House Call: Chocolate Dreams

“The family table is one of only a few surviving pieces of furniture, alongside the ash chairs, from the couple’s previous home in New Zealand; the Christchurch earthquake in 2011 destroyed it”

Overlooking the foodie hub of Nailsworth is the home of one eccentric epicurean, a man to give even Willy Wonka a run for his money. Welcome to the manor of Matthieu de Gottal. Words by LAURA ROWE photos BY KIRSTIE YOUNG 

I’ve got a head rush, and I’m pretty sure it’s not just from all the chocolate I’ve been cramming into my pie hole for the last few hours. It could be because I’ve just met the most talkative Belgian in the Cotswolds.

I’ve found myself – after two missed turnings, a trip down a winding tree-lined drive, the serious dodging of two dogs and some narrow iron gates – at the home of Matthieu de Gottal, Nailsworth’s newest chocolatier. It’s a grand Georgian manor overlooking the valleys, set in some one-and-a-half acres of gardens and complete with its own pool, a beautiful selection of trees, shrubbery and flowers – including a Moroccan rose bush – and “a lot of weeds”.

“It’s a wild garden,” says Matthieu as he walks me around, with dogs Popeye and Olive running between our legs, competing for attention, as we go. “I use a lot of honey in the ganaches for the truffles I make, so I like encouraging bees. It’s my dream to have hives and hens here one day, but I haven’t got the time as yet.”

It’s 10am now, and Matthieu’s already had five hours on me: he started work at 4.30am, because it’s “cooler at the lab”.

The ‘lab’ is his temperature-controlled catering unit that he shares with fellow foodies Cotswold Handmade Meringues, on the same site as cordial kings Bottlegreen. But it was here, at his home – in the family kitchen we eventually arrive at – that the business first began, and only last year.

When he and wife Tara moved here, in the summer of 2012, they found a kitchen that hadn’t been touched in 40 years.

“This room was the reason the house hadn’t sold,” explains Matthieu as he rushes around, repeatedly forgetting to pour us our tea. “There was imitation cork, bright orange units, and the cooker was where the sink is now. We completely gutted it, and worked with Stroud Furniture Makers to redesign it, making the most of the 17th-century bows and curves we have here.”

There’s now a Lacanche range cooker with electric and gas (and a bowl of chocolate gently melting in the bottom oven), walnut worktops, tulipwood units, a restored floor (thanks to a contact in Horsley), handmade tiles from Marlborough Tiles, double doors leading out to the garden, and a Victorian fireplace. There are paintings by his sister on the walls too, and antique bath tub claws for lampshades. It’s the family table, though, that takes pride of place.

“It’s carved oak from Belgium, and was given to us by my late great-aunt,” says Matthieu. What makes it even more special is that it is one of only a few surviving pieces of furniture, alongside the ash chairs, from the couple’s previous home in New Zealand. The Christchurch earthquake in 2011 destroyed it, and prompted their move back to the UK.

“We’d just had a new handmade kitchen fitted when the earthquake hit,” Matthieu explains. “A window fell onto the table, so when we moved here a chap in Tetbury painstakingly restored it for us. He literally had to tweeze out all the pieces of glass.”

Now the smooth surface of the table is home to various pots of ‘bean-to-bar’ single-estate chocolate which Matthieu is making me taste – before he suddenly remembers about that tea. When it finally arrives it’s lapsang souchong and Matthieu starts telling me about his tea maker – made by Sage.

You can set the time and degree to which your chosen leaf is brewed, and he reveals how he previously used to use a thermometer when making tea to get the perfect cuppa.

This is a dedicated man – he admits to being a perfectionist, which is why, after eight months of trading, he’s still only selling locally in Raffles in Nailsworth and the Chef’s Pantry in Cheltenham. He’s too busy winning awards – and has picked up four in the last week alone – to push distribution. He’s also continuously developing what he does. There’s a bunch of wild roses on the worksurface, and Matthieu reveals he plans to infuse a ganache with them. “I’m currently infusing everything from single-malt whisky to cardamom and chilli,” he says.

There are plans afoot to go savoury too. There’s a Camembert (his breakfast staple) in the pantry planted with cocoa nibs and garlic that he’ll bake after about 10 days.

“I’m really keen to try curing salmon with some chocolate, too. I normally do it with a peaty whisky, salt and molasses, so it will be interesting to see how the chocolate reacts.”

His passion for all things chocolate is infectious (helped no end by the unlimited chocolate samples that keep coming my way) and started when he was only four, with a recipe for a gluten-free chocolate cake using margarine. He pulls out the book, with the very same handwritten recipe from his grand-mère intact.

“I’ve been in the food and drink industry all my life,” says Matthieu, who tells me he’s worked in London, Paris and New Zealand. It was when he arrived in the Cotswolds, though – drawn here by a historic family link dating back to the war, and thanks to a little pushing from wife Tara – that he decided to follow his first love.

“After the earthquake my tolerance was greatly reduced,” he says, “and after trying to buy a couple of restaurants locally (Jesse’s Bistro in Cirencester and Prosecco in Clifton) my wife suggested just doing what I love.”

After five courses at Barry Callebaut in Banbury, and some serious trial and error, Matthieu decided to go pro.

“I was so passionate,” he says, “I realised anything else was a waste of time after that.”

We’re finally taken through to the dining room, currently unfurnished, save for a portrait of his mother on the mantelpiece, where Matthieu plans to hold classes at some point in the summer.

“I’m always happy to get people trying chocolate,” he tells me, as I step out the door. “It makes people happy!”

Consider me smiling.