Two pints of lager and a cream truffle may not be the average round for most pub-goers but The Three Horseshoes Inn at Breedon on the Hill is not your average pub. Yes, it has the roaring fire, real ales and quarry-tiled floors – but they’ve also thrown in a chocolate shop for good measure.
That’s right; a chocolate shop. And not just any old chocolate shop but one supplied with all manner of award-winning, artisan goodies. Moreover, re-stocking is never a problem. The Bittersweet Chocolate Co. – run by Nigel Holling and wife Dianne – is housed in nearby outbuildings; just a short stroll across the pub garden.
In truth, I had been expecting the ‘shop’ to be little more than a shelf behind the bar. It turns out to be a gleaming, grandiose Victorian display counter straight from a chocoholic’s dream. It’s several feet long and decadently stuffed with all manner of moreish delights – from fruit-centred truffles to chocolate-dipped dates, nut-sprinkled discs to chocolate drenched honeycombs and fat caterpillars lying beside luscious lollipops.
“The chocolate counter always stops people in their tracks,” says landlady Jenny Ison.
“My business partner Ian Davison has owned it for more than forty years. We think it was a Victorian confectionary counter but Ian’s family used it to store boating paraphernalia at their chandlery at Sawley Marina. Ian was about 12 when he rescued it and it’s been moving around from garage to garage ever since. But when we bought the pub, Ian realised we’d got the perfect space for it.”
Jenny says the counter – and its contents – attract people from all over the country; “People tell us it looks magnificent and it’s definitely a talking point when I tell them we have a real-life ‘chocolate factory’ in the pub garden,” she laughs.
“We have a chocolate menu which is very popular as people have truffles instead of, or as well as, a desert. But we also get people having some chocolate with a bottle of wine or Prosecco. We can’t get our hands on enough salted caramel.”
“We’ve been based at the pub for nine years and it works really well,” explains chocolate-maker Nigel as he shows me to the vanilla-scented workshop where his colleague, Kate Jackaman, is busy coating honeycomb with tempered chocolate.
“When my wife Dianne and I first started we were working from our kitchen. We were trying to develop and manufacture hand-made chocolates all day, every day and turn it back into a family kitchen at night. It was quite a squeeze – we became very good at dancing. The Three Horseshoes were customers of ours and they offered us space in what used to be the motel rooms.”
He laughs; “But having a shop in a pub is unusual. We might be in an exclusive club of one.”
The Bittersweet Chocolate Co. may have started on the kitchen table but the team’s artistry with chocolate – and wizardry with flavour combinations – has earned them multiple Great Taste Awards including a prestigious two stars accolade for their cracked coffee bean in dark chocolate.
“My background was in catering,” explains Nigel (54), of Chellaston, when asked how he came to master the art of chocolate-making.
“I helped set up the restaurants and catering outlets for the American Adventure Theme Park. The role included involved managing stock and distribution and I ended up taking a sideways move into IT. But I loved working with food so much I’d take on part-time jobs providing cover for chefs.”
Nigel realised he’d reached a crossroads when his children Charlie and Anna (now 18, 16) were born. “With two small children, I couldn’t go out and chef anymore but I wasn’t ready to ‘put up and shut-up’ until my retirement. I decided to resign in 2007 because I needed to work with food; it’s my passion.”
“Chocolate was in the forefront of my mind as I was excited by the scope it would give to create new flavours and textures. I enrolled in some chocolate-making courses and began to develop a range of truffles to sell in restaurants as an alternative to a desert. I knew from the start that chocolate would be the perfect medium to express my identity and individuality. When you get it right, the sense of satisfaction is immense.”
Nigel decided to bring his culinary expertise to the art of chocolate making.
“I’m always thinking about flavours that will sit well on top of the chocolate,” he says.
