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On Her Majesty's chocolate service

By Mark Andrews | Shrewsbury | Shrewsbury entertainment | Published:

Within moments of meeting Andrew Reeves, he's already quizzing me about my personal hygiene.

"How clean are your hands?" he asks, as I nervously examine my digits.

"If you can wash them for a full 20 seconds, deodoriser both front and back, that would be great."

On this occasion I won't take it to heart. Because when you're making some of the Queen's favourite confectionery, you don't leave anything to chance.

We're at Champion & Reeves in Shrewsbury, purveyor of high-class confectionery. And yes, its nougat really is consumed in the royal household.

"When the Duke of York, Prince Andrew visited earlier this year to open our new factory, he said 'the last time I saw a bar of your nougat was on the piano was on the piano at Sandringham'," says Andrew, 55.

Where the Royal Family developed its sweet tooth is not known, but the support is very welcome.

"It is on sale in Partridges in London, and the royal family buy from Partridges, so they may have picked some up there," says co-director Jacqueline Champion.

The reason for my cleanliness coming under scrutiny is that I am about to try my hand at producing the company's latest new line, chocolate almonds.

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Champion & Reeves has also just launched a line in chocolate hazelnuts, and Andrew and Jacqueline have high hopes that these will prove just as big a hit as its popular nougat, toffee and butterscotch.

The couple – who last week appeared on the popular television series My Kitchen Rules UK – say that people are becoming increasingly discerning about what they eat. And it is the ingredients which are at the heart of everything they do.

"We source Californian almonds, which we roast to golden perfection," says Jacqueline.

"We use Peruvian organic chocolate, mixed with Belgium's finest Callebaut chocolate.

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"It is important because that is 60 per cent cocoa.

"Most of the dark chocolate on the market is around 35 per cent cocoa, which is all it needs to be for it to be sold as dark chocolate.

"Once you get to 70 per cent it starts to get too bitter, but at 60 per cent most people who like dark chocolate will appreciate that this is proper dark chocolate."

Jacqueline says Champion & Reeves is possibly the only confectioner in the UK which still coats its nuts using a traditional method called "panning".

But while the multinational confectionery giants make their products on huge lines which eat up raw materials on an industrial scale, there is something decidedly homespun about the Champion & Reeves works, which seems more like the kitchen of a medium-sized restaurant than a manufacturing centre.

The panning process takes part in a shiny silver machine, which looks slightly like a precision cement mixer.

"These can cost £50,000 or more," says Andrew. So it is a very expensive precision cement mixer then.

The first stage is to ensure there is a smooth coating of chocolate inside the machine, using a small plastic hand tool. It is a surprisingly painstaking process, and Andrew says it is important that your strokes go with the grain of the chocolate.

A carefully weighed batch of almonds is then added to the drum, and the next stage is to "temper" the chocolate which will provide the coating. This comes in large slabs which cost £50 a time, and Andrew says temperature is everything.

"By tempering, we mean getting the crystal formations right," he says.

"If you have a tray of ice, that might be made up of large crystals and small crystals, but you put it in a gin and tonic and you don't mind.

"But for chocolate it is very important."

And the secret is all in the temperature.

"Tempering usually takes place at around 32C (90F)," says Andrew.

"Get it wrong and the chocolate is disgusting, it doesn't snap cleanly, it doesn't look attractive.

"Think about what happens when you leave a bar of chocolate in the car for any length of time.

"If it all goes white, it is because it has been heated to the wrong temperature, and hasn't reformed properly, the crystal structure has gone wrong."

A carefully weighed slab of chocolate is put into a small plastic bowl of the kind that might be found in any kitchen, and is heated to the correct temperature in a microwave oven. Once the right texture is achieved, it is time to apply it to the nuts in the revolving drum, using a metal spoon, like a large soup ladle.

Again, this is a process that cannot be rushed.

"It is best to gently dribble it slowly onto the nuts, so it is like a fine spray," says Andrew.

"If you put too much on you will have a sticky mess."

After giving them a light coating, the almonds begin to cluster together, so it is time to give them a blast of cool air, which is dispensed through a vertical pipe, and after a minute or so the nuts separate into a gravel-like consistency. The process is repeated, several times, until every nut is coated with a generous covering of chocolate.

Again, temperature is crucial. The room has to be maintained at below 16C (61F), with an air humidity of 50 per cent. Failure to keep those conditions right, will result in the nuts turning into a gooey cluster, rather than a neat collection of loose nuts.

"It is important you check that every nut has been covered," says Andrew. "If you found one in a packet that hadn't been, you would send it back, wouldn't you?"

The next stage is polishing.

"The big manufacturers use shellac to give their products a shine," says Andrew, delivering the word 'shellac' with almost a curled lip.

"Shellac is disgusting," he adds, showing us an online picture of it in its natural state.

Jacqueline explains that shellac is a deposit excreted by female beetles onto trees, and is otherwise used in nail treatments and wood preservatives.

Andrew stresses that no shellac ever enters Champion & Reeves products.

"We protect our products from humidity and heat by using a glucose syrup, which means our products are suitable for a halal diet," he says.

The final stage is the packaging, which is a treat for anybody fascinated by machinery. The pre-printed wrapping is fed into a machine on a roll about six inches wide, which seals it into an open ended tube. A small conveyor belt then feeds each pack of chocolate into the wrapper, which is then cut and sealed ready for distribution.

It is a business borne out of nostalgia, with both Andrew and Jacqueline missing the products made by the former Scottish confectioner Callard & Bowser they remembered from their childhood. While the brand still exists, it is now a subsidiary of American giant William Wrigley and production transferred to New York.

"I missed the butterscotch that my grandmother used to give me as a little girl, and Andrew missed the nougat," says Jacqueline, 52. "So we decided we would make them ourselves."

The couple began making them from home, but the business rapidly grew to the point that they could take on a unit at the Shrewsbury food enterprise centre, and in March they moved into their present premises in Battlefield.

At the moment, the company produces 1,000 cases of 12 bars or packets a month, and employs six staff. Its products can now be found in the Houses of Parliament shop, as well as a growing number of specialist confectioners around Shropshire.

"We're about to launch at Theatre Severn," says Jacqueline. It is hoped Harrods will be stocking Champion & Reeves products from next year, while the company is working towards obtaining a Royal Warrant – a five-year process which recognises those who supply goods to the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, or the Prince of Wales.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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