Sorry it’s gone quiet, but a couple of so-so meals about which I couldn’t think of much of interest to say and general lack of writing mojo led to me taking a bit of break. But I’ll try and climb back on that pony now. Just hope some of you are still there.

I did get quite excited this weekend when I discovered that, finally, Leicester has acquired something approaching a specialist coffee and tea merchant. I’d been indulging in a favourite dream of mine to open a coffee shop featuring 50 varieties of  unusual coffees that people would try whilst discussing politics and listening to my eclectic playlists of Sufjan Stevens, Charles Trenet and John Coltrane. The next day I stumbled across St Martin’s Coffee and Tea when passing through, err, St Martin’s Square. I think it only opened last week and seems closer to my ideal than anywhere else in the city.

Big jars of clearly labelled coffee and teas line the walls, along with coffee making paraphenalia. There’s nice looking cakes too and Leicester-made Helsham chocolates,  and the design is all modern clean lines.  There appears to be just a couple of seats so  I think the plan is to develop a market for high quality beans and leaves to take away. A quick chat with the owner Andy suggested he knows whats he’s on about and he was keen to point out the beans are all roasted locally – well Nottingham anyway – and in the last few days.  Whether turnover means they can continue to meet that aspiration I don’t know but at least they want to do the right thing.  Beans aren’t cheap but there is a broad range of stuff that I don’t think can be bought elsewhere in the city  – blends start from £4.95 for 250g, while current stock also includes Monsooned Malabar, Ethiopian Sidamo and Djimma, Sumatra Mandheling, and Pasajquim from Guatamala. If you’ve got curiousity or just money to burn you can also get Kopi Luwak, the beans that have famously passed though the discriminating digestive systems of civet cats in Indonesia (£25 for 100g).

Some coffee beans recently

I’ll be going back soon for a longer look and to try some of the produce.  Those interested in knowing more about coffee might want to sign up for a handly little email course run by coffee evanagelist and roaster Stephen Leighton who trades out of Stafford as Hasbean. As well as selling wonderful coffee online and producing videos, blogs and podcasts about his life in the business, he offers Coffee 101, a course providing a daily email for 10 days covering the history of coffee and an introduction to techiques of harvesting, washing, roasting beans and making the drink. Each one is an interesting five minute break with a cup of your own favoured bean. Find out more here:   http://www.coffee101.co.uk/ or go to www.hasbean.co.uk .

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If you loved something such as, oh, I dunno, chocolate. And you felt that there was more to life than, say, Thorntons. Then maybe you’d consider setting up your own fine chocolates business. That’s precisely what two Leicester women I met this week have done.

Helen Wood and Shami Doshi both felt disatisfied with the retail offer for chocolate in the city but initially it was the simple idea of doing something special for a school fair that made them look into making their own. They booked themselves onto a one day truffle making course and made sure they quizzed the tutor on all aspects of chocolate production. “That gave us some basic skills but it also showed exactly what more we needed to find out,’ says Shami. 

Shami Doshi and Helen Wood work on their strawberries and cream truffles. See below for a chance to win some of their handmade chocolates

The school fair was a great success, so they went on a further course run by top Manchester chocolatier Slattery’s.    Equipped with new skills in tempering, moulding and flavouring they set up Helsham Chocolates and can now be seen at food festivals and events around the county. At the moment they are operating out of their kitchens but at busy times like the run-up to Christmas they are making up to 1,000 chocolates a  week and if things continue to expand they will look to get a production unit. 

Their product line focuses on truffles and they take great pleasure in trying out new flavours. All-year round favourites include salted caramel and sour cherry with balsamic, while this Spring their Valentine’s range includes Gran Marnier, stem ginger and strawberries and cream.  They also produce a range of decorated slabs, chcolate stirrers to melt into your hot milk or coffee and florentines (though it has to be said the odd piece of fruit and nut in these would not satisfy hardcore florentine fans who expect a more substantial layer of caramelised goodness.)

At current production levels  the packaging and administration are starting to become seriously time consuming so they are having to closely manage any expansion plans.  That said, they are now available ina number of high quaity retail outlets in Leicestershire and Rutland such as the patisserie Dominic at David North in Rothley and Deli-flavour in Stoneygate. They are looking at getting restaurants intersted in using their chocs and ultimately they would love to get in shops such as John Lewis and Harvey Nicks.

They don’t lack ambition then and are buoyed  by a high level of re-orders and the positive comments they receive. “People often tell us out trufles are ‘better than Thornton’s,’ says Shami. “We’re not cheap but neither are we that expensive, and I think people appreciate we use natural flavours and that everything is hand-made and hand packaged.”

Helsham have kindly offered a chance for you lot to win a ballotine of their truffles you can present to your Valentine – or keep for yourself, we don’t care.  All you have to do is send an email to sales@helsham.co.uk with your name, address and the answer to the question “Which four flavours are used in Helsham’s Favourites Selection” (visit the Helsham website for the answer). Put “Competition” in the subject line and get your answer in by 5pm Friday 4 February.  UK addresses only I’m afraid.

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