No expense spared

When the hero of Roald Dahl’s My Uncle Oswald decides to spike a long list of luminaries with the world’s most powerful aphrodisiac (ground-up Sudanese blister beetle, if you’re curious), he hides the powder in a truffle from recherché London-based chocolatier Prestat. His reasons for hiding his natural Viagra in a luxurious chocolate are simple. He knows no-one will be able to resist eating one.

Resistance is even more futile in the real world. With the likes of Green & Black’s and Thorntons moving the premium goalposts, the sub-category has developed a more mainstream following over recent years. The once dominant small specialists have responded with ever more premium lines (commanding ever more premium price tags), while the supermarkets have piled in with own-label premium bars (commanding ever less premium prices).

The upshot? A fabulous assortment of new chocolate lines has hit supermarket shelves of late - and the middle ground has, true to form, found itself squeezed. Not that it’s taken the challenge lying down.

“The trend in boxed chocolates & tins is clearly towards growing premium brand sales”

Phil Sargison, Thorntons

It was with the 1991 arrival of a now mainstream Green & Black’s that the premium category sprang to life. It won its first major listing after Lady Sainsbury tried some at a dinner party and was so enamoured she instructed her husband to sell it. Listings across the mults followed and the company was bought by Cadbury in 2005 for a reported £20m. However, new products, new flavours and new ad campaigns mean it’s staying true to its roots, and sales in 2013 to date are up 4.1% by value and 1.7% by volume [Nielsen].

James Holloman, G&B’s organic business leader, says quirky flavour combinations and quality ingredients are “essential to excite customers”. G&B’s latest release, milk chocolate with orange, uses blood oranges to create a “fuller flavour, a slightly sweeter taste and more refined impact”.

The brand also has more experimental combinations covered, like milk chocolate with sea salt and dark chocolate with spiced chilli. They’re “niche flavours” that “push taste boundaries”, concedes Holloman, but they’re all part of G&B’s strategy to keep “injecting personality” into the brand and “entice new and existing consumers to consider other diverse flavours”.

Another of the old guard determined not to let its glamour fade is Ferrero. It’s splashing out £6m on ads and delivering NPD in the shape of a “luxurious gift box, exquisitely presented with a neat bow” containing Ferrero or Raffaello chocolates. The new products and the large advertising budget are an attempt to build on 2012, when Ferrero enjoyed its “biggest-ever Christmas” with sales “soaring by 13% to £33m”, according to Levi Boorer, customer development director for Ferrero. Across the year as a whole, value sales are up 3.5% and volume sales are up 1.4% [IRI 52 w/e 21 July 2013].

As for Thorntons, it’s endured a torrid time of late but the results it released a fortnight ago suggest a comeback. Overall pre-tax profits were £5.6m, up more than 500% on the previous year [52 weeks to 29 June 2013.]. Although sales in its own stores were down 0.8%, they saw “small growth in the second half of the year” and sales of products sold in UK supermarkets jumped 11.2% to £88.7m.

Own label goes posh

“The trend in boxed chocolates & tins is clearly growing sales of premium brands,” says commercial director Phil Sargison. “In the last year, premium sales have grown 12% to £294m while mainstream brands have declined 2% to £433m. Thorntons has played a key role in growth of premium over this time with 10% value market growth. At the same time, own-label premium has grown 13% own-label mainstream sales have fallen 7%.”

“Due to increasing demand for premium chocolate, we listed more J.D.Gross lines”

Spokesman for Lidl

With the premium category booming, perhaps it’s no surprise supermarkets have started producing their own, premium lines, but with a price tag that reflects their inherent value proposition. Even with that in mind, it’s surprising to see which ones are enjoying significant success creating premium chocolate: step forward the no-frills discounters.

Aldi’s Moser Roth premium chocolate is an underground chocoholic sensation - bloggers rave about the quality and the presentation but also the price tag - the range includes a 125g bar for £1.09 rising to £1.69 for mousse filled bars. Indeed, it won a Grocer Gold own-label award earlier this year, with one judge saying he would “go out of his way to buy it” and that it represented “fantastic value for money” (by way of comparison, a 100g bar of Green & Black’s costs £2 at Tesco).

Meanwhile, Lidl recently doubled the size of its premium ‘J.D. Gross’ own-label chocolate, which contains up to 81% cocoa. “There were originally three lines but due to increasing demand, we listed a further three in March,” says a spokeswoman. Again, price is a big pull all six bars cost £1.09 for 125g.

Exotic ingredients

Still, it’s hard not to be seduced by the rustic styling and experimental approach of smaller producers, even if they are significantly pricier. Madécasse, for example, specialises in exotic ingredients, like pepper and spices, and makes its chocolate in Madagascar to ensure a bean-to-bar process it says quadruples the impact of using Fairtrade cocoa. It costs around £3.50 for a 75g bar. And Amelia Rope’s chocolate has a price tag to match - a 100g Ecuadorian milk chocolate bar containing pecan nuts roasted in Wilkin & Son English Borage Honey with a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt costs £9.95.

“Chocolate combines romance, luxury, sweetness and love in a simple delicacy”

Nick Crean, Prestat

Then there is Prestat, which opened in London in 1902. “Sales are up 35%, growth remains strong and, in our case at least, own label is having no effect,” says co-owner Nick Crean. With two royal warrants, literary connections and a rich history (founder Louis Dufour invented the truffle in 1895), Prestat may be venerable but it remains innovative. “It’s sometimes important to stick to the formula,” says Crean. “The original recipe for the chocolate truffle is the same basic recipe that we use today for our finest Napoleon 111 truffles, but innovation is the joy of our business, like our new bars.” (see box out, opposite).

Despite being indelibly linked with Roald Dahl, Crean says Prestat has “no plans” to create a blister beetle truffle, but it does have “some real Dahl ideas” coming to fruition next year, including a range of Easter Eggs. And Crean echoes Dahl’s sentiment that chocolate is the ideal aphrodisiac. “It combines romance, luxury, sweetness and love and brings exotic flavours from all around the world into a simple delicacy. All that, then the serotonin kicks in.”

No wonder more adults are treating themselves to the good stuff.

Salted Peanut Caramel Cracker

Launched: Out now Manufacturer: The Grown Up Chocolate Company

Premium chocolate doesn’t have to be about slabs of 85% cocoa blended with foodie ingredients like chilli peppers. Instead it can be premium quality chocolate blended with peanuts, nougat and caramel, for example. And if that sounds remarkably like a grown up Snickers, that’s exactly the point. The GUCC roasts jumbo-sized peanuts before crushing and mixing them with Java-based milk chocolate and handmade caramel to create this indulgent treat (rsp: £1.49).

 

Connoisseur’s collection

Launched: September 2013

Manufacturer: Green & Black’s

Any idea which chocolate flavour goes best with port? The answer lies in Green & Black’s connoisseur’s collection (rsp: £17.99). Released in time for Christmas, this box of chocolates comes complete with a tasting wheel, pairing up food, alcohol and chocolate to “help guide chocolate fans through the tricky world of wine pairing”.

 

Prestat bars

Launched: August 2013

Manufacturer: Prestat

Famous for its truffles, Prestat has branched out with milk, white and dark chocolate bars (rsp: £3.50/85g) in Art Deco-inspired covers. They have already won plaudits for the experimental flavours, including Knickerbocker Glory - “a riot of passion fruit, meringue, strawberries and almonds covered in lashings of white chocolate”.

 

Sticks of Dynamite

Launched: Out now

Manufacturer: Gorvett & Stone

Made with creamy Valrhona milk chocolate and a “good helping of popping candy”, these sticks, exclusive to www.chocolatlovers.co.uk, are made to celebrate Guy Fawkes night and Halloween (rsp: £4.95/45g). Each stick is made by hand using sherbet fountain tubes as moulds, while the fuse is made from cherry liquorice pencils.

Salt, spice and booze give chocs foodie allure

Weird flavours have been in vogue ever since Heston Blumenthal burst on to the scene with snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream.

Overnight, bizarre flavours and incongruous combinations of ingredients became the way forward for foodies.

But the recent explosion of more adventurous flavour combinations in confectionery and chocolate don’t happen by accident. They are the result of intensive lab experiments by chocolatiers to develop the next big thing. And at the moment the big ticket flavours are salt and booze.

“Salt creates the ultimate contrast of sweet and savoury,” says co-founder of Madécasse, Brett Beach, who also makes liberal use of ingredients such as exotic peppers sakay and tsiperifery.

On the booze front, Prestat predicts gin will be a hit, based on the success of its gin & tonic truffles, while Orchard Valley Foods has been playing with less obvious alcoholic additions like Yorkshire stout.

However, big kid chocolate lovers are also being catered for. Green & Black’s says the latest trend among consumers is “flavours that remind them of their childhood” - and some flavours mentioned by industry figures are straight out of an old-fashioned sweet shop.

Steve Rudkin of Organic Seed & Bean says: “Aniseed is a strong flavour in Northern Europe that is yet to catch on here”, while Orchard Valley says “flavoured honeycombs like cola, mint, or coffee” are proving popular, as well as “pretzel pieces, kibbled popcorn, apple & cinnamon, meringue pieces and popping candy”.

Orchard Valley is working on “a soft melting colourful chocolate, followed by a crackling firework of raspberry, lemon, orange, apple or cola and finally a crispy core delivering a natural cereal taste”.

Sounds like a perfect fit for an experiental pudding at Heston’s flagship restaurant, The Fat Duck.