Pure imagination with chocolatier Ann Rudden

Ann Rudden has built her dream ‘chocolate factory’ in county Cavan. A supplier of outstanding Single Origin chocolate to Dunnes Stores Simply Better, she shares her story with Food&Wine. Partner content with Dunnes Stores Simply Better

Ann Rudden is the founder of Áine’s Handmade Chocolate and has created a range of chocolate products for Dunnes Stores Simply Better

Ann Rudden, our real-life Irish Willy Wonka, is a master chocolatier and founder of the artisan chocolate company Áine’s Handmade Chocolate. Her chocolate factory is located in her picturesque hometown, Stradone in county Cavan, where she decided at the age of nine that confectionery was her calling. “I would spend my spare time in my mother’s kitchen baking and working with chocolate and confectionery items,” she says. “I knew I was always going to own my own business. That was my vision.” And what a vision it has become. Ann has been making delicious, award-winning artisan chocolate for over thirty years now.

When Ann started out in 1999 there was a very different chocolate landscape in Ireland. Artisan or even premium dark chocolate “wasn’t really a thing,” she recalls. “It was mostly milk chocolate, whereas the dark chocolate and single origin, none of that was on the scene at all, and it was more about pralines and box chocolates.”

These days, however, there has been a huge shift and Ann reckons Ireland’s premium chocolate scene rivals the best in Europe. ‘It’s nearly as good as Belgium because there are so many different chocolatiers and chocolate companies,” she says. And the Irish customer has grown, too. “They’ve travelled so much, they know more about chocolate and for me, as a chocolatier, that’s great, as it means more product development.”

It was her creative product development and expertise that grabbed the attention of Dunnes Stores when they started their Simply Better range in 2013. Ann has been working with Dunnes Stores from early on making premium chocolate bars, hot chocolate stirrers and much sought-after Easter eggs. What’s particularly noteworthy is that many of the products are Single Origin - a type of chocolate favoured for its distinctive flavours, something Ann has a deep understanding of. Single Origin simply means the the cocoa beans are sourced from a single place and this leads to a unique flavour profile from the bean. There are seven Single Origin bars in the Simply Better range, with cocoa sourced directly from farms in Colombia, Java, Madagascar, Peru and Venezuela. Ann has a granular understanding of the beans from each region and their inherent flavours, particularly those from Colombia where she visited a few years ago, meeting the farmers, watching the harvest and exploring the country. “We went up as far as the rainforest,” she says, “the whole climate there is what’s giving the chocolate its flavour.”

Ann describes undertones of raisins and figs in the Dark Chocolate Single Origin Colombian, along with hints of coffee. “Those flavours are all physically coming from the bean because the regions are different, the climate is different,” she explains. She lists off the complex characteristics of the rest of the lineup: Madagascan is “sweet and citrus” and Java has “caramel notes along with undernotes of yellow fruits, pineapples and bananas”. It’s a brilliant lineup of sometimes unexpected characteristics. “Even the milk chocolate can taste like more of dark chocolate because of the higher cocoa solids,” Ann explains. “It’s not as sweet as the dark Java one.”

It’s not all down to the beans, of course. Once they are sourced and selected for their distinct flavours, the beans are then ground and sent to Ireland where Ann and her team work their magic. Much of this magic is in the tempering; a critical, skilled process in chocolate making that involves carefully controlling the temperature of melted chocolate to ensure it develops the proper crystal structure. “It’s what gives the chocolate that mouthfeel; the shine of the chocolate. It’s really important in all chocolate making.”

Ann now employs fifteen people at her Cavan base. Has expansion changed the way she approaches the chocolate making process?

“It’s still made the exact same way as when we started our business in 1999,” Ann says. “My ethos has always been to make the products in small batches but always premium, so even though now we have a high volume of consumer products, the quality is still the same. We stick with the traditional method, and small batches. We have more moulds now, more stuff, more staff, but the chocolate is made the same way.”

This dedication to tradition and craftsmanship while always moving forward fits well with Ann’s commitment to sustainability. She has always wanted to build a lasting brand that prioritises environmental responsibility, she says. “It’s important to us because what we want is to build a brand and build a business that’s going to be here to stay.”

What sets Ann apart is her genuine passion for chocolate and her creativity and innovation within this. Her partnership with Simply Better, working on the Single Origin chocolate has been a happy addition to this continuous exploration. “There’s always new products being done behind the scenes,” she says. Next, she tells me she’s looking forward to the return of a chocolate bomb launched last year along with another new Christmas chocolate novelty and then it’s on to Easter, one of the busiest times, when happily for us, her inner Willy Wonka really gets to shine.