On any given day, I feel pretty fortunate to be doing my job: working with and writing about food and family, discovering new places and experiences, exploring my creativity, and generally indulging my passions. And every now and then I get the chance to do something which manages to top all of that – like visiting an actual, real-life chocolate factory.
Yep, I got to visit the Thorntons chocolate factory for a tour. This was somewhat of a childhood dream come true for me. I mean, who didn’t read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a kid and long so badly to be able to get inside those walls and witness all the magic?
So when the invite popped into my inbox I was right back there: eight years old, longing to sail down the chocolate river, take a peek at the square sweets that looked round, and meet the nut-sorting squirrels.
Thorntons has been around in the UK since 1911, and is still pretty firmly established as the nation’s favourite luxury confectioner.
I can remember so clearly being bought a classic selection box by relatives at Christmas an the little Thornton’s shop just off the High Street in my home town was a real landmark: “meet me by Thorntons”.
I bet we’ve all got a Thorntons story to tell. Whether it’s their personalised easter eggs (I loved these so much!), luxurious Special Toffee, or decadent boxed chocolates, Thorntons is all about a special treat.
So off I went to learn about the art of chocolate making and have a real ‘child in a sweet shop’ experience.
What is it really like inside Thorntons HQ?
We started the day with breakfast pastries and a chance to meet the marketing team behind those wonderful chocolate creations. And of course, this being Thorntons, the chocolates were in plentiful supply too. The team revealed that when you work in a chocolate factory, chocolate at breakfast-time is a pretty normal way to start the day.
Next we headed over to the factory for our tour. Decked out in overalls and hairnets, we caught our first glimpses of the production lines.
Now I knew visiting a chocolate factory was going to involve serious amounts of actual chocolate – apparently Thorntons melts enough of it to fill over seven Olympic-sized swimming pools each year – but I really wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale of things. With giant stand mixers, waterfalls of melted chocolate, piles of fudge cubes, and row upon row of perfect chocolates, it was all a little bit hard to believe. And the smell! Incredible! And it changes from warmly fudgey, to deeply chocolatey, to sublimely creamy with a hint of strawberry as you move from area to area. Dreamy.
You might be thinking that, with such a large volume of products to make, the whole factory would be automated. Not so. Yes, there’s an impressive array of equipment, but there are also lots of people working here; controlling the machines, closely monitoring quality, and adding hand-finished touches such as icing and decoration.
See all that toffee being expertly poured in exactly the right quantities? That’s done by hand and judged by eye too. That’s some serious skill!
The factory staff have it down to a fine art, and make it look so much easier than I suspect it actually is. My fellow visiting bloggers and I couldn’t help but laugh at the probable mess we’d make if we tried to do it.
These rather space-age machines were making hollow moulded easter eggs and christmas snowmen. Watching them was hypnotic. Each frame is slowly spun up to 200 times while being rotated at the same time, to achieve an even thickness. Each egg or character is created as one complete shape, rather than two halves which are then stuck together. The chocolate is lovely and thick too, all of which makes them satisfyingly hard to break into – so now you know why!
Having torn ourselves away from the mesmerising moulds, we moved onto the production line for the chocolates that go into the boxed selections, such as Continental and Classic Collection. Here it was all about regimented order, with row upon row of chocolates making their way down the conveyor belt.
We learned that these are called enrobed chocolates. They’re made by creating a chocolate base first, to which fillings are added before the whole thing is drenched in liquid chocolate. There’s something really magical about seeing hundreds of them slowly marching past you, and if I’m honest the temptation to grab one and disturb those rows of perfection was pretty hard to resist.
Getting hands on
After our factory tour, it was time to get really hands-on in the development kitchen. This is where all new products are created by the master chocolatier and his team.
First, we tried our hand at decorating with icing on chocolate plaques. Thorntons are firmly established as the masters of personalised chocolate gifts; pop into any of their stores or visit their website and you can have a personal message or name expertly iced onto all manner of products, from moulded figures to plaques and even truffles.
I quickly learned that those beautifully iced messages are far harder to create than they look. Apparently the trick to getting a really good effect is to maintain a steady pace. I am good at applying buttercream to cakes, but made a bit of a pig’s ear of my plaque. Sadly I can’t show you as I forgot to photograph it before the kids tucked in.
After our icing lesson we were let loose with a whole host of chocolate types, fillings and toppings in a chocolate-making session. It was a little taste of what it must feel like to be the master chocolatier, with all those incredible ingredients on-hand to transform into a gorgeous new creation.
We had so much fun playing with different flavour combinations (my favourite was filling milk chocolate shells with chocolate orange ganache and sealing in with white chocolate) then going to town with the sprinkles. It was inspiring, messy and seriously yummy.
Having spent many a childhood afternoon reading Roald Dahl and daydreaming about being allowed inside the doors of a chocolate factory, I can’t quite believe I’ve actually done it now.
It was a really special day, and a fascinating insight into the journey those little chocolates take before they make their way into our shopping baskets.
There was real craft going on everywhere I looked, and seeing that has only added to the magic for me. I’ll never look at them the same way.
This is a commissioned post in partnership with Thorntons