SOME OF the best ideas or ventures in life come about in apparently happenchance ways. For Ruth Hinks, co-founder – with her husband David – of Cocoa Black, her passion for chocolate dates back to her childhood in South Africa. “I wanted a double tape deck radio,” she recalls, “and my Dad wouldn’t just buy me one; he said, ‘You need to make your own money’. I was out on my bicycle one day and saw an Easter egg mould for sale, and that was it. Twenty six years later, I’m still making chocolate.”
The entrepreneurial zeal that saw Ruth making and selling chocolate Easter eggs as a 13-year-old was back in full force when Ruth and David set up Cocoa Black in 2008, initially working from the kitchen of their home just outside Peebles in the Scottish Borders. If you’re imagining the couple cramped in a tiny kitchen think again: the dining-kitchen at Woodbine Cottage is a fantastic space. It is more than 25ft long and just under 15ft wide for a start, so there’s enough room here for a serious cook to flex their culinary muscles, and the space was designed by Ruth to be highly practical to work in, explaining the two fridges and Rangemaster cooker.
As Ruth says: “You hear stories about people starting businesses from home and I said to David, ‘We have such a big kitchen, let’s put it to use’.” It’s the space in the couple’s home that everyone gravitate towards. “This is one of those houses that’s always open for people,” David says. “We’re just a mile-and-a-half outside Peebles so people pop in all the time for coffee.”
Woodbine Cottage was built around 1920 and has been in David’s family for more than 40 years. His parents, Charles and Cristina, bought it in 1969 when it was much smaller. “It was basically a little farm holding with the living room, the two bedrooms directly above, and the utility and larder area,” David explains.
David’s father had returned to Scotland after seven years in Denmark, where it was more common for people to live in the countryside and commute to work, so while Charles was working in Edinburgh, the couple made their home in Peebles. Although only 19 miles apart, as David says: “This was at a time when Peebles was considered to be quite far away, but my parents liked the setting and the views, and wanted to build their lives around the family home.”
David was raised here with his two sisters, Annalise and Sarah, and left to go to university before working briefly in Edinburgh. Then, in 2001, he moved to Sydney, which is where he met Ruth. Ruth had begun her training in South Africa and continued with courses at the Cacao Barry Chocolate School near Paris and the Carma Chocolate Academy in Zurich. She emigrated to Australia, working as head pastry chef at the five-star Windsor Hotel in Melbourne and joined the Australian Culinary Team in 2000. Her many awards include Australian Pastry Chef of the Year in 2002, and she went on to win gold, silver and bronze medals at the 2004 Culinary Olympics.
When the couple returned to Scotland in 2005 Ruth worked as head pastry chef with the Sheraton Grand in Edinburgh. The couple moved into Woodbine Cottage after David’s mother, Cristina, passed away soon after their return. The house had already been extended substantially by David’s parents as their family had grown and their needs had changed, transforming the original two-bedroom house into today’s generous five-bedroom property, complete with a large master suite and the expansive dining-kitchen.
One part of the ground level had been created as a self-contained wing for Annalise, with a bedroom and en suite bathroom, and with a sitting room-cum-sun room off the kitchen, and Charles has stayed in this part of the house as Ruth and David’s own family has grown with the arrival of Aiden, now 6, and Delphine, 4.
Returning to his family home, it was important for David and Ruth to put their own stamp on the house. First, they brought in a groundworks company to create a more open and well-drained garden.
The couple then turned their attention inside, replacing the kitchen and laying the large profile tiling that extends into the adjoining sun room and bedroom, as well as the utility room, with underfloor heating throughout. Elsewhere floor coverings were replaced and the whole house was redecorated, while just last year the couple redesigned the main bathroom and laid new carpets. Even stripping back the internal wooden doors has transformed the feel of the house, adding a rustic touch that befits this country home.
“If you find yourself back in the house you grew up in, you’ve got to change it so that you feel that you’re moving on,” David says. The couple share a taste for a simple, spare aesthetic. As Ruth says: “We like neutral colours and we don’t like clutter.” Coming from Sydney where she had been used to living cheek-by-jowl with her neighbours, Woodbine was like a breath of fresh air. “Sitting here looking out over the countryside, you can’t not fall in love with it,” she says.
In 2008, the couple took the next step and launched Cocoa Black. David had been working in financial services and had previously worked in management consultancy, so he brought his years of expertise to the table while Ruth brought her years of creativity. The business has grown, and grown. In 2009, the couple opened the Chocolate & Pastry School, which was conceived as a world-class facility for anyone with a passion for chocolate making and pastry work, and has attracted visitors from the US and across Europe as well as professional chefs and dedicated home cooks.
The following year Cocoa Black opened its first shop in a beautiful old building on the banks of the River Tweed in Peebles, and the Chocolate & Pastry School is now relocating above the shop. In 2011 Ruth was named UK Confectioner of the Year, and the business launched its e-commerce site – which is now receiving orders worldwide – and just last year she became the first woman to win the UK World Chocolate Masters. This year, Ruth is preparing to represent the UK at the World Chocolate Finals in October. To say that she’s busy, and to say that this couple have their hands full between their business and their young family, would be an understatement.
“It’s crucial when setting up a business to have stability in your personal life,” David reflects, “and this house gave us that support and comfort in knowing where we were for the first few years of our business.”
It may be time to move on, but Woodbine Cottage will be a hard act to follow. “We’ll never find something as nice as the kitchen we have now,” Ruth says, particularly as this space includes a pantry and a larder – the dream kitchen for a cook. Meanwhile, as David says: “I’ll always have fond memories of this house as it’s allowed us to get our business going.”
• Guide price of £420,000; contact CKD Galbraith (01721 722 787, www.ckdgalbraith.co.uk)
• Cocoa Black (www.cocoablack.com)
AT HOME Q&A
What is your favourite holiday destination?
We love Annecy in south-east France. A beautiful location and only a short flight from Edinburgh.
What is your favourite meal to cook?
We enjoy fresh seafood, cooked simply with herbs.
What is your favourite chocolate dish?
It’s hard to look beyond a well-baked soufflé.
What is the best piece of advice someone has given you?
Align your career to your passion.
What was the last film you loved?
Lincoln – a troubled man who achieved great things.
If you could live in any type of house, what would it be?
Our ambition is to build our own home one day. I really love the creative process and would welcome the chance to apply my ideas to the design of a building. It’s too early to tell what type of house we would end up with, but it would certainly be clean and simple in design.
How do you unwind at the end of a day?
Bedtime reading with my children.