Lewis, the Western isle that looks like an overturned ice-cream cone, has serious plans to reconfigure the geometry of mainland eating tastes. “Seaweed? Why not? And black pudding chocolate is a definite goer,” says business development expert Anne Sobey through the clatter and hum of Europe’s newest, remotest and probably most intrepid confectionery workshop.”We had a chat with the butcher next door, and that flavour is not difficult to reproduce.”
Audacious thinking is a constitutional instinct for Hebridean Chocolates. “People tend to put you in boxes, but we have always tended to think outside them,” declares Alasdair Nicholson, the brisk, tweed-jacketed chief executive of Voluntary Action Lewis (VAL), who 12 years ago first proposed the model of a family of socially conscious yet commercially robust companies. His portfolio now includes three businesses – training, transport and garden maintenance – which last year returned a £200,000 profit .
The £200,000 venture, part-funded by the EU, represents something of a psychological leap for a territory more commonly associated with oatmeal and Calvinism than sticky self-indulgence. But when VAL organised a mass chocolate tasting in Stornoway town hall, the communal verdict came down in favour of Venezuelan beans. “It has got a lot of fruit flavour and is a good mixer,” Sobey says.
Apart from black pudding and seaweed (possibly), berries, herbs, peaches (thanks to polytunnels) and cheese will add local character to the bars, truffles and drinking flakes that tumble off Hebridean Chocolates’ production line. Another exotic ingredient is chocolatier Mike Smith, who comes from Hull. His raw material arrives in button form and will leave in packaging that combines English, Gaelic and images of the standing stones at Callanish.
Nicholson, a regular churchgoer, sees no dissonance between promoting sugary lust and Lewis’s more ascetic reputation. Forget the chocolate, he urges; see instead the age-old crofting virtues of initiative, hard work and neighbourliness. “It is an example of how we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”
Trainee Derek Mackenzie, aged 22, weighs up his new future with mixed feelings. “I am very impressed by it all,” he says, “but I am also trying to lose weight.”