The Willy Wonkas of Acton

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Hot cross bun eggs, frolicsome earls and knickerbocker glory truffles – Prestat, chocolatiers to the Queen are getting ready for Easter. Emma Hagestadt visits a real life chocolate factory

One memorable year, Prestat, chocolatiers to the Queen and the late Queen Mother, forgot to deliver the Royal Easter egg.  Following a discreet call from a Lady-in-Waiting, the out-sized egg was popped into a car and dispatched tout de suite to Windsor Castle.  Thus honour was preserved on both sides, and the holiday celebrations could begin.

With its shocking pink, daffodil yellow and sky-blue boxes now readily available on the shelves of Waitrose and John Lewis, as well as Liberty, Selfridges and Harrods, Prestat has become the chocolate gift of choice for anyone wanting to make a splash. That’s all down to the hard graft and imagination of half-brothers Nick Crean and Bill Keeling  who bought the company in 1998, and now nearly nearly 20 years on, have increased annual turnover from £100,000 to over £5 million, producing 250 tons of chocolates a year. Or as the genial Crean prefers to put it, ‘the equivalent of 25 double-decker buses.’  Not bad for a company that was originally established in 1902 to provide Pall Mall gents with a ready supply of chocolate truffles.

Yet for anyone used to shopping at Prestat’s ritzy shop in Piccadilly’s Princes Arcade, it might come as a surprise that their chocolate is made and packaged on the site of an ex-methadone factory on a tidy industrial park in North Acton.  But, as I discovered on a recent visit,  there’s no cause for alarm – the plant is every bit as Willy Wonka-ish as you could wish for. Indeed it makes sense that Roald Dahl was a life-long fan of Prestat truffles.

Like other visitors before IMG_9286me, I’m greeted in the boardroom by ranks of carefully labelled chocolates. ‘It’s easy to forget the names otherwise!’ admits Crean, whose job it is, along with his brother and chief recipe-developer, Gaby Koehler, to dream up the latest confections.  It might be closer to breakfast than lunch, but I soon find myself happily grazing on Napoleon Truffles (a noble milk-chocolate plinth filled with a classic ganache), and enjoying a preview of the newly created Hot Cross Bun Spiced Easter Egg, which magically melds all the flavours of the holidays into one nostalgic bite.

A former Saatchi and Saatchi executive, Crean takes a Dahlish glee in the naming of new products – the Floricsome Earl, the Tipsy Rum Sailor and the Knickerbocker Glory spring to mind. So aside from the Hot Cross Bun Egg, what other Easter delights does Prestat have up its sleeve?  The Red Velvet Egg (a milk chocolate egg containing creamy truffles rolled in crushed raspberries),  the bestselling London Gin Easter Egg (a milk chocolate egg flavoured with lemon oil, and filled with white truffles infused with gin and juniper and a lemon-flavoured ganache), and the brightly coloured Hazelnut Chocolate Truffles, created by filling real eggshells, are already popular choices in the pre-Easter run up.

Next stop is the factory floor, compared to Crean as a ‘giant school kitchen’. Unlike most school kitchens, we’re immediately enveloped by a wonderful aroma of cocoa and spices – cardamom, nutmeg, orange and ginger.  There’s no chocolate river, but bubbling cauldrons of molten chocolate (white or milk depending on the day), gigantic Bunsen burners, cooling tunnels and frames of jelly awaiting the guillotine’s chop. Refrigerated rooms are conscientiously labelled ‘No Peppermint!’, while large larders are home to marzipan and sugar crystals, and tray upon tray of hand-crafted violet cremes, lime-green quenelles and sea salt caramels.  ‘Help yourself!’ commands Crean, brandishing an impressive whisk. The staff are robed in surgical white, and a hushed calm settles over the X-ray machine that scans for any internal abnormalities in the truffle range.

As Prestat is one of the few London artisan chocolatiers to make all its own chocolates, it retains complete control of recipes and the sourcing of ingredients. These days chocolate and its provenance is a serious affair, and Prestat is keen to deliver ‘what customers expect and cocoa farmers deserve’.  Prestat’s cocoa is sourced in Ghana, and more recently from a restored plantation in St Vincent and the Grenadines. It’s reassuring to know that Prestat’s chocolate is ‘fairly traded’; Crean is particularly proud of the  company’s work with the charity Esoko which sends weather reports and cocoa prices to local farmers via regular text messages.

With sales of Prestat doing a roaring trade in Japan, America and the UAE, Crean and Keeling don’t seem to be in any danger of winding down. As we exit the kitchens and enter the vast packaging hanger, Crean talks of future plans. ‘We are considering food porn…illustrating our products on our packages,’ he elaborates.  ‘We like to hook university students young, in the hope that will carry on buying Prestat until they die.’

violet creamsAnd aside from the glorious chocolate itself, it’s this cheerful can-do attitude that lies at the heart of Prestat’s success. The company may  be garlanded in royal warrants, and their packages wreathed in gold curlicues, but that’s where the snobbishness ends. ‘All Gold! Black Magic! Thorntons! All delicious!’ says Crean. After a quick hunt back at base, I’m waved off to the tube with one of the season’s most sort-after treats: the London Gin Easter Egg. And no, I haven’t cracked it open yet.


Photography by Samuel Chilton-Higgins