A Highland chocolate maker imbues her handmade confections with ingredients foraged from the Perthshire countryside
The sun shines down on a Scottish hillside where mint grows wild in the fields, alongside young nettles and lady’s smock. This is a perfect place for chocolate maker Charlotte Flower to forage for the fresh ingredients she uses to flavour her handmade delicacies.
Her home is a short walk away, in an old stone schoolhouse, tucked away along a single track road to the south of Loch Tay. Inside, she creates rich chocolates imbued with the taste of the countryside.
Outside, her flower- and herb-filled garden provides part of her store cupboard. More flavours are found within walking distance. Just a cycle ride away, higher exposed hills are covered with pine trees and heather.
Charlotte has been a chocolatier for 10 years. She was initially inspired by a chocolate maker who was said to travel the world in search of spices for flavour.
“I wondered why people travel, rather than using flavours from their own doorstep,” she says. With a degree in ecology and forestry, she has always been a keen forager. Her work at the time was in forestry and community development, but this was coming to an end. She needed a new direction. “I started talking to friends about my ideas and someone pointed out a two-day chocolate-making course in Inverness,” she says.
Attending the course confirmed her newfound passion. “It was extraordinary,” she says. “I realised just how amazing chocolate is. On one level it’s very simple, but on another very complex. I got a glimpse of what it is like to work with chocolate and I was hooked.”
Once she had bought her first chocolate moulds, Charlotte Flower Chocolates was born. For the first two years, she ran the business part-time while she continued to work in community development. In 2008, she could finally afford to make chocolate-making her full-time job. Now she transforms around 1 tonne of chocolate each year into filled chocolates, bars and thins. She has won Great Taste Awards and two Excellence Awards in the Scottish Food and Drink Excellence category. In 2015 her Smoked Hebridean Sea Salt and Java milk chocolate earned a gold award from the International Chocolate Awards.
“Winning these awards gives me confidence,” she says. “In the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards 2015, our Meadowsweet thins were judged top of the food and drink category. It’s great to have my product recognised in that way.”
The area around her home is rich with plant life. In early summer, she only has to walk for 10 minutes to get fresh supplies of ingredients such as wild garlic, lady’s smock, wood sorrel and young nettles. Fresh Scots pine is an hour’s walk away up a steep hill towards the Sma’ Glen. The closer to home she can find her ingredients, the fresher they are when she uses them.
“I use the ingredients as soon as I can,” she says. “Wild mint grows in fields down the road. It is picked, and 10 minutes later I’m infusing it with cream.”
Charlotte is very careful about what she picks, how much she picks and where she takes it from. She only takes a few shoots from each tree, and they have to be away from roads, paths and agricultural land. This helps ensure the picked shoots are clean and have not been contaminated in any way.
She goes foraging at least once a week. Often what is needed is available in her garden, but other ingredients are further out on the hillside. Depending on what she’s looking for, it can take a quick 10-minute walk or require a four-mile trek of three
hours or longer.
She has favourite spots to forage. Much of Scotland’s countryside is accessible, under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Picking only a few leaves or shoots from each plant, Charlotte can wander freely without asking permission.
“It’s lovely out there, enjoying the magnificent views while being at work. It’s a real treat,” she says. There are regular encounters with wildlife, from red squirrels and pheasants to roe deer. The hills above Acharn are home to many red grouse. In late spring and early summer, Charlotte has to take particular care to watch where she walks. “I have disturbed a nesting red grouse before,” she admits. They hide in the heather and are very difficult to spot. However, all she has to do is walk away quietly and the grouse goes back to her nest.
To get the best from the plants, the foraging has to happen at the right time. Charlotte keeps a close eye on the weather. Flowers require several hours of direct sunshine for their aromas to develop fully. Some plants need to be picked at particular times of day. “I have an old rambling rose variety in my garden. It has the best flavour, but only when picked late in the afternoon.
“The weather can be frustrating. If it rains, I cannot pick anything as nothing has had any direct sunshine.” The foraged plants are not usually stored, but used as soon as possible so they are fresh.
The ingredients are used in two ways. The first is to flavour chocolate directly, making bars and thins. The second is to flavour cream ganaches, which in turn fill rectangular chocolates. For her bars and thins, Charlotte flavours cocoa butter, derived from cocoa beans. These consist of half solids and half fat, and the fat is the cocoa butter. “Chocolate can’t be chocolate unless the fat in it is cocoa butter,” she says.
