Championing global artisans with the Academy of Chocolate

Since its creation 15 years ago, the UK’s Academy of Chocolate has hailed some of the world’s finest artisan producers. Neill Barston speaks to its founder and Confectionery Production editorial board member Sara Jayne Stanes on challenges facing the sector, plans for the academy’s annual awards and her undimmed love for the industry

While this year is proving one of the most exceptionally challenging on record amid the coronavirus pandemic, there remains a spirit of determination from many within the confectionery sector.
Sara Jayne Stanes, chair of the Academy of Chocolate, is certainly among those approaching present conditions with a ‘glass half full rather than half empty’ philosophy.

In her view, though there may well be multiple challenges brought about by an unprecedented shutdown of the economy over the past few months, she believes the industry will return to its former fortunes before too long.

As market analysts note, the confectionery sector is weathering the sharp economic storm relatively well, as millions of Brits seek comfort food and a few luxury treats to get them through an unprecedented moment in our history.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of recent months has been an unwelcome sight of barren high streets, as stores temporarily pull their collective shutters down under lockdown rules, which has impacted considerably on trading potential.

Furthermore, key events, such as the annual Academy of Chocolate Awards have been affected, with judging for this year’s event (for which Confectionery Production is a part), is suspended until the relinquishing of quarantine measures that have radically altered the shape of everyone’s lives. Despite the surreal circumstances, Sara Jayne Stanes, believes that hope is genuinely on the horizon.

“So much has been put on hold in the chocolate world, it’s been a process of just trying to make sure we do as much as we can to keep the profile of high quality chocolate up to all our followers at the academy. “We’ve had to postpone the second part of our awards due to the pandemic, but we’re hoping to be able to do that again in September when things have settled, as I am an eternal optimist,’ explains the expert, who says that under crisis conditions, keeping a resolute attitude is of significant importance.

As she notes, prior to the unprecedented lockdown, there were plenty of encouraging signs that inventiveness and creativity within the sector are alive and well. According to Stanes, there are already some exceptional entries that have been placed for the latest round of judging.

“When we started back in 2004/5, I really didn’t think there were enough people that were interested in chocolate to the level that I was in order to make it work, but it was through the likes of chef Michel Roux, and Egon Ronay (critic and food writer), who made me realise that maybe it is all worthwhile.

“We had a maximum of 20 entries for the first time we held the awards in 2005, but 15 years later we’re looking at a total of 1,800 people entering, which is absolutely amazing. I would never have dreamt it in a million years,” she enthuses.

While she concedes that her own preference is very much for tasting products physically in a store, there’s notable scope for online trading, which savvy entrepreneurs are continuing to make the most of, before the ‘green light’ was recently given to start once again opening up our high street shops.

“I think it has posed a considerable problem with stores having been closed, but I know people like William Curly, Paul A Young, Duffy Sheardown and Pump Street Bakery are doing really well at getting products out there through delivery and are doing a roaring trade, which is great to see,” adds Sara, who is also the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, Britain’s leading association of head chefs and restaurant managers.

While she acknowledges there have been some key logistical hurdles to overcome, such as coping with delivery demands and transporting chocolate amid peak summer temperatures, companies are exhibiting some inventive solutions. Notably, she says there continues to be a number of individuals and global businesses pushing creative boundaries, which in turn is driving the industry forward.

“I believe there has to be a degree of optimism about the present situation, or people won’t have an incentive to continue, but it is going to be very bumpy over the next few months, with those who have developed good products likely to survive in present climate,” says the academy’s chair. Significantly, Sara reveals she remains as passionate about the industry as ever, adding that there’s a considerable debt of gratitude owed to the academy’s former patron Michel Roux, who sadly passed away in March. The Michelin starred chef became known as the ‘godfather of British cuisine’ and as a media personality, whose expertise very much extended into luxury confectionery.

“His contribution to the academy was enormous, as he made sure that quality was at the forefront of everything that we’ve done. I knew him very well, and it was he who actually got me into chocolate in the first place. “A friend of mine had some tickets for a tasting event back in the mid 80s, and we went along to it in Richmond, and he gave a fantastic cooking demonstration. I can’t remember the first two courses, but the third was a chocolate truffe gateau.

“I tasted it reluctantly as, only familiar with chocolate confectionery. I thought it would just be too sweet, but it was bliss. I said I’d never tasted anything like it before and he told me that I’d obviously never tasted real chocolate, and that’s what started the whole thing off for me – from making chocolate truffles for 25 years to writing Chocolate the Definitive Guide (the complete history of chocolate from bean to bar). It is extraordinary to think in the mid 1980s, the term bean to bar was rarely heard.

“Michel played a big part in many peoples’ culinary lives and will be enormously missed,” adds Sara, who says her own adventures in the industry were sparked as a child, fascinated by the stories behind differing foods. As the academy chair adds, she retains a high degree of respect for the diverse range of pastry chefs and chocolatiers now operating in the business.
One such example is last year’s ‘Golden Bean’ award winner, Denise Castronovo, of US-based Castronovo Chocolates, whom she describes as a ‘beacon for the industry’ having entered the sector a relatively short time ago, to evolve her skills in delivering acclaimed confectionery series.

Ever eager to champion new chocolate makers, Sara adds that she ‘would love for people to have the chance to learn as much as I’ve been able to about it over the years,” which goes to the heart of the academy’s ongoing mission in enlightening consumers about the wealth of fine chocolate confectionery emerging from around the world.


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