A few months back, I was asked if I fancied a visit to the Thorntons factory. Well, if there's one thing I love even more than chocolate, it's the chance to have a nosy around behind the scenes, so of course it was an enthusiastic "yes!" from me.
Feeling remarkably enthusiastic about a 6am start, I got the train up to Derbyshire, aiming to meet up with four other bloggers at Alfreton station. Mine was the first train to arrive, a good forty minutes before the taxi was booked to take us to the factory, so I was a block of ice by the time the others arrived.
Today's dramatis personae (click through to see their accounts of the day) :
- Jac from Tinned Tomatoes (our fearless organiser)
- Becca from Amuse Your Bouche
- Janice from Farmersgirl Kitchen
- Stuart from Cakeyboi
- and me!
Then it was time to head over to the factory itself. The rules are pretty strict: no jewellery, no electronics, and a complicated health quiz to check you weren't going to take infectious diseases into a food prep area. It feels surreal, but as a consumer it's obviously reassuring! Before we could enter the factory, we had to get suited up in white overalls, special shoes, and disposable hair-nets. Stuart even had to tuck his beard into a bright blue snood (and I got to learn a new word, there, though not one I see myself using every day).
Emerging from the changing rooms, the smell of chocolate and caramel washed over us. We were a little disappointed to be rushed past a wall that was temptingly labelled Visitor Tasting Station, and straight on to the factory floor... but our attention was soon grabbed by the whirring of machinery.
I was a little taken aback by the Easter eggs, which were almost the first thing we saw. Logically it makes sense that all the chocolate Santas and Snowmen must already be in warehouses, ready to be shipped across the nation, but I was still subconsciously expecting to see the Christmas lines in production. Apparently, though, Easter egg season starts as early as September.
The whirring arms rotated the eggs slowly through three dimensions, spreading the chocolate evenly around the moulds, and incidentally explaining why you never seem to get a bag of chocolate buttons inside your egg, any more. Apparently this all-in-one method of production is much more reliable than sticking two halves together, but it does rather rule out the possibility of putting anything in the middle.
We stopped off briefly the next station to try our hands at industrial piping. Liquid chocolate is routed all around the factory through a vast network of metal pipes, and the piping nozzles are connected directly into this system, meaning that when you release the catch to let the chocolate flow, it flows out with the pressure of a tap. I've always thought I was quite good at piping, but the industrial machine took a bit of getting used to, and the speed with which the professionals can work was really something else.
Then we went for a walk around the various different areas of the factory. (I wish I'd been able to take my phone in, as quite aside from snapping a few photos, I would love to know how many miles we walked over the course of the tour!)
I'm an engineer at heart, so I loved seeing how the production lines are put together. It's all very modular, and I can just imagine the process of arranging the perfect steps for a new product. Decorative elements are piped into the moulds before the Easter eggs are made, then the decoration is chilled before the main chocolate can be added and the rotation process starts. Creamy fillings are chilled, shaped, then pushed through a chocolate waterfall to give them a crunchy shell... before the conveyor belt carries them gently into a metres-long cooler to set the chocolate at just the right rate.
There are separate areas dedicated to several of the critical processes. There are multiple rooms dedicated to toffee (more on that later). Giant stand mixers are used for making thousands of chocolates-worth of filling at a time. Turkish delight is stamped into patterns using powdered starch, which envelops the whole room with a dusting of fine white powder.
And very little is wasted. Whether it's run-off from the industrial piping machines, or eggs rejected by quality control, the 'waste' chocolate is melted down again and recycled into the next product, while failed chocolates are sold as misshapes.
I was intrigued to note how very different things smelled within each region. You could be blindfolded, and with a little practice, I think you could tell roughly where you were by scent alone.
One of the most exciting bits of the tour was watching the toffee being poured. We arrived a little too early for this the first time we passed by the toffee room, and had to make a detour to go back for it, but I'm so glad we managed to see it. Each batch of toffee is made in a giant machine that's part stand mixer, part high-temperature boiling pot. Once it's up to temperature, it's quickly decanted into a huge pot on runners, which is used to tip the liquid toffee into the slab moulds. The whole process is over in seconds, and it smells divine.
The slabs of toffee are then cooled, and eventually sent through to the toffee-smashing room. Here, the loudest machine in the factory slams its plates together to break the sheets of toffee into irregular, mouth-sized chunks. A winnowing machine then separates the pieces: too small, and they're discarded; too large, and they're sent round again for another round of breaking. Those that are just right make their way into bags and boxes, ready for the shops.
On our way out, we finally stopped off at the Tasting Station. By this stage we'd been inhaling sugar for so long that we were quite restrained, although I did my best to sample as many as possible.
The dulce de leche truffle was a crowd-pleaser and the clear winner of the popular vote, but my favourite new discovery was a mini tiramisu, from the Dreamy Desserts box - one of a whole range that I hadn't tried before. I'll definitely be treating myself to a box of these over Christmas, or possibly the Winter Desserts collection which looks equally yummy and presumably a bit more limited edition.
Then it was back to the Derbyshire Hotel, where a gorgeous three-course dinner had been laid on for us. I thought I'd never want sugar again, but somehow I still managed to be tempted into dessert by the description of spiced cranberry sticky toffee pudding. Ah well. I'm sure the miles of walking went some way to making up for the insane amount that I ate, and it was absolutely worth every bite.
Photographs courtesy of Thorntons; used with permission.