Expertise in the art of chocolate making from around the world has been concentrated in a Perthshire village of , Gaby Soutar discovers a different kind of visitor centre
• Iain Burnett - The Highland Chocolatier - coats truffles in a layer of chocolate
If I stand on the little stone bridge over the Tay, however, there's something warming wafting in on the breeze – the sugary sweet smell of cocoa butter.
Although traditional visitor centres at destinations such as Blair Atholl Distillery and Blair Castle abound in this part of the world, the doors have just been flung open at the Scottish Chocolate Centre, a tourist destination celebrating something that's usually considered more continental.
This new project, five years in the making, is part of a three-year-old shop and coffee house, Legends of Grandtully (pronounced Grantly), which is housed in a former antiques showroom, stable and garage. From the outside, the single-storey development looks welcoming, if not rather twee. The shop windows are packed with idiosyncratic knick-knacks and the small garden features an undersized fountain and pond (unfortunately, the ornamental fish didn't survive the winter). The caf, with its wooden beams and stone walls, has a fairytale theme, with witches on broomsticks dangling from the rafters.
But don't presume that the chocolate aspect of this venture involves bagpipe-shaped fondants infused with whisky. "The fact we're not here to 'tartan-ify' chocolate by making it heather-flavoured is certainly worth celebrating," says Iain Burnett, 36, the resident managing director and master chocolatier. "We aren't the average tourist chocolatier, who would probably just melt the brown stuff, solidify it and make it taste sweet. Instead, we want to cater for the growing interest in proper gourmet chocolate."
The Epicurean bent is also reflected in some of the prices. It's completely gratis to have a nosy around the new centre, but if you want to watch a demonstration in the temperature-controlled chocolate kitchen, held in the converted garage out back, you will have to pay. For example, it costs 75 to take part in a Chocolate Discovery Event, which includes a guided tour, tasting and a demonstration, or 45 to join a Chocolate Tasting that includes a guided tour, tasting and a peek round the door of the kitchen.
Burnett, who wears the artisan chocolatier's uniform of a tall white hat and floor-length burgundy apron (think of Lindt adverts), certainly has the credentials to charge a little extra. He learned his craft under Belgian, Swiss and French chocolatiers and most recently studied his art in northern Japan. He currently supplies the two Michelin-starred Andrew Fairlie Restaurant at Gleneagles Hotel, The Palace of Holyroodhouse – which apparently can't get enough of his candied fruits – and Loch Lomond Golf Club.
He can work to order, and recently produced truffles that tasted of "burnt hay" at the request of Turnberry's imaginative chefs. For those who prefer to nibble their chocolates at home, his truffles and spiced pralines, priced at 25.95 for a box of 25, can be found nestled in scarlet boxes at the Forth Floor Foodmarket in Harvey Nichols.
Burnett (aka The Highland Chocolatier) and his team aren't content to rest on their laurels. Julie Collier, business development director at the Scottish Chocolate Centre, says: "We've got many more chefs and shops to approach. For example, places like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason in London are calling us – and why not?"
Yet they're sure that the Tay Valley area is the ideal base for this growing enterprise. It helps that the master chocolatier's family, including his wife Rachel, who runs the gift and coffee shop, and his brother Calum, who works as an assistant chocolatier, are based in the village. It really is a family affair.
Meanwhile, Iain's mother, Hilarie Burnett, the retired proprietor of a tourist accommodation business, and her husband, investigative journalist Peter Hounam, were responsible for initially developing the Legends of Grandtully project and still have a hand in directing the new venture.
Although the 70 per cent cocoa couverture is imported from So Tom in the South Atlantic, the other ingredients they use are easily harvested close to home. "There are many benefits to being situated in the heart of Scotland, between Aberfeldy and Pitlochry," says Burnett. "Fresh herbs, red fruits and apiaries abound in the fertile Tay valley, and local produce is always our first choice."
For visitors who want to find out more about the process, the new centre boasts a gallery area with various exhibits. They include vintage advertising memorabilia and chocolate-making equipment, and an educational display detailing the individual steps of the process, starting with harvesting the cocoa pod. A pair of wall-mounted television screens offer continuous footage of the chocolatier's appearances on STV. It's well done, but rather lo-fi, as Burnett admits, "We're not a multi-million pound venture, like Cadbury World."
In a vitrine in the centre of the sits the pice de rsistance: a enormous lacy Easter egg, which has a price tag of 600.
"If you can guess how many grams of chocolate are in that, you can have it for free," says Burnett, adding that the piece has been constructed from a very fine, freshly crystallised chocolate to give it a polished sheen and a crisp texture.
Recently, they used a similar method to create a "chocolate cannonball", at the request of Andrew Fairlie. It consisted of a delicate hollow shell, which was designed to be placed over a dessert. After this was delivered to a diner's table, the restaurant's matre d' would pour hot chocolate sauce over the top, causing the edible cloche to disappear. "It's just a bit of theatre," says Burnett. "It evaporates, as the chocolate is as thin as paper."
Also on display at the Scottish Chocolate Centre are extravagant wedding cakes festooned with chocolate blooms, an edible striped tiger, a geisha girl and a very realistic looking red tulip, with feathered petals that have been finished with red cocoa powder.
In a glass "viewing-chamber" beside the room of exhibits, one of the assistant chocolatiers, Sandra Batty, is dusting the same ingredient over a fresh batch of this company's trademarked Velvet Truffles, which are served as petits fours at Gleneagles. "That powder is so fine that it'd be a nightmare in a conventional kitchen," explains Burnett.
These confections are the chocolatier's signature creation. He says it took more than 120 adjustments to a ganache-based recipe to get the perfect balance – soft enough to melt in the mouth, yet still able to hold their shape on a plate.
With the help of the So Tom couverture, various Scottish ingredients and the secret method he has developed, he has aimed for a depth of flavour that he says should provide a "prolonged experience in the palate".
Rather than being Hoovered up in a nanosecond, then, these Velvet Truffles should be savoured, like fine wine or malt whisky, and those who taste them should be able to distinguish different notes, such as tobacco, banana or liquorice.
Burnett says: "Rather than saying, 'I like Dairy Milk', I want people to say, 'I like the one from Grenada that tastes like charcoal blended with sweet-pea'."
Out in the shop there's a variety of chocolates on sale that would warm the cockles of Willy Wonka's heart.
Under one glass counter sit hundreds of rectangular truffles, naturally flavoured with garden mint, assam, chai tea, cardamom, lemongrass and hazelnut.
Some are screen-printed with damask or lace patterns, to resemble Moroccan tiles.
There are also nutty florentines, preserved pineapple slices dipped in dark chocolate and cocoa-based variations on langues de chat biscuits and the glossy candied fruits that Holyroodhouse can't get enough of.
Still, Burnett manages to retain a little caramelised heart of humility. "I don't actually like to call myself a master chocolatier, because I believe that it's a lifelong process to become one of those," he says. "But I will say that I'm striving for excellence."
• Scottish Chocolate Centre, Legends of Grandtully, Grandtully, between Pitlochry and Aberfeldy (tel: 01887 840 775: www. highlandchocolatier.com). Open Monday to Sunday, 10am-5pm. Admission free.