and all the other days in between.
Zoe Rutter shares my passion for it. The twenty-something is a self-confessed chocaholic and has had a love affair with the stuff since childhood, during which her grandfather would treat her to a bar of Cadbury’s every time they saw each other.
“He’d tell me to savour every mouthful and not share even a single square with anyone else,” she says with a grin.
“I was hooked at a very young age. There’s just something so joyful about chocolate. It’s the ultimate ‘happy food’. Hand someone a slice of chocolate fudge cake, or a triple chocolate cookie, and they’re your best friend. Life feels better, even for just a few moments.”
After studying French at university, she moved to the land of ooh-la-la, where she worked as an au pair for a family in Paris.
In between teaching the children English, she threw herself into patisserie courses and chocolate-making workshops to learn everything she could about the craft.
It only cemented her love for the humble cocoa bean and, soon, she found herself putting her new-found skills to the test by making tempting treats for the children every afternoon.
Watching their little faces light up with glee every time a truffle or square of dark chocolate passed their lips would later inspire her to open her very own ‘school of chocolate’ in her native North East.
La Chocolatrice – which translates to ‘the female chocolate maker’ in French – opened its doors just a few months ago on Newcastle’s Westgate Road.
Passers-by won’t miss its whimsical window displays which, so far, have taken on stunning Valentine’s Day and Easter themes. They do a wonderful job of luring you in to a magical, Parisian-themed world of chocolate-making.
“What first drew me to the building was its curved glass front and railings – it reminded me of the old chocolate shops I used to visit in France,” says Zoe.
“Inside, I wanted to create a fun space, with a feminine edge. I wanted it to look ‘pretty’ and inviting. It’s why you’ll find pink walls, florals and sparkling chandeliers. A cold, steel kitchen was out of the question.”
Being creative and getting your hands dirty is the name of the game during Zoe’s intimate and fun-packed workshops, which can host between three and 10 chocolate- lovers and last anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours.
Perfect for groups of friends and family looking to celebrate, or perhaps just pick up a few new recipes, tips and tricks, they take place around a giant granite table and centre around decadent handmade truffles, luxury chocolate flakes and chocolate thins – or ‘crisps’. You can even mix up your own vegan creations and create your very own bespoke chocolate bars.
During my visit we add orange, vanilla and freeze-dried raspberries to our truffles and make our very own version of mint chocolate thins – which, to my surprise and delight, taste even better than After Eights.
“If you’re working with, eating and selling chocolate every day, like I am, it needs to be best quality,” says Zoe.
“Ours has only five ingredients: cocoa mass, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla. It’s as pure as you can get and, taste-wise, sits right in the middle of milk and dark.
“It’s smooth and creamy, but still rich. The flavour lingers in the mouth for a lot longer than the cheap chocolate you’ll find at the supermarket. It’s more luxurious and far more satisfying.”
As we chat, I learn how to fold double cream into pools of melted chocolate until thick and glossy. I take great pleasure in drizzling it all over the table in front of me, before scraping it into flakes as it dries and sets. I discover how to roll my own fudgey truffles and ‘drop’ them from a height, into cocoa powder, like a pro.
Zoe is on hand to make sure everything is measured out exactly, but as she enthuses, it’s not really about the mathematics at La Chocolatrice. It’s about using your hands, spoons and palette knives and getting stuck in with the mixing, stirring and decorating. It’s about immersing yourself in the sweet smells – the kind that make your eyes roll with delight – and enjoying those all- important taste tests along the way.
As the weeks go by, the busier Zoe becomes – but this young and ambitious entrepreneur isn’t complaining. Even after single-handedly hosting 24 workshops in the space of just seven days.
“The interest and support I’ve received, in such a short space of time, is overwhelming. I feel like I never stop, but I’m loving every single moment,” she says.
“People often ask me if I ever become sick of the sight of chocolate, but I honestly feel like I’m living the dream.
“Running La Chocolatrice means I get to combine my two greatest loves – chocolate and teaching – and I’ve met some really fantastic people along the way.
“I also sell my own produce – everything from bars to buttons, to lollies and pearls – which is another really fun part of the job. I always dreamt of having my very own chocolate shop – and now it’s a reality.
“I’m not expecting every person who walks through the doors to leave an expert chocolatier. I just want everyone to enjoy themselves and have the best, most memorable, experience. If I’ve done that, then I’ve succeeded. Everything else is just a bonus.”
My verdict? La Chocolatrice’s courses are perfect for creative chocolate-addicts and budding chocolatiers alike, packed with plenty of hands-on fun and technical chat, should you want it.
Zoe is a charming host – and teacher – and you walk out the door feeling like you really learned a thing or two, with bags of indulgent homemade goodies you can be proud of – and that would put Willy Wonka to shame.
Make one of Zoe’s chocolate masterclasses one of the first things you do after lockdown!