A taste of Dorset: Chrissie and the chocolate factory
Lorraine Gibson samples the delights of the chocolate maker, House of Dorchester, and looks back over its fifty-year history
Published in November ’13
When Richard and Christine Ungaretti opened ‘The Dorset Maid’ chocolate shop on High West Street in Dorchester, the Beatles had just released their first album, cinema-goers were flocking to see Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday, Harold Wilson was the new leader of Labour and the very first series of Doctor Who was causing youngsters to scamper behind the sofa for the first time. The year was 1963 and, whilst much has changed in the ensuing half-century, the couple’s legacy lives on, with their company continuing to make chocolates the old-fashioned way and proudly retaining its Dorchester roots with a local factory and an appropriate name change: House of Dorchester Chocolates.
The company was founded when Richard, a master chocolatier, and his wife, known to all as Chrissie, retired early back to her home town of Dorchester, and decided to open a confectionary shop. Finding top-notch chocolate to stock proved far more difficult than they had anticipated – so they decided to make their own. Their 85g (3oz back in the day) chocolate bar, on which much of the Dorset Maid empire was built, remains one of the most important lines to this day. Word of the new emporium spread quickly and pretty soon a whole team of people were hand-making chocolates above the shop to keep up with the demand downstairs.
The business grew larger and eventually moved from its spot on the High West Street to a unit on one of Dorchester’s industrial estates, where it was based for many years, expanding further until eventually it occupied two separate units, which was not always ideal. ‘Staff from both units would meet in the middle of the road to exchange paperwork,’ says Katherine Ebbs, the firm’s Marketing Operations Manager. ‘Now, at peak times, between our two sites at Dorchester and Alton in Hampshire, we can employ up to a hundred people in total. Usually it’s between fifty and eighty.’
In the early 1960s, while the retail business thrived, much of the early sales were actually in the commercial sector; the company supplied personalised chocolate bars and boxes of after-dinner mints to restaurants, pubs, hotels and the tourist industry. This still forms an important part of their sales, with House of Dorchester Chocolates products selling as branded gifts in some of the smartest establishments in the UK. Katherine says: ‘Our main lines are stocked in retailers such as John Lewis, Waitrose, Boots, lots of independent department stores, garden centres and a multitude of independent food and gift retailers. Over the years we have also supplied many of the country’s stately homes and castles, tourist attractions, hotel groups etc; a lot of them we are not allowed to mention.’
She is one of many long-serving staff members. ‘I started off as a junior secretary 25 years ago and there are two others ladies in our sales office who have been with the business for thirty years. She explains the firm’s staying power in terms of its heritage and of remaining true to its values of quality, respect, provenance, service and design. Long-term staff pass on the traditional artisan skills to the newer arrivals, thus carrying on the traditions forged by Richard and Chrissie.
Richard Ungaretti died a few years ago, but Chrissie is still going strong at the grand old age of 106 and still lives locally in a residential home. ‘One of our factory managers who has been with the company for a long time keeps in touch with Chrissie,’ says Katherine; in fact, several workers still visit their old boss and report that she likes nothing better than to hear all the latest news from the chocolate factory.
One of the firm’s proudest moments was receiving a royal seal of approval from The Queen. Her Majesty’s fondness for their plain chocolate bars resulted in her granting the company a Royal Warrant which was held for fifteen years, and the Royal connection continued when HRH Prince Charles opened the current factory on Poundbury in 1998. ‘Our location in Dorset is all about our heritage and where it all started,’ says Katherine. ‘Many of our centres are still made in our kitchen and then hand-cut to be coated in chocolate. We still pump fondant cream mixture into moulds to set before it is then coated in chocolate. Hand-finishing and decorating is still key to many of our products.
‘Where we can, we use local suppliers for our ingredients. Nuts and dried fruits from Goldcrest, and the Mitcham mint we still source from a nearby farm. As you can appreciate, there are some ingredients that cannot be grown locally so we do also have to source further afield, but we make sure that everybody involved in producing our products is treated fairly; we are committed to sustainability and we passionately believe in doing the right thing to look after the environment.’
The cocoa beans are sourced from the Ivory Coast, then processed into chocolate on premises in Banbury, before being transported to the factory on Poundbury. House of Dorchester works with the Barry Callebaut company (which supplies around forty per cent of the world’s open-market chocolate) to source its cocoa beans, and supports the Quality Partnership Programme (QPP) – a programme that enables farmers in West Africa to grow cocoa in a sustainable and responsible way and, just as importantly, to increase their yields and quality, thereby improving their livelihoods.
House of Dorchester’s Natalie Dimmock recently visited Ivory Coast to witness first-hand what the programme is delivering. ‘It works on multiple levels: improving farmer incomes, and developing farm management skills and local fermentation projects to enable farmers to improve returns, to improve sustainability and to produce a quality product.’ The programme also helps to fund social projects such as schools, medical centres, vaccination programmes, water wells, mosquito nets and medical kits.
Closer to home, other programmes are in place. ‘We have a team at Dorchester,’ says Katherine, ‘who are always working on new innovations – mint chocolate stars, shimmer snowballs, gold-dusted honeycomb, hand-decorated chocolate bars.’ Perhaps one of their most innovative creations is the stir-in chocolate – a solid block of high-quality chocolate, infused with flavours like gingerbread, marshmallows or fudge, on a stick, designed to be stirred into a mug of hot milk.
Yet, despite the innovations, the passing of years and an increase in sales of dark chocolate, it is the milk chocolate bar, stalwart of the Dorset Maid days, which remains the nation’s favourite.