Duffy Sheardown, interviewed by Cat Black

November 20, 2012

I was curious to find out what drives Duffy's chocolate ambitions.

  • Duffy in Headgear

    Cat Black: Tell me about your life before chocolate.

    Duffy Sheardown: Before I started making chocolate I spent 25 years in motor racing. I started out making composite parts for cars and eventually moved into project management and team management. I always moved to where the work was so I lived in various places around the UK as well as in France, Italy and America.

    This meant – for example – living apart from Penny. Even after we got married we lived 150 miles apart for the first 7 or 8 years, until I moved back home and tried to think of something that I could do that didn’t involve working for anyone else.

    CB: When and why did you decide to start making chocolate?

    DS: Penny was spending the weekend with me and we were driving around the Cotswolds listening to the radio. The Food Programme had a feature about making chocolate and they said there were no independent chocolate-makers in this country. This is before Willie started (Willie Harcourt-Cooze). I was really surprised – knowing nothing about it I’d assumed every chocolatier in every chocolate shop made their own chocolate. A typical motor-racing argument is “how hard can it be” – which is what I said to Penny.

    I wasn’t enjoying that particular job very much at the time and was looking to retire from racing so I decided to look into it. I found a couple of very helpful American websites that give a tantalising glimpse of what might be possible, even though they are geared towards home chocolate making.

    I thought I would buy the basic equipment and start doing the groundwork to see if it was possible, if I liked it and if it could make any kind of sense at all. Luckily I didn’t know enough and didn’t realise quite how long it would take, or how much money, or how hard it can be.

    Duffy's Beans

    Beans ready for the Duffy treatment

    CB: Tell me a bit about how you make your chocolate.

    DS: Slowly and inefficiently, I guess. It’s all done by hand so I use my hands and eyes as much as my tastebuds. I test-roast each batch of beans to find the profile that shows the most potential and then make a small trial batch of chocolate to finalise the recipe and timings. In a typical week I would roast beans on the Sunday and sort through them carefully to take out any stones and misshaped beans, crack and winnow them on Monday and get them into the granite grinder in the late afternoon so that they refine overnight. On Tuesday I add the sugar and a little heat and start to monitor the temperature. By Thursday morning the flavours have developed properly and the chocolate is nearly ready so I add a little cocoa butter and on Thursday late afternoon pour the chocolate – a maximum of 30kg –  into a warming tank so that it is ready to go into the tempering machine on Friday when it is moulded into bars. By Saturday I can foil-wrap the bars and glue the wrappers on, which again is done by hand. If everything has gone well – and sometimes it doesn’t – I will have 300 bars of chocolate and people asking why the bars are expensive!

    CB: Does your experience with detailed machinery and engineering come in useful with the chocolate making and its very different machinery?

    DS: Chocolate machines the size I use are pretty simple pieces of kit. The conch comes completely apart after every batch and each part gets washed, cleaned and dried. There are no similarities at all but you do quickly realise that if it breaks you need to be able to fix it very very quickly. Keep spares and don’t be afraid of taking things to bits if you need to. I can get things made if I need to – motor-racing people work to very tight deadlines and “it’s not urgent” means I don’t need it until tomorrow.

    Handful of beans Duffy

    Choosing the finest beans is just the start of the process.

    CB: As you mentioned, it is almost nonexistent to be making bean-to-bar in this country, it must have been a steep learning curve for you. What have been some of your greatest discoveries?

    DS: I am still learning, thankfully, and need to carry on doing so. Every week you either get feedback that points you towards something new or realise that the way you have been doing something can be improved. There is a lot more flavour in even the most basic and humble of cocoa beans than you would first expect – if you roast the beans carefully and refine them slowly and gently you will bring that out. I don’t use beans like this in my bars, although I might do in future. But the other key thing I have learned is how tough a life it is for most cocoa farmers. They don’t earn enough and we need to pay more for our chocolate so that they stand a chance of making a reasonable living – and so that the industry is sustainable. At the end of the market I am trying to inhabit I can afford to deal directly with farmers and pay a little extra for fine quality beans.

    When I was starting out I quickly realised that there was no one to ask. If I needed to know something I had to figure it out myself. It’s usually not hard – try and it and stop trying it if it doesn’t work!

    CB: How have you seen consumer and food professional attitudes change towards chocolate since you started?

    DS: Attitudes do seem to be changing. Of course being in the business I wish there was more attention to chocolate. I hate it when Mary Berry on the Bake-Off show says not to use “good” chocolate because it is “bitter”. No it isn’t! Try mine! Generally though word is starting to get around, and the food and chocolate festivals that are starting to happen around the country are a great chance to meet people and let them taste things for themselves. Everybody thinks that they can’t tell the difference between chocolate from different countries and they always can. We all need to keep working hard and helping people educate themselves and enjoy great chocolate and chocolates.

    Luckily some of our finest chocolatiers are also media-savvy personalities and are getting the message across in lots of different ways. Long may they continue – TV, books and magazine articles all help.

    Indio Rojo bars and their golden bean award

    Indio Rojo bars and their golden bean award

    CB: How do you think the chocolate market is going to change going forward?

    DS: As people become more aware then they realise that they have a choice and they can find something that they absolutely love and stick with it or they can embrace change and try new things more often. It is only chocolate – just enjoy it. Hopefully the fine chocolate sector can grow from the rather small market-share it now has to something more akin to that of the fine wine sector in the wine market. People are also realising that knowing more about the things that you eat can be important and they can enjoy the story attached to different foods. This should help overall as then we can raise the profile and use that to help the cocoa farmers – and we all benefit.

    In future there will be lots of people making chocolate and lots of people making fantastic chocolates too – lots of choice for everybody and a general raising of awareness and standards.

    CB: Have you always been a foodie?

    DS: I’m not a foodie and never will be I’m afraid. I have a terrible diet because I don’t like meat, cheese or dairy products. Or most vegetables, come to think of it. I like spicy food and cake and that is about it. Embarrassing really.

    Manchesterbeans Duffy

    It is all about the flavour of the beans.

    CB: Have your own palate and feelings about chocolate changed since you started?

    DS: When I started I thought – for example – that Montezuma’s made decent chocolate. I remember being shocked when I heard that they don’t make chocolate and when I heard that Green & Blacks was being made in Italy. Anyway I can’t eat their chocolate any more as I have tasted the real thing and enjoyed it. Give me a lovely complex Criollo bar any day, or a floral Ecuadorian bar, citrusy Peru or anything with individual character. I am going through a phase of not enjoying fruity chocolate as much, but that will come back. Things change, I change, chocolate changes.

    CB: What is coming next for Duffy’s chocolate? What plans do you have for the chocolate and for your business?

    DS: Well the Venezuela Ocumare is about to be brought back. I had a limited edition of 250 bars out last year, which vanished quickly, but this time I have more beans. I will hopefully carry on getting occasional tiny quantities of Honduras beans so I can produce Indio Rojo bars. There will be a drinking chocolate soon and – if there is a demand – roasted cocoa beans for snacking on or grating into porridge or muesli. More limited-edition fine chocolate bars!

    CB: What is your desert island chocolate?

    DS: Has to be my Honduras Indio Rojo – to remind me how lucky I have been over the last 2 years. Plus I love the taste of course!