York Chocolate Story
Just off The Shambles, in the heart of King's Square, is one of York's most delectable offerings: York Chocolate Story.
This delightful business tells the tale of (you guessed it!) chocolate from its beginnings in Central America to its transformation into mass-produceable bars and on towards a more ethical future. Not only are visitors shown how this simple bean is made into the confectionery item we all know and love, they are also given the chance to take part in this process themselves, making (and then eating) their own treats.
If the mention of chocolate alone wasn't enough to get you interested then that should surely do it!
The Ancient Story Of Chocolate
The story told begins thousands of years ago with the discovery of the cocoa bean by a collection of South American tribes. One of these tribes, the Olmec, started grinding these beans into a powder, which they then used to make a savoury drink.
That's right: savoury. They didn't have access to sugar so instead mixed the powder with water and possibly black pepper, cinnamon and chili peppers.
This chocolate concoction was consumed during rituals and also as a medicinal product.
Centuries later another tribe, the Mayans, praised it as the drink of the gods, pouring it from one pot to another to create foam and naming it 'xocolatl' or 'bitter water'. When Europeans discovered it however, they weren't at first convinced.
To begin with the Spanish forces, who had invaded and colonised much of South America, did not like this 'xocolatl', and only drank it out of necessity. It didn't become a hit in Europe until people started heating it and adding sugar and maybe a bit of booze.
The English cottoned onto this in 1655, after their conquest of Jamaica. Over the following century, hot chocolate became a mainstay of English coffee houses. Well-to-do sorts would sip it as an accompaniment to their discussions on humanism and other such renaissance ideals. The common people, meanwhile, had no access to this exotic import.
A York Chocolate Story
Up until this point chocolate had primarily remained in drink form. Various confectioners were now however experimenting with using it in desserts and sweets. And many of these confectioners were based in York.
By the early 19th century the city's thriving merchant culture had turned it into the de facto capital of the North. With this came affluence, and with affluence came wealthy people in need of confectioneries to serve guests at dinner parties and social events.
One place these could be purchased was a confectionery shop run by Joseph Terry. By 1850 his business, now in the hands of his son, also Joseph, had grown notorious for adding orange peel to their chocolate-based treats. These were the predecessors of Terry's chocolate oranges.
Another local confectioner was Joseph Rowntree. Having purchased a grocery business there in an auction run by a man so drunk he had to be sobered up in a trough full of water, he went onto train such names as George Cadbury and Lewis Fry.
Fry is credited with having developed the first chocolate bar designed for eating (as opposed to melting into a drink). He achieved this innovation by mixing cocoa powder, sugar and cocoa butter into a paste, which was then set in molds.
The Future Of York Chocolate Story
All this and much more can be examined in detail at York Chocolate Story. There you can learn about the manufacturing process of chocolate, innovations that helped shape its development, and the impact its production (and the many factories involved) had on the city. One of the most interesting areas that York Chocolate Story examines however is the future.
From its colonial beginnings to its association with sugar and the slavery that often goes with it, chocolate has rarely been an ethical product. Innovators in York and further afield are now trying to change this.
Hotel Chocolat and Tony's Chocolonely have made themselves household names by promoting their slavery free supply chains. The Rainforest Alliance look to create sustainable cocoa farms that provide their workers with real livelihoods, as opposed to the less than $2 a day that many cocoa farmers have to live off.
In one of its most fascinating exhibits York Chocolate Story looks at these things and projects hopefully towards a better future, one where chocolate is enjoyable for everyone, not just those who eat it.
Visiting York Chocolate Story
York Chocolate Story is open from 11am-4pm (Mon-Fri), 10.30am-4.30pm (Sat), and 12-4pm (Sun).
An adult ticket costs £15.95, child tickets (4-15) cost £13.50 and under 4s go free. Family tickets are available for £55 for a family of 4, or £67.50 for a family of 5.
There is also a cafe and shop for chocolate lovers looking for a sweet treat and nothing else.
For tours, booking in advance is recommended so you don't miss out.
Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Treasure Trails in York - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of York.
Want to read more about unconventional shops? Try our article on York Ghost Merchants and Chicago's Merz Apothecary.