Q & A with Sophie
Sophie, the East Neuk has become home for you but you are not originally from the area. Tell us a little about your background?
I was born in Belgium and raised in Africa.
Most people love chocolate…but how did it become such a great passion for you?
I always loved chocolate as a little girl – my grandmother would try to hide it but I’d always seek it out! I was brought up in a family that loved to drink lots of hot chocolate too. It became a career because while I was working in fashion design in Harare, I became friends with a family who arrived from Belgium to set up a chocolaterie. Eventually, I gave up my clothing factory and ran their chocolate business for them. I was hooked!
When did you open Pittenweem Chocolate Company and the Cocoa Tree Café?
13 July 2007.
How did you find the experience of coming to somewhere new and launching a business?
Oh, it was very positive. Pittenweem is such a friendly village and my door was always open during the renovations, so people wandered in and I’ve made some loyal friends. Of course, the renovations of the building – it was once an old bakery – were challenging but from the moment I walked in, I instinctively knew it was absolutely the right place for our business.
How did you discover Pittenweem?
I was still based in Zimbabwe at the time. I discovered the East Neuk of Fife while travelling in Scotland. I was either going to move to Cape Town or the East Neuk of Fife. This place won!
Why did you think it would be the perfect location for your shop and café?
Again, it was instinct. I knew very little about the village. I’d been staying in nearby Kingsbarns and fell in love with the coastal villages around here. Pittenweem just feels so special. Increasingly, I realised it would be ideal.
Now that you have lived here for 15 years, for you, what makes so special?
There’s just so much, I don’t know where to start! The wonderful community has made such an impact on our life here. Also, living by the sea – especially after living in a land-locked country – was and still is hugely important to me.
You source chocolates from around the world – how do you know which ones to choose?
I usually find chocolates through the people I meet in my travels and through work – I make a point of seeking them out. Also, sometimes, people hear about The Pittenweem Chocolate Company and they come to meet me. Of course, I then taste the chocolates! I know what I love and what will be popular in the shop. I love to find small artisan chocolatiers because I have an instant empathy with them. Finally, I became friends with the chocolate connoisseur Chloe Doutre-Roussel after finding her book in Paris, so she has been a great help.
Why did you decide to start making your own chocolates?
I wanted to play with flavours that I haven’t found elsewhere and I love to use local ingredients. For example, I’m testing a porridge oats recipe. And, I’m excited to be working with the East Neuk Salt Company, based in St Monans. Also, sometimes customers have requested flavours that I wanted to work on myself to get just the right taste. This was also the next step in growing the business and it’s lovely to provide visitors with the opportunity to buy chocolates made in Pittenweem.
How did you learn to make chocolates?
I have learned by gleaning information from others, trial and error - and I’m still learning. We now work with a French consultant who lives in Scotland. He visits once a year to provide coaching and guidance.
How can you eat chocolates everyday, yet stay slim and healthy?!
Well, chocolate – in moderation – is so good for you! The darker the better. So many chocolates available on the market now are rich in antioxidants because the beans are often roasted to lower temperatures. Sometimes it requires a little will power but just focus on quality over quantity!
The shop and café décor are very unique, decorated in a warm vintage style. Where did you take your inspiration?
I’m inspired by the things I love. I collect from charity shops, my travels and of course, my background is design so this influences my style. Also, I’m inspired by friends, antique markets and Parisian influences.
Where did you seek inspiration for the café menu?
We wanted to create a fusion of local produce and influences from around the globe. We offer our own home-made crepes and we source focaccia bread from the local Barnetts Bakery. Our signature bean soup is inspired by a Georgian dish. Our vinegars are from the Little Herb Farm in St Andrews. Our very special raspberry jam, used in our locally made scones is from The Ardross Farm, Elie. Of course, we also bake our own cakes and our unique hot chocolates and speciality chocolate dishes use the highest quality ingredients. Again, such a huge part of designing our menu has been purely instinctive – following our pleasures and our love of promoting local produce.
In the film ‘Chocolat’ a woman moves to a tiny village and opens a chocolate shop and café. It seems like a familiar story! Have you read the Joanne Harris book ‘Chocolat’ or seen the film?
Both! Over and over, I love it! However, it didn’t inspire my decision to open the café/shop because in Harare, my Belgian chocolatier friend had influenced me first. However our ‘Grand Festival of Chocolate’ a few years back was certainly inspired by the book and film, as fans will know!
Did Joanne Harris, the book’s author hear about it!?
Yes, when we had the idea for a chocolate festival, we contacted Joanne and she personally encouraged it, saying “A festival of chocolate sounds like a terrific idea and I would take it as a compliment if my book inspired it.” This was a great compliment for us too!
Do you have any events or special occasions coming up in the next few month?
We host and attend special events throughout the year – we travel to lots of markets in Scotland, plus exhibitions and chocolate events around the world. Also, we stay open for the kids guising (trick or treat) at Halloween – of course, we give them chocolates! Santa visits us every Christmas too! The best way to stay up-to-date with our events and special offers is to become a fan on our facebook page. We’re also on twitter, if you prefer.
Which of your chocolates is your favourite?
I’d have to choose ‘soft caramel made with pomegranate.’ Also, I love ‘armagnac and raisin.’
What are your personal highlights on the café menu?
I really love our hot chocolates because they’re so indulgent! Our hot chocolates and chocolate cake are signature dishes. Our mixed bean soup is also really popular. I can also recommend our gluten free brownies – I accidentally left the flour out during a baking session one day – and it was a surprise success! We also have a vegan chocolate cake, which is gluten free, too!
What are the greatest rewards of your work?
Well, it goes without saying that I love working with chocolate! It’s also lovely to receive positive reviews in the media. We’ve recently had some exciting mentions in very prestigious and iconic publications including Lonely Planet, Coast Magazine, BBC, Conde Naste Traveller, Scotland The Best, New York Times and Chicago Tribute…but it’s the people I meet that really put the icing on the cake! My conversations with local customers and visitors from around the world ensure that every day is special.
There’s lots of advice out there for start up businesses, but specifically, what advice would you give to anyone wishing to become a chocolatier?
We suggest you seek out a local chocolate making workshop and experiment at home. Chocolate is really such a versatile ingredient, so don’t be intimidated by it. Just melt it down and play! And lastly, whether you’re in the kitchen or running any business…trust your instincts.