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York: the chocolate city


When the London train pulls into York, it seems as if a door has opened onto an earlier time. Under the grand sweep of the station roof, travellers swirl amid news agents, booksellers, buffets and tea rooms.

The scene is old-fashioned, human-scaled. Hard not to think of the station buffet in the David Lean film classic, Brief Encounter (1945). No coincidence, perhaps, that Britain’s National Railway Museum is just over the road, a stunning showcase of railway history with its own faux-railway buffet, named, naturally, Brief Encounter.

There’s much to experience in this walkable walled city on the River Ouse. York is drenched in history, from its founding by the Romans in AD 71. The city boasts its share of famous names. A statue of Emperor Constantine, the only Roman ruler to die abroad, broods handsomely in the shadows of York Minster; Guy Fawkes of the Gunpowder Plot (“Remember, remember the fifth of November”) was a York native; poet WH Auden and novelist Kate Atkinson both hail from York. There’s even a “Dame Judi Dench” walkway along the riverside.

York riverbank

Conveniently located midway between London and Edinburgh, York attracts six million visitors a year to its myriad attractions. In Kings Square, just outside the medieval warren of laneways known as The Shambles, I discovered York’s Chocolate Story.

Joining an early morning tour –three of us in all – I learned a lot about cocoa, politics, and the industrial age. Our guide, Tim, first painted a “before” portrait. “Imagine the late 18th century; a Quaker grocer, Henry Isaac Rowntree, is looking out on the Walmgate slums. He sees people in rags, many – even kids – are drunk, although it’s still morning.” 

Although Quakers were barred from attending Oxford and Cambridge, entering the army, becoming MPs or lawyers, Rowntree and his ilk (Fry in Bristol; Cadbury in Birmingham) would soon find success marketing this exotic import. 

In those early days, cocoa was primarily considered a beneficial alternative to alcohol, and was already popular among London’s coffee house set. As cocoa moved north to Yorkshire, Quakers decided to market this healthy drink. In 1725, Mary Tuke began a seven-year battle for the right to run her own grocery business, since she was neither a widow nor a member of the York Adventurers Company. She won.

Mary willed her business to her nephew William, who specialized in tea and cocoa. Among William’s efforts to improve community welfare was “The Retreat,” a facility for the humane care of the mentally ill that’s still in existence today. Although the chocolates we sample on the tour are sweet, they are no sweeter than the legacies of the York folk who manufactured them. The Rowntrees bought out the Tukes in 1862, and were renowned not only for their excellent cocoa and chocolate bars but also for their enlightened treatment of their factory workers.

Generous by any standard, these included pensions, paid holidays, medical and dental care. Henry Isaac, his brother Joseph, and their descendants went on to build affordable housing, help fund the public library system, and create one of the city’s loveliest parks. Rowntree Park, founded in 1921 on 8.1 hectares, remains a wonderland of decorative gardens, ponds, children’s playgrounds, tennis courts, and picnicking areas, built to honour Rowntree workers lost in World War I. 

York Station

The history of cocoa is far older than its English chapter, of course. Tim’s narrative dips back in time to acquaint us with cocoa’s Mexican roots as “the drink of the gods.” Aztec ruler Montezuma is said to have consumed 50 cups a day. When the invading Spanish discovered cocoa, Cortez took it back to the royal court, where it was kept secret for a century before its popularity spread across Europe, reaching England in the 1650s. 

At each spot on the tour, samples were offered including liquid and solid varieties, not-sweet, white chocolate, and wafers that melt on the tongue. Photographs of West African workers gathering cocoa bean pods smile down on us from the walls. Asked about products and working conditions, Tim mentions “fair trade” and “rain forest” and is candid about ongoing efforts to eliminate African child labour.

In the 19th century, workers aged 14 to 80 worked at Rowntree’s and Terry’s (of Terry’s orange fame), many starting work at age 15. York employed about 15,000 chocolate makers in its heyday. After Swiss giant Nestlé took over Rowntree in 1988, things changed. Folks in York nostalgically recall the shrill blast of the factory whistle signalling the end of the work day, followed by floods of workers pouring along the city streets. About 2,500 workers are employed in York’s chocolate industry today.

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