"A Story of Sweet Success"
Chocolate. Christmas would hardly be Christmas without it. Freelance journalist, Rosie Duncan delves into the world of a master chocolatier just beyond her doorstep and indulges in the art behind the industry. This was written when we were located in Fortrose, but you can now enjoy the Belgian experience in the Victorian Market in Inverness.
"A tiny seaside village hugs the coastline of the Moray Firth, shivering in the near Arctic wind. It's dull December, and I'm briskly heading up the High Street of my home town, Fortrose. With every step, I pass the usual small town sights and sounds; the Post Office, the butcher's, the baker's, dogs barking and babies crying. But my destination is a little different. I am going to the Story Chocolate Shop on the corner to meet a Master Belgian Chocolatier who's busy creating the chocolate-filled Christmas we know and love.
As Ingrid Story beckons me into the premises, it's hard to believe I'm five minutes from my family house. Within the old, crumbling walls of the High Street house, Ingrid's world is flooded with light and perfumed deliciously by chocolate, of course. It envelops the room with its heady scent. Her work space is compact and equipped. Chocolate churns on the wheel of a heavy steel machine flanked by chocolate-smeared marble worktops, pouring out velvet-smooth melted chocolate. Towards the right, a kitchenette is cluttered with bowls of cream fillings and piping bags. She takes me in there and sits me down on a towering ice cold stool that makes my legs dangle like a three year old. This is a child's dream and, for a few seconds, I forget myself entirely.
Ingrid's name is rather ironic, considering the volume of stories that spill out of her. Even her own background seems like a story book.
"My husband has Scottish roots," she says, "And we came on holiday here and he always said we would move. I think he is really lucky I fell in love with Scotland immediately, from the first time I visited." Ingrid speaks passionately and expressively in her thick Belgian accent, her speech only occasionally interrupted by "How do you say?" or "You know?" She continues:
"I really liked the Victorian Market hall in Inverness and wanted to have a shop over there. I love old pictures, everything older." It was settled; Ingrid had made up her mind. After securing a shop in the hall, the Storys then had to make a decision on where to live and where to base their family business: "A friend of ours from the Black Isle married a Belgian girl, a friend, and said to us; 'Go to the Black Isle, have a look around-'". The recommendation brought Ingrid and husband Lucas to Fortrose, where they stumbled upon a long abandoned corner shop with the potential to accommodate retail and work space. It was ideal, a second shop to boost their income.
That was November of 2008. Now, Ingrid and her business have been fully accepted and embraced by the people of Fortrose, the place she calls "beautiful". Like most children, chocolate was an interest of Ingrid's from an early age, but her interest was more practical than looking for her next penny treat: "As a child I was always wondering, how do they put the cream in the chocolate?" Becoming a chocolatier was something Ingrid had dreamed of doing all her life, a dream that was never realised until later, after her own children had been brought up: "On my 50th birthday I said to Lucas, am I allowed to go back to school? And he said oh yes, of course you can do that." As the conversation continues, Ingrid's strong family unit becomes apparent. Her husband is endlessly supportive, and drove her back and forth to college for three years as she completed her chocolate and confectionary course.
As we speak she waits impatiently for her son to arrive back from Belgium. The snowy weather has had him stranded in Edinburgh airport for the past 24 hours. He is expected to inherit and expand the business in the future, and, because of that expectation he is the only other person that knows Ingrid's "secret" chocolate recipes and practices. She is particularly proud of her most top-secret concoction, her best-selling whisky cream chocolates, and gives me a sample. "
"I never drink one drop of whisky myself but when I make my chocolates I use the Laphroaig whisky," she says. "It has that peaty smell and taste, you know?" She beams as I devour the strong, bitter chocolate greedily but refuses to tell me how the buttercream and whisky are mixed without curdling. Not even Lucas knows how they "put the cream in the chocolate". "It's girl power," she laughs.
