City that’s chock-full of goodies
With its cobbled medieval lanes, glorious Gothic cathedral and crooked timber- framed houses, York is your quintessential chocolate-box- pretty city.
But, as well as gracing the covers of countless items of confectionery, it is also the birthplace of some of the world’s best-known guilty pleasures. While other northern English cities grew wealthy on wool, cotton and steel, the merchants of York made a mint on sweet treats, with Rowntree’s KitKat, Aero, Smarties and Yorkie, Terry’s Chocolate Orange and All Gold and Craven’s humbugs among the famous brands to have been spawned here.
This proud heritage is explored in York’s Chocolate Story, an interactive, family-friendly attraction on King’s Square, a cobble’s throw from the picturesque Shambles thoroughfare in the ancient heart of the city. I join a guided tour, which starts with an audio-visual display tracing chocolate’s origins in the steamy rainforests of Central America, where the cocoa bean — the source of chocolate — has been consumed, traded and fought over for thousands of years. We get to a sample “chocolate” as the old Mesoamerican civilisations, such as the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, imbibed it. They would crush the cocoa beans, mix them with water and add spices, chillies and herbs. Sipping this cold liquid sparks sour looks on everyone’s faces — particularly the children’s — and the consensus is that we won’t be trying it again. This isn’t the chocolate we know and love.
The next room brings us to the 18th century, when the cocoa bean — which had arrived in Europe in the late 1500s with the Spanish conquistadors — was embraced and sweetened by York’s entrepreneurial Quaker families, who opened cocoa drinking houses and confectionery shops in the city.
Another cinematic display features actors dressed in period costume, masquerading as Tukes, Rowntrees and Cravens, and revealing, in intriguing and amusing fashion, how York became Britain’s chocolate capital. We’re then treated to some Quality Street (launched in the 1930s by Yorkshire’s Mackintosh family). Smiles abound as we unwrap these moreish nuggets. This is more like it.
If the first part of the York’s Chocolate Story tour has a more educational slant, the second half is enjoyably hands-on. After learning about the production of chocolate — and the variations between the dark, milk and white stuff — we’re taught how to appreciate it. The key, says our guide, is our nose. She gives us each a chunk of chocolate and asks us to eat it while pinching our snouts. The result? There’s virtually no taste at all. Taking another piece, we follow her next instruction: as the chocolate crumbles in our mouths and the chocolatey aroma comes to the fore, we must inhale gently through our noses. Mmm. Yum. This, we all agree, is much better.
I’ve fancied making my own chocolate bar ever since I saw the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The York’s Chocolate Story tour gives you the opportunity to make one, although the end result of my labours doesn’t quite match up to the standards of the expert chocolatier, who rounds off the tour with a lip-licking chocolate-making demonstration. Her truffles and pralines whet the appetite for browsing through the in-house cafe and shop — though you may prefer a further chocolate fix at one of the dozen or so chocolate boutiques sprinkled across the city.
Another option is York Cocoa House, a cafe that takes chocolate obsession to another level. As well as chocolate- flavoured snacks and drinks — including chocolate afternoon tea — it has chocolate-making workshops and a library stocked with chocolate recipe books and literature about York’s chocolate past. It is also a key venue in York’s annual spring chocolate festival, which tempts chocolate lovers with a packed calendar of choc-related events.
York’s chocolate industry may not be what it was — many of the original factories have closed down — but some old favourites endure. Rowntree’s, which was acquired by Nestle in 1988, still has a plant here and produces about a billion KitKat bars every year for export around the world.
With all these chocoholic temptations, on top of its cosmopolitan restaurant scene and enticing old-world pubs, York is an easy place to pile on the calories. Fortunately, there are plenty of nice spots to walk them off. You could spend hours poking through the labyrinthine streets and hidden nooks and crannies (known as ginnels and snickelways) of the absorbing medieval centre, while the city walls, which originate from Roman times, are delightful for strolling. You can amble along the banks of the River Ouse and a bit further afield, the hiker-friendly Yorkshire Dales and Moors are less than an hour’s drive away.
The picturesque Shambles is York's most famous little street. Pictures: Steve McKenna
After savouring a few other York sights, including the awesome York Minster cathedral and the award-winning Jorvik Viking Centre, which explores the city’s rich Viking roots, I spend two absorbing hours in the National Railway Museum. Said to be the biggest museum of its type in the world, this admission-free affair is a boon for anyone who loves trains and rail travel, regardless of age.
Its giant depots shelter a fantastic collection of locomotives and rolling stock, including lavish royal “palaces on wheels” and a replica of the pioneering steam train Stephenson’s Rocket. Complementing these gems are more than a million rail-related exhibits.
The museum is next to York’s historic railway station, a key hub on Britain’s high-speed east coast main line network. Trains now sprint from York to King’s Cross, London, in two hours, with Edinburgh two-and-a-half hours in the opposite direction. If you’re coming from Manchester, a scenic ride across the Pennines hills via Leeds takes about one hour and 15 minutes. Whichever way you arrive, York is a thoroughly rewarding stop.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Visit York.
For the cheapest rail fares, it’s best to book at least a week in advance, though you can sometimes get good deals a few days before travel. See crosscountrytrains.co.uk for more.
York’s Chocolate Story visits are by guided tour only, taking place approximately every 30 minutes and lasting just over an hour. They cost £10.50 ($20.40) for adults, £8.50 for children (aged 4-15), with family tickets from £32.50. yorkchocolatestory.com.
The York Pass includes entry to more than 30 attractions, including York’s Chocolate Story, York Minster and the Jorvik Viking Centre. For adults, it costs £36 for one day (or £48 for two; £58 for three); with a child’s pass from £20. yorkpass.com.
For an overview of York’s many visitor attractions, plus accommodation and dining options, see visityork.org.
© The West Australian
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