She needs a large quantity of foraged ingredients for this, to make a lot in one go. “For example, I get a maximum of 10 kilos of young Scots pine shoots,” she says. “However, that will last me for a whole year.”
It takes her up to three two-hour trips to collect the pine shoots, going from tree to tree, taking just a few shoots from each. She flavours the butter straight after the shoots have been collected. This is then stored in tubs at room temperature and will last for a year.
She makes four different-flavoured chocolates at any one time, with nine or 18 in a box. “I decide on the flavours by looking at what’s in season and what goes well together,” she says. “I make a high-quality product. I want people to gasp
when they see them.”
Creating chocolate works of art
The scent of the foraged ingredients fills Charlotte’s kitchen, underscored by the creamy fragrance of chocolate. The room is dominated by a large stainless steel workspace in the middle. All the work surfaces are kept spotlessly clean so they do not contaminate
It takes three days to make a batch of filled chocolates. This includes one day to make the shells, another to fill them and the last to seal them. The trays in which they are made are first polished to perfection with a clean cloth. Any marks would be visible on the final chocolates. Clad in a white shirt and apron and indoor shoes, Charlotte prepares 20 trays at a time, with 24 moulds each. “That’s 480 to polish – it takes up to 30 minutes,” she says.
The trays are filled with melted, tempered chocolate. This is specially prepared to ensure a smooth and glossy finish, and she buys it ready made. As soon as the trays are filled, the chocolate is tipped out again. Only a thin layer is left inside the tray, to make a fine casing for the filling. The chocolate that has been poured out goes to make brownies, which are sold in a nearby café.
Using chocolate that is sourced ethically, Charlotte always makes four different flavours. These depend on the season and what she can forage. A box contains three of each flavour, so she makes sure they look distinct. Some are decorated with white chocolate squiggles, others milk chocolate squiggles. Another set may have gold or silver leaves added while the fourth set is left plain. The squiggles are piped into the shell moulds before the thin chocolate layer is added.
The real gold and silver leaves are added afterwards. These precious metals come in thin sheets. “I like to keep it simple, but I also want my chocolates to look exquisite,” she says.
Piping the ganache
Covered with clean paper, the trays are left overnight on the worktop. They will be filled the next day with the ganache. Before making the ganache, Charlotte heads outside to forage for ingredients. This ensures their freshness. Because of this need for fresh flavours, she only makes one flavour at a time.
The leaves or flowers are washed then cut up to release the flavours. Then they are immersed in the double cream that makes up the ganache. The mixture is heated to the sterilising temperature of approximately 90°C, just below boiling point. It is then left for two hours to cool.
In the meantime, she weighs out chocolate into a bowl. The cream is warmed again slightly to enable it to melt with the chocolate. It is then poured through a sieve into the bowl over the chocolate.
“I make sure all the chocolate is covered and then leave it for a minute or two,” she says. The contents of the bowl are then stirred. Slowly the cream starts to mix as the chocolate starts to melt. Charlotte loves this stage. “You get a gorgeous, glossy silky ganache.”
At this point, she checks the temperature again. At 30°C the mixture is ready to be piped into the prepared moulds. It is then covered with clean paper and left overnight to fully set. The next day Charlotte pours chocolate over the top of the filling to seal them. This cannot be done too early, as the filling can shrink as it sets and this cracks the outside shell.
Once the seals have hardened, the chocolates are removed from their moulds. Using white gloves, Charlotte simply gives the moulds a tap and the chocolates fall into her hand. They are then boxed up.
Charlotte admits that chocolate making takes hard work, but it is something she loves. “It’s gorgeous stuff and delicious to taste. I get a lot of satisfaction making the chocolates.”
One of the hardest parts is deciding which is her favourite flavour. “It changes with the season and my mood, but if I had to pick one it would be Scots pine ganache,” she says.
Packaging the chocolates is the final task before they can be sold. “I love boxing them up. They are made with such care and attention. I sell a lot at markets and it’s lovely when you give someone some chocolate and their face melts with pleasure. That’s amazing. It brightens up my day.”
Word and photography: Marieke McBean