Luckily Ingrid chooses to disclose some secrets of her craft as I sit eyeing the chocolate moulds. Ingrid only uses high quality couverture chocolate imported from Belgium, sacks of button-shaped pieces or galettes that are slumped in the corner of her workspace. She offers me a couple and admits; "I eat them all the time." They are delicious. These are then melted down and ready to work with. "First of all you need to temper your chocolate," she explains as she works. "The temperature needs to be spot on, otherwise it starts to stick in the mould or doesn't have any shine on it. Then you start to fill the moulds and these are put on a vibrating machine to get all the air bubbles out. You turn it round and most of the chocolate comes out again."
The next stage depends on the type of chocolate being made. If these are plain chocolates, they are left to dry on the worktop and cool in the fridge, before being brought out into the shop, at room temperature, when they are at their best. Often this process is time consuming, particularly for the larger Christmas gifts. For example, the gigantic chocolate Santa Claus that sits on the shop counter took half a day to produce, she tells me. If they are cream-filled, Ingrid's home-made creams must be piped inside the hollowed chocolate: "I don't use any ready-made creams because I hate that." These creamy chocolates, including the most popular mango and passion fruit chocolates I watch her make, are delicately sealed with a chocolate-covered palette knife in two strokes. "Never do it three times," she warns. "Otherwise you open it again." These are then cooled and ready to be sold. The tiring process leaves its mark on Ingrid: "I have problems with my hands, with my wrists, because you turn the moulds all the time, you know?"
Ingrid's specialist methods also mean the production rate is slow. In a day, "when I really, really work hard", she alone can produce around 25 boxes but, without the help of her son, this is not nearly enough for the two shops she serves, as well as another independent shop in Dingwall which Story supplies. "I need my son," she sighs. Yet, Ingrid is adamant that it should not be done any other way. Despite being open to other methods and other products, she is very vocal about her distaste for the chocolate industry at large. "Do you know that Easter eggs, the chocolate eggs you eat now, are made two years ago?" she says, incredulous. "It's because they go all over the world they can't do it in just one year. My chocolates only have a shelf life of two months, in good condition." Story chocolates are also sent abroad, to some very special customers, customers like David Suchet, or Hercule Poirot: "I always watched Poirot back in Belgium and there was an episode with a poisoned chocolate, and that gave me the idea to send chocolate to David," she explains. "Poirot is French for leek but you can't put leek in a chocolate! I read somewhere that he said he deserved a Euro coin with Poirot on it for playing the character for so long. I have a coin mould and I said, 'I'm going to make him chocolate!" His thank you letter is proudly displayed in her work place and it remains her dream to meet Suchet in person.
Chocolates are sent anywhere from the Fiji islands to the Americas. This is on a smaller scale of course, the way Ingrid likes it. Nevertheless, she does keep a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk Caramel in her bag at all times.
The environment is a worry for Ingrid both in terms of its effect on her business and vice versa. Fortrose is often very different to the Belgian climate. "When it's damp and wet outside, it affects the chocolate," she says. "Sometimes you get so frustrated because you can't work properly. We don't have any climate control - yet. Next year it will be much better." Ingrid and Lucas are very respectful of the environment nonetheless: "We don't sell much how do you say, wrapping or packaging you know, cellophane or cardboard. Our boxes are rather small, they contain eight chocolates. In some places huge boxes contain the same amount of chocolates and for the environment that's bad. We try to do something about the environment." Ingrid also encourages locals and tourists to bring back their carrier bags so they can be recycled. As a reward, she gives a free taster.
A Passion for Chocolate
"Working with chocolate is passion you need to feel passion for it" she asserts. "You can make creams over here just the way I do it and I'll give you the same ingredients but yours will taste different from mine and I always say that's a wee bit of love I put in, that extra wee bit. And you can taste it."
Before I turn to the door she leads me back inside and offers me a box of chocolates covered in holly leaves to take home. Her generous spirit touches me. She becomes a sort of eccentric Mrs Claus, waving me off down the street.
I entered the shop an adult and now leave a child again, clutching my box of treats for later with a grin."
The Fortrose shop is now closed, but the shop in Inverness Victorian Market, open since 2001, would be delighted to welcome you. Ingrid herself carries on with her beautiful Creations on the Black Isle available in the Shop and by this website.Why not browse our selection and buy some chocolate gifts for someone else (or yourself!) today?