The chocolate equivalent of a haute couture fashion designer, Jane’s work can perhaps best be described as a cross between the bold sophistication of Karl Lagerfeld and the rebelliousness of Alexander McQueen.
Chocolate aficionados would do well to remember Jane Williams’ name. Jane Hall reports.
FROM the outside it is just another drab factory unit hastily erected on yet another of the soulless business parks that now proliferate on Britain’s urban wastelands.
There’s not even a name to make the slate grey, low-slung prefab building stand out, just a number: 31. Nothing to hint at the Aladdin’s cave that lies within.
But open the royal blue door that serves as the unprepossessing entrance and you walk into a fairy tale world. It’s the smell that hits you first. The rich, indulgent aroma of chocolate. Take a few more steps and the reason becomes clear. Straight ahead a machine is gently oscillating litres of molten milk chocolate.
As a wheel turns, it scoops up the luxurious dark brown liquid, sending it cascading back into a basin. The chocolate equivalent of a cement mixer, the repetitive action of the wheel and the gentle swishing of the thick fluid, is mesmerising.
Welcome to the home of Davenport’s Chocolates. It is from this utilitarian location on the Orion Business Park in North Shields that Jane Williams crafts her unique, handmade chocolates.
Thrillingly fresh and faintly shocking flavours like raspberry and rose and cinnamon toffee apple jostle for space with more traditional soft almond marzipan varieties and pralines of roasted hazelnuts and caramelised sugar. But even the more familiar chocolates have been given a contemporary twist by the 30-year-old. The fudge briques, for example, are hand finished with a chic stencil design.
Jane, clad in a cover-all white coat, her dark hair pinned up, pokes her head around the small office door and smiles. One imagines she must wear a permanent grin. She has chosen what would be most people’s perfect career – albeit not as glamorous as that portrayed by Juliette Binoche in the hit film, Chocolat.
After all, what could be more satisfying than spending your days melting great bowls of silky ganache and rolling rust-coloured truffles?
“Mmm, yes I’m pretty lucky,” Jane concedes. “I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”
And doing it very well. Davenport’s – it’s her maiden name – only opened for business last September, but already Jane is making a name for herself, and not just as everybody’s newest best friend. “You do suddenly find everybody wants to be your best mate when they find out what you do,” she declares. She is supplying the award-winning Blackfriars restaurant and Kaffeccinos coffee house, both in Newcastle, Wynyard Hall on Teesside, and the Tuscany eaterie and Peppercorn delicatessen, both in Whitley Bay.
It has allowed Jane to take on an apprentice as she looks to open up new markets for her fledgling business. One imagines she won’t have much trouble finding customers. The chocolate equivalent of a haute couture fashion designer, Jane’s work can perhaps best be described as a cross between the bold sophistication of Karl Lagerfeld and the rebelliousness of Alexander McQueen. She sticks to tradition but at the same time isn’t afraid to break out of the mould and make a statement.
Take her raspberry and rose truffle. Neither flavour would seem to sit happily with the other. Jane herself describes the match as “an extremely unusual combination. You wouldn’t think they would work.”
But she thought about it, decided to give it a go and, as if my magic, the rose and the raspberry married together into the perfect luxury chocolate. Indeed, the amalgam is now one of her best-selling lines.
The duo is such a strange bedfellow, however, it does beg the question of how she came up with it. “It was a rose in my mother’s garden,” she explains. “It’s bouquet has always reminded me of raspberries. I decided to give the rose and raspberry combination a go and found it worked well. It’s the most popular chocolate I’ve ever done.”
Running a close second is the cinnamon toffee apple, using a traditional caramel recipe which Jane has adapted. She describes it as a “nod towards childhood nostalgia”.
There is nothing childish about Davenport’s, though. Forget Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this is a seriously grown-up affair. Her studio is more high-spec kitchen than sweet shop. The atmosphere is hushed as Jane gets on with the altogether serious business of making chocolates that look and taste gorgeous. Beautifully decorated with pearlescent and marbled chocolate, they look simply stunning. Jane has a lifelong love of chocolate. Nothing unusual there. Most of us can claim that, except we don’t become chocolatiers, preferring instead to indulge our passion by snacking our way through more than £3bn worth a year between us.
Jane wasn’t initially headed for a career in chocolate either. Born in Stockton-on-Tees, her family moved away when she was a child and she spent her formative years in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, famous for its luxury chocolate and cheese. As children here rush to the newsagents after school to stock up on cheap, tooth rotting sweets, so the young Jane Davenport would spend her pocket money on altogether more luxurious Swiss chocolate. “I think growing up in Switzerland I had quite a sophisticated palate. I started off on chocolate rather than sugary sweets.”
Early on she had learned to appreciate the luxurious texture of real chocolate and the way it melts slowly in your mouth releasing flavours that are totally unique.
Her favourite is dark chocolate. “I love the way it bursts with flavours,” she says animatedly. “You only need a small amount.”
Her favourite chocolate combination? “Today? Swiss pralines made with very milky, rich chocolate. Tomorrow? Who knows.” When she was 10, her mother bought her a chocolate making kit. “I suppose it was my mother who really fostered my love of chocolate,” Jane recalls.
On leaving school her parents gave her two options: either they would back her financially in her own food business or support her through university. She chose the latter and headed off to Exeter where she gained a first in geography and German.
But deciding she had “explored her academic side”, Jane looked to getting a job in food. “I couldn’t find what I wanted. Nothing seemed to fire my imagination like chocolate. It has always been my passion, so I decided I would much prefer to go in at the grass roots end and learn to be a chocolatier.”
Following the release of Chocolat, chocolatiers around Britain were besieged with applications from young professionals wanting to learn how to put crystallised violets on top of violet creams. They all thought they could change their career, but most didn’t last more than a few days.
The highly precise work – a whole day piping truffles by hand, for example – sent them quickly scuttling back to their day jobs. Somehow, Jane persuaded Swiss master chocolatier Philippe Burger, who had in turn been trained by his father at their family business in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, to take her on as an apprentice. “It was very brave of him to take me on,” Jane admits. “I ended up working with Philippe and his brother for seven years, and when Philippe retired I carried on making the chocolates.”
For the last two years she had been thinking it was time she opened her own business. Fate intervened when last September she married artist and designer Michael Williams and moved to be with him in North Shields. Obviously highly regarded by the Burgers, they gave her much of the specialised equipment – like the enrobing belt, moulding machine and chocolate kettles – needed to turn out her gourmet creations. She describes Davenport’s as “high class, fairly top end with quite a creative approach, so things look and taste different. It’s a product that stands out.
“I think because of the training I’ve had, I’ve tried to mix that with my passion for being innovative as well. I have a bit of an artistic background and I wanted the chocolates to be creative and inspiring.
“There is so much potential for chocolate and I think you are missing something if you do things the way they have always been done.” Jane is amazingly svelte for a self-confessed chocoholic. Is she ever tempted to gorge herself on the fruits of her labours? “I try to be disciplined because I love chocolate too much,” she says with a laugh. “I do have to keep a tight rein on my love of chocolate. But I do have moments when I lose my control!”
Plans for the future include ‘localising’ her work. “Unfortunately, you can’t get local cocoa beans or sugar,” she states. But in the meantime she is concentrating on reaching the discerning palates of North East food lovers.