Update: I'll be visiting the Thorntons factory again this week so will update this page with new pictures!
So today I, amongst other chocolate and food bloggers, were invited to a tour of the Thorntons factory in Alfreton, Derbyshire and to meet their master chocolatier Keith, the bods in the marketing department and to see what it was like on the factory floor. And what an absolutely fantastic day it was.
First off, is it me, or is everyone in Derbyshire incredibly friendly? From the taxi journey from the train station to the staff working their socks off in the production areas, to the office staff - everyone seemed naturally inclined to be immensely pleasant.
But here's a run through of what I enjoyed and what I learned from the experience.
Shortly after arrival we headed down to the factory to see how their chocolates were actually made (obviously after donning the requisite gear and health and safety message). Prior to my visit I thought the factory would be 100% mechanised with very little human interaction - other than highly trained people programming the 'robots' what to do. Those pre-conceived views were wildly inaccurate, and thankfully so. But seeing as they're more than capable of quickly turning round to produce one of their 400 recipes very quickly, it's surely understandable why I thought it would be.
We were shown the whole process of making their chocolates. As the pralines were being made on the one side of the factory and Easter eggs on the other, we got to appreciate the total focus on producing the best chocolates they can in the quantities that people demand.
The process began with us looking at the stores which housed all the raw ingredients. At this point we were made aware that they do use natural ingredients to a greater extent than most would have thought. They use real cream, real butter and real milk products. The even have a bonded store where they keep all of their alcoholic ingredients - the Her Majesties Customs and Excise protect this. An interesting fact was made that when they buy in the Champagne from the truffles that they are sent the Champagnes in bottles and not in large barrels as one would expect. It's actually somebody's job to decant the Champagne into the barrels to actually make the truffles.
We then went on to watch a guy making caramel for their chocolate caramels (obviously) and a team of people making the toffee by hand - just as how the Fudge was made in the small Fudge Kitchen shop. It was truly remarkable to watch a good proportion of the confectionary made by hand. But this wasn't limited to their sugar-based products. The swirls on the Easter eggs were made by hand and some of the decorations on the Easter bunnies too.
We then went down the line and saw the hazelnuts being transformed into the praline centres and then being fed in to the machine to make the correctly formed shapes. We then moved down the line to watch them be enrobed for the first time, cooled and then enrobed again whilst being shaken to make sure that the top of the pralines were smoothed.
After this stage we moved further down the line to the quality control area where the chocolates were reviewed by eye for consistency and quality, after which they went through a metal-detector to test for ferrous, non- ferrous and stainless steel. After the recent scares in other factories were there have been recalls of products, I was glad to see the level of emphasis that Thornton’s place on making sure the chocolates they produce not only look great, but are safe too.
On our way out of the factory we came across some more "Testing Stations" where every second batch is reviewed by hand by a panel of people.
And then our tour of the factory ended and we all headed off to the pub. Emma, the in-house PR-person; Kate, the external PR person that looks after their high-end ranges; Keith, the head chocolatier and Paul the Marketing Director all joined us for a great meal and even better natter about their products, the company in general and some good old blogger gossip. But you don't want to know about that ... you want to know about what happened next - the visit to the Thorntons development kitchen.
Because the meal was slightly delayed we had less time in the kitchen than was initially planned. But like artisan chocolate, it’s all about quality and not quantity. It was interesting to find out about the development process that precedes the manufacturing one. It was also great to see that Thorntons is like most other companies in that they do have their internal disagreements - some people love certain chocolates that Keith and his team create, whilst others prefer some of the age-old favourites - it all part of the process to try and make sure that everyone gets catered for. Personally I love imaginative chocolate, whilst others prefer the staple pralines and caramels. The whole company works towards establishing which of Keith's creations will successes in the stores - I don't envy them.
However, during this tasting session we tried some chocolates that are being considered for their centenary range for next year and other ranges for later on this year. I'm not entirely sure what I can divulge, but there was one exceptionally nice white chocolate one - we all raved about that bar, some great rose chocolate which was completely unlike other flavours I've tried and some wonderful fruity ones. It'll be really interesting to which of those we tried actually come to the market.
When you consider they sell about 6 million Easter eggs and shapes in a year then you realise the problem that Keith and his team have. They've got to create chocolate that not only tastes great, but can be feasibly made, transported, stocked and sold within a set period of time, tastes great for weeks or months, but also will actually appeal to a wide audience. I don't envy him. (OK I do, playing with chocolate all day is even better than reviewing it!)
I did wish that this part of the day could last longer, but these things happen and I still managed to learn a lot about the whole chocolate making process. My only regret from the day is that I wished I took my proper camera, charged the battery on the spare one and actually changed the settings so it didn't take naff pictures. My fault completely, but I do hope I'm invited back someday soon as the whole day was exceptional.
I did leave, however, with a huge, fantastic box filled with a large Easter egg, some small shaker eggs, which I joked, were like the Nestle Shakers - I don't think that when down too well. Emma also gave me a box of their Metropolitan range which sounds fantastic and some of their Melts which apparently are great.
I can't wait to review more of their chocolate. And those reviews will be even more special considering I now understand the whole journey the chocolates took, from inception, manufacture to the retail.
With Thorntons approaching their centenary I feel the company, the brand and the heritage are in exceptional hands. They're focused on producing innovative chocolate, but still keeping their traditions dear - that is an important factor as our chocolate crown jewels continually sold off or diluted to anyone that flashes some cash. I just hope Thorntons continue on the path they've started on. If they do, Thorntons will become bigger and better than any chocolate brand that's gone before.
Update: It doesn't look like some of the factory has changed since 2003 when the BBC paid a visit. If it ain't broke ...
And here's a video of some people that won the Golden Ticket prize that Thorntons ran for a tour around their factory: