One of the most interesting things about having been blogging about chocolate for three years is looking back to see how the big chocolate companies have changed as people’s tastes become more sophisticated.
One of the biggest changes we’ve seen over that time is that of Thorntons. Our early reviews concentrated as much on the lackluster, outdated brand as they did on the products themselves. More recently, the brand has evolved and we’ve sampled some interesting, dare I say exciting new products.
A couple of weeks ago, Simon and I were lucky enough to meet Keith Hurdman, Thornton’s Head Chocolatier at a low-key event in a function room at a London pub. It was a fun and informal get together in which Keith was surprisingly honest and open about the commercial challenges Thorntons face.
Oh, and we got to taste some of their upcoming products too – but more of that later.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle Thorntons face is their own customer base. Traditionally, Thorntons customers are somewhat conservative and frankly, they’re not getting any younger. They don’t particularly like change, and they go to Thorntons looking for the same kind of chocolate gifts as they did thirty years ago. As much as Thorntons might want to develop innovative and exotic new products, it has to be done at a pace that won’t alienate their most valuable customers.
Thorntons also has commercial restraints that are less of an issue for some of the more ‘upmarket’ chocolate shops. The average Thorntons customer is not going to want to pay £50 for a box of chocolates, but at the same time, they expect a quality product. To that end, Hurdman talked about the Felchlin Swiss couverture they are using in upcoming products. He claims this offers around 97% of the flavour of some other high-end couvertures (Valrhona, Amedei, etc.) for only 50% of the cost. For a retailer like Thorntons, that’s a big deal.
Hurdman is clearly excited about the future and what he can bring to Thorntons. He’s a very different person to Paul A. Young, and seems to have a strong grasp of where the company should be going as well as the responsibilities of moving such a well-known brand forward. The chocolates we tasted were evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but that’s exactly what Thorntons needs. So without further ado, I’ll hand over to Simon to talk about them.
Our first sample was a Lemon Grass chocolate which left you in no doubt as to its main flavour. A great wave of bright citrus spread across my palate as soon as I bit into it, and it maintained its intensity as the chocolate melted. What struck me almost immediately was the softness of the centre. The consistency and lightness were very like you’d expect from any premium brand of chocolate. The whisper-light centre flooded my mouth with a mixture of tangy, almost sweet lemon grass and rich, full-bodied cocoa flavours. An auspicious start.
The second chocolate we tried contained Kumquat. Evidently Keith wanted to bring a more refined and delicate set of flavours to this collection, and Lemon Grass and Kumquat are excellent choices for citrus flavours done subtly. This one didn’t have the immediate intensity of the Lemon Grass, but nonetheless the orangey tang of the Kumquat was there from the start, and was a great counterpoint to the chocolate flavours.
I don’t think any of us had tried Quince in chocolate before, and the reaction was positive all round. Keith told us how he’d wanted to incorporate this most English of fruits into his collection, and we were unanimous in confirming that he’d made a good choice. Quince isn’t a very powerful flavour but it is quite distinctive, and it married well with the milk chocolate. An intriguingly subtle blend, and definitely one that will have people talking about it.
Another unusual combination came to us in the form of a dark Papaya chocolate. I’ve eaten a few Papayas in my time and I wasn’t the only one in the room to say that it’s generally best enjoyed with other fruits, as the flavour can get to be a little overpowering. However, Keith’s blend of Papaya and chocolate was another subtle and interesting combination. Unlike the Lemongrass chocolate it didn’t come storming in on the palate, but built gradually to a well balanced finish, leaving the mouth clean but leaving a lingering fruit note.
A dark ganache turned out to be Blueberry, although at first bite the flavour didn’t present itself. What happened was that the darkness of the chocolate prevailed for a while, then as the centre melted away my mouth was left with the bright, fresh berry flavours. I was impressed with the way the flavour lingered (so much so that it took me a couple of minutes to clear my palate before I could move on to the next one!). This was a real favourite for me, primarily due to the way the chocolate held the flavour so well, releasing it as a finishing note.
After all the fruity fun, our last tastings were a brace of salted caramel balls. We were told that these were very much still in progress, and that Keith was hoping to get the shells a little thinner.
I found that the thicker shell allowed me to try a little of the chocolate before letting my tongue delve deep into the heart of this one.
The caramel was, as one might expect, dark and bittersweet with good burnt sugar flavours, and the salt element was there but done subtly. I know there are plenty of people who have never tried a dark salted caramel, and I’d be inclined to suggest this one as a good first taste.
Our final treat was a new take on the salty caramel ball.
An outer shell containing white chocolate and biscuit concealed a thinner inner shell of dark chocolate, and the caramel had been given a small shot of coffee flavour to deepen it.
The darker flavours of the inner shell and the coffee caramel worked very well as a counterpoint to the white chocolate, balancing the sweetness of the outside. It may have looked a little rough hewn, but this little ball packed a lot of tastes.
We were told that Thorntons are planning to release these flavours later in the year – once they come up with a name and branding for the collection (which is currently known by the working name ‘Stylish Gift’). My own personal opinion is that this would make an excellent ‘Summer Bouqet’ type collection, and perhaps another set of new chocolates with berries, cinnamon, mulled wine and so on might make a good ‘Winter Warmth’ assortment. The fruit flavours we tried definitely put me in mind of sunny afternoons, blue skies and picnics.
On the other hand, perhaps Chocablog readers can come up with a name for this new collection…