“It might be something I remember from a recipe, or a dish I’ve enjoyed in a restaurant that’s been stored in my memory and I instinctively know which flavours will work together. Popular combinations include lime and chilli, raspberry and almond and geranium rose which is our modern take on Turkish delight. We also sell a lot of chocolate flavoured with organic essential oils – our French lavender has been a huge hit.”
Nigel also showcases local products in his creations; “We use sloe gin and whisky and wild damson liqueur from a brewery in nearby Rutland,” he explains.
“Also, the honeycomb we make for Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop uses honey from bees on the estate.”
Although there’s something a little ‘Willy Wonka meets Heston Blumenthal’ about these creations – they invariably work. Nigel can only remember one exception.
“Grapefruit,” he recalls with a shudder.
“We tried all different ways but it just didn’t work. Whatever we did – it still made your mouth pucker so we walked away.”
The popularity of the company’s innovative flavour combinations led to an expansion of the business.
“My plan had been to supply restaurants but we began to take our products to farmer’s markets and food fairs and the feed-back was incredible,” Nigel says.
“We always gave people some samples and – even though the people at these markets are used to quality food and drink – a lot of customers said our chocolate was one of the best they’d tasted. We also realised the market for truffles was too seasonal so we branched out into solid chocolate items which would sell all year round.”
Nigel and his team also decided to re-boot the humble chocolate button. The only stumbling block was finding a name.
“We toyed with drops, buttons and thins,” Nigel recalls.
“But when we had our branding company come up with the designs for the packaging we still hadn’t got a name so they just put ‘ThingyMeJigs’ on the mock-ups. Because they are hand-poured, they can be a little irregular, so the name was perfect.”
The company has recently been in demand to host workshops; “The first one came about because one of our neighbours was getting married and asked if we’d do a chocolate making class for her hen party,” Nigel recalls.
“We extended our work space and do both private and corporate workshops all year round. They’re hugely popular because they’ve very hands-on, extremely light-hearted and you get to eat a lot of chocolate and then take your creations home.”
And the participants can be very creative; “Some designs are more complex than others,” Nigel says.
“We’ve had churches, dragons, boats and trains – even an Olympic torch. We also did a corporate workshop at Rolls Royce and one team made a bi-plane and another an internal combustion engine in chocolate. I think it was good but I have to admit I’d never seen one.”
After sampling some salted caramel ThingyMeJigs, I can vouch for the quality of the chocolate. It’s packed with full-on-flavour without being overly sweet and the lack of vegetable fat – found in many high street brands – means there’s no sticky after-taste.
“We buy from the finest chocolate producers from countries like Belgium, France and Germany as they all have different flavour profiles,” Nigel explains.
“A great chocolate should tantalise the taste-buds and leave a creamy, smooth texture as it melts on the tongue.”
Listening to Nigel rhapsodise about chocolate, it’s clear he doesn’t get tired of tasting it and – even more surprising – it’s not had a detrimental effect on his weight.
“We make eight to ten small batches a day so we all have the equivalent of a large bar of chocolate every day,” he smiles.
“There was some research, published by the BBC, that says eating quality chocolate regularly lowers your Body Mass Index. I’m not sure of the science but we’ve pinned the article up in the bar. We might go home thinking we’ve eaten enough but, come the next morning, we are raring to go again.”
His colleague Kate, busily piping chocolate onto a tray, heartily agrees; “I think it’s because we’re always experimenting with flavours and every day we make something different.”
“I never get bored of eating chocolate.”
You can order products from The Bittersweet Chocolate company by visiting
Or visit the on-site shop at The Three Horseshoes Inn, 44 Main Street, Breedon on the Hill, DE7 8AN
Derbyshire Stockists include; –
The Delicatessen, Blenheim Drive, Allestree, Derby.
Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop, Pilsley, Bakewell.
Croots Farm Shop, Wirksworth Road, Duffield.Brown & Green, Derby Garden Centre, Alfreton Road, Little Eaton.
Forteys, Market Place, Melbourne.
The Spotted Calf, Town Street, Holbrook.