Everyone loves chocolate don’t they? Whether it’s as a ‘thank you for inviting me’ gift, a present for a special person – or just sheer self-indulgence. But there’s chocolate and there’s very special chocolate, and the handcrafted chocolate produced in rural Sussex by Noble & Stace Chocolatiers is simply mouth-wateringly special.

Mike Noble practices his magical art at their chocolate kitchen nestled in the South Downs National Park, and for a very good reason. Much of their chocolate uses flavoursome ingredients sourced locally from wineries, a gin distillery, coffee roasters, a mint farm, a craft brewer and intriguingly even a natural mineral water producer.

“The first chocolates we produced eighteen months ago were the result of a collaboration with a small craft brewery a few miles away,” said Mike. “I started working with Langham Brewery by exploring the different flavours of their ales to find one that best complemented our chocolate, and produced a tablette that was very well received – once people got the idea that ale and chocolate makes a tasty combination. Their award winning hoppy ale was blended with a rich dark chocolate ganache in place of cream and butter.”

As an occasional chocolate binger I knew it wouldn’t take much to tease my palate, but in my conversation with Mike I was quickly becoming intrigued. Chocolate and craft ale? Well, sure, why not? But what he said next literally took my breath away.
“I then went to completely the opposite end of the scale, and got in touch with the South Downs Water Company. Instead of the traditional truffle combination of chocolate, cream, and butter I took out the cream and the butter – and replaced it with a mineral water.” said Mike, smiling at my bemused expression.

“I knew that would surprise you. It surprises many people. Water and chocolate don’t normally mix that well, but it does if you get it in the right quantity – and it gives a quite different texture. In a traditional truffle cream and butter is quite indulgent, and it’s creamy and quite rich. But unlike the mineral water one it doesn’t have an instant melt in the mouth. The best way I can describe our Pure Mineral Water Truffles is that they’re a bit like a sorbet – which has a very clean kind of melt and a rich taste – and nobody would think that it didn’t have the cream and the butter. And of course it’s a dairy-free option that increasingly customers are looking for.”

Chocolate and ale? Chocolate and mineral water? Surely Mike’s chocolate ingredients cupboard had run out of surprises?

“Our customer research revealed, perhaps not surprisingly, a love of Champagne truffles. We are surrounded by vineyards around here, and so I soon produced my equivalent of a Champagne truffle using a local English sparkling wine. That really captured people’s imagination so I do a lot now with different vineyards in Sussex and Hampshire. It’s not a massively powerful alcoholic taste, but the fruitiness of the wine really comes through making a really nice smooth truffle.”

Mike paused for effect, and of course he had the advantage of knowing what was coming next.

”Just two weeks ago we launched our new Chilgrove Gin Truffle range! We worked closely with the Chichester-based distillery’s husband and wife team to develop some recipes – and we now have a very zesty gin and lime truffle, which is quite subtle on the gin. And we also have our gin and lemon, which is stronger on the gin and with a little less on the lemon. And of course, as you’d expect there is a gin and tonic truffle too – with a little bit of orange in it giving it a lovely citrus mix.”

Noble & Stace Chocolatiers make everything by hand – melting and moulding and creating in their spotless food hygiene five-rated chocolate kitchen. There are no automated industrial-scale production machines. All the equipment used is typical of any domestic kitchen. And it is their hands-on approach that makes their chocolate so distinctive.

“The problem with mass-produced chocolate is that the big manufacturers have to provide for a very long shelf-life – and in so doing they need to add extra ingredients to achieve this, which does make the flavour different,” explained Mike. “We produce chocolate mostly to order which means that our chocolate is freshly produced and in small volumes. We all also eat with our eyes – so we are presenting something that is unique looking, and looks more appealing as it hasn’t been run off a machine. I’m piping it by hand, I’m adding something to it, all the truffles are dipped by hand. It is a labour-intensive way of doing it, but that’s what makes it special.”

I asked Mike where we can go to enjoy the Noble & Stace chocolate experience – something I’d personally recommend without hesitation given the tantalising and surprisingly original flavours I tasted in their chocolate kitchen.

“We mostly stock through local suppliers like farm shops, delis and cafes – and farmers’ markets. My first stockist was the farm shop and café at Cowdray Park in Midhurst. Increasingly we’re being approached to make special orders for restaurants, hotels and events like weddings. We did a wedding recently where they wanted gifts for their guests, and being autumn we created little gift boxes inside which nestled chocolate acorns and oak leaves. But word is spreading and we’re getting enquiries from stockists much farther afield. And of course, you can place your own personal order on our website. We can make up special orders just for you – for example a pick and mix of six sparkling wine truffles and six peppermint creams.”

Mike Noble has certainly introduced my taste buds to some surprising flavour combinations and unfettered delight enjoyed when a freshly hand crafted chocolate from his kitchen melts away in your mouth. Chocolatier extraordinaire!

Phil Kemp is a freelance writer and photographer based in Godalming. www.weyriver.co.uk

Noble & Stace Chocolatiers.
Website: www.nobleandstace.co.uk, phone: 01730 814886 or email: mike@nobleandstace.co.uk.