Thorntons have been making chocolate for over 100 years. My own relationship with Thorntons began back in the early nineties, when I would return home from a shopping trip, clutching a bag of their special toffee along with my new clothes. Thorntons’ Swansea branch, with its European-inspired blends of chocolate and large, gift-wrapped hampers of treats, seemed luxurious and exotic in the small Welsh city. So the invitation to look round their factory in the village of Alfreton, in Derbyshire, felt like an offer to peer into a mysterious hidden realm.
Thorntons have cornered a particular space in the UK chocolate market. Not too pricey for a quick purchase; but good quality, so you know the recipient will enjoy their special treat. With a wide range of milk, white, dark and special occasion chocolates – the factory goes into overdrive around Hallowe’en, Christmas, Mothers’ Day, Valentine’s and of course Easter – there’s something to suit most palates.
Those different tastes and smells were the first thing we noticed, when our small group of bloggers was being led around the factory. We could smell the creamy chocolate as we walked through the locker-room area, then – BAM – we were hit with it, full force, when we reached the factory floor. The chocolate was practically crystalising in our throats as we breathed it in. Then, we moved on to the toffee zone, where five-metre high vats churned Thorntons’ special top-secret ingredients (the recipe is held in a vault, under lock and key, with only a handful of staff allowed access). The fudge and sweet filling areas were last on our tour; as well as getting distinct wafts of lemon, mint and turkish delight as we made our way around, this was also the noisiest area, with more machines than in other parts of the factory.
And that was the biggest surprise of the day: just how much of the chocolate-making process was done by hand. Of course there were conveyer belts, machines and robotic arms that darted about, picking up duds (my favourite was the blower that sent packets of mint creams shooting off into a bin if they didn’t have exactly the right number of sweets inside). But a surprising number of the chocolates were hand-finished, and there were beady eyes looking along almost all the belts, to weed out any chocolates that weren’t quite right.
Security is tight at the factory. For our visit we had to don hairnets, scientist-style overcoats and special rubber shoes. No cameras, phones or chewing gum were allowed; and despite the desperately tempting trays and vats of chocolates around the place, any tasting is strictly forbidden.
Unless, of course, like us you’re on a tour, and even then, only in the special tasting zone. We were given the opportunity to try some chocolates fresh off the production line, and – oh my word – they were even more than delicious than the Thorntons chocolates you buy in the shops or online. Our tour guide, John, explained that the chocolates taste quite different if you eat them on the day they’re made, and so it’s best to gobble up your chocs quickly after you’ve bought them, for maximum flavour.
The chocolatiers on the factory floor go through rigorous training for their jobs, and the people who design the personalised chocolates are highly skilled. We got to find this out first hand, when we were given the tools to personalise our own treats. Despite our very best concentration, the results weren’t quite up to Thorntons’ high standards (certainly not in my own case, at least). But everything was made with Thorntons’ chocolate and filling, so the gifts we were sent home with tasted delicious, even if mine looked a bit of a dog’s dinner.
I was invited on a tour of the Thorntons chocolate factory in Derbyshire, UK. All views are my own. I had the pleasure of spending the day in the company of this lovely lot (I’m second from the left in the picture):
Alex from Bump to Baby
Emma from Mrs Shilts
Jo from Slummy Single Mummy
Emily from A Mummy Too
Charlotte from Write Like No One’s Watching
Hayley from Sparkles and Stretchmarks
Debs from Super Busy Mum
Amy from Everything Mummy
Jade from Raising the Rings