They say money doesn’t grow on trees but, in a corner of East Lothian, happiness does. Alastair Gower and Friederike Matthis, owners of The Chocolate Tree, say that they are inspired and motivated by the happiness their chocolates bring.
The couple met at a Beltane Festival one Spring. Alastair was a performer and Friederike was selling home made chocolates. From Germany, she had been making chocolates since she was a little girl and when Alastair saw what she was doing, he fell in love with it â€“ and her.
Mathematician Friederike had designed a geodesic dome built on mathematical principles and made from shaped pieces of drainpipe and broomstick handles, draped with canvas. Inside was a solar powered chocolatiere, where she produced fantastic sweets and cakes. With this mobile home cum shop, the couple went to music festivals and community events, last year surviving flash floods in middle England, but also having a fantastic time, doing what they loved.
All their products are ethically produced â€“ in fact everything about the company is carefully considered for its impact on the economy and the environment. “We only sell at Farmer’s Markets and events which have a green ethos, or to small family businesses and delis, not supermarkets,” Alastair explained.
They were fortunate in finding an old bakery in Haddington, where they could develop a cottage industry and make delicious cakes. “It was a big thing for us at the time as it was important to us that it wasn’t a modern retail unit. We are passionate about sustainability at every level. One of our chocolatieres cycles 10 miles a day to work.”
When their baby Roslyn came along, two years ago, the couple had a decision to make. The business was doing well with demand for cakes and chocolates growing and they felt they should be settling down and travelling less. So they spent all their savings on a chocolatiere in Bruntsfield. Today, they employ 4 chocolatieres and another 12 members of staff between the kitchen and the shop.
“I wanted to work with chocolate,” Alastair says, “but I’ve become a businessman! It’s a good feeling but it has its stresses. You’re working 24/7. What gives me the motivation to keep going is when you’re at a music festival or somewhere like that and you see the smile on the face of someone who’s just bitten into one of your chocolates. There’s such energy about these festivals, and about our food.”
Throughout the expansion, it’s impressive how closely Alastair and Friederike have kept to their ethical principles. “I love local food,” Alastair admits, “but obviously chocolate isn’t Scottish, so transport is the worst problem. Ours comes from organic suppliers because we know that organic farming is environmentally friendly and takes care of the rain forest. Although not all our sources are Fair Trade registered, they often attain even higher standards. We are also very excited about the relationship we’re developing with the Grenada Chocolate Company.”
This is a cooperative which has revolutionised the relationship between grower and producer by not only growing and farming the cocoa but also processing it into chocolate on the same premises. The factory is equipped with specially designed equipment which is solar powered and the resultant chocolate won the Academy of Chocolate Awards 2008 Silver Medal in the Best Organic Chocolate Bar.
Meanwhile, Alastair refutes any suggestions that chocolate is to blame for Scotland’s dire record on obesity. In the same way that guns are not dangerous, only people are, he reckons that an unbalanced diet is the reason for overweight Scots.
“After the second world war, after rationing was lifted, we lost our respect for food. Since then food has been about profit instead of quality,” he thinks â€“ and has the waistline to prove that a love of chocolate doesn’t have to add unhealthyÂ inches.