Willy Wonka may have had a chocolate river and a squad of nut-judging squirrels but the title for the most unique chocolate factory in the world is up for dispute. With it’s tempting truffles and chocolate clusters Skelligs Chocolate factory has attracted not only chocolate lovers from around the globe, but Jedi Master Luke Skywalker too. So remote and breathtaking is their location, overlooking the magnificent Skelligs Rocks, you might as well be in a galaxy far far away.
Though much secrecy surrounds the filming of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie, Skelligs Chocolate owner Colm Healy does reveal chocolate ‘rations’ were delivered to Valentia Island, their base while filming. “Though I think the cast were too busy pulling pints in Portmagee to visit us”, he adds.
Like many other artisan producers Skelligs began production on a kitchen table, that of Michael and Amanda MacGabhann in 1996. “She was a very creative chef and he was great at sales”, says Colm who bought the business in 2004. Over 20 years, the number of staff has grown from 6 to 19, making their move to their first ‘proper’ factory in 2010. “I am really lucky that 4 out of the original staff are still with me today”, says Colm. Skelligs remains a family affair with Colm’s wife Nickie working alongside him, and his children Ella (10) and Luke (3) acting as chief tasters.
In 2010 just as their new factory was working to full capacity to prepare for busy Christmas season an electrical fire burnt it to the ground. “November 2010 will always be etched in my mind as a pivotal time in my life. Thankfully nobody was injured. My wife and I were away and it was very hard hearing secondhand about the situation”, says Colm who says he learnt a lot from the incident.
“It comes down to people, if you have the support anything is achievable, many people were amazed we were back up and running within 4 months, in a temporary location, and back onsite within a year”
Colm says it also forced them to appreciate an asset they once taken for granted, their spectacular location, “that year gave me the chance to reinvent ourselves as a food tourism business”. In 2011, they returned to the ‘home’ of Skelligs with a new state of the art production facility, now the only fully ‘open plan’ chocolate production facility in Ireland. Colm says that unlike huge commercial chocolate factories, or indeed Willy Wonka’s factory, at Skelligs “the reality is very simple”. A visit to the factory emphasises how Skelligs have ‘nothing to hide’; guests can see the chocolates being made, ask questions and taste the freshly made truffles, bars, fudge or daily specials.
The droves of people that visit their remote location still amazes Colm, “we are off the main Ring of Kerry road and not really accessible by coach, but during the year we will have intrepid explorers from all continents turn up”. A visit to Skelligs has become a ‘must do’ for visitors to Kerry and is listed among the ’50 secrets of the Wild Atlantic Way’.
“We are blessed to be in such a picturesque place with the views that we have. Visitors are amazed on a regular basis as to why we are in ‘such a remote location, in the middle of nowhere’ and our reply is quite simple; to us, it’s the centre of the world”
With visitors from around the world, stockists spread across ten counties, in the UK, Germany and Scandinavia, many have experienced the indulgent pleasure of Skelligs’ chocolate truffles, clusters, drops, bars, brittles, hot chocolates and even shoes. Colm says to ask what is their most popular product is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ kind of question. “The most popular varies by country and geographical location. Americans, Irish and English in general prefer milk chocolate but Germans and other Europeans like the darker flavours”. Though Colm himself finds it hard to looks past their range of alcohol infused fruit, especially the apricot amarettos, “we take sun dried apricots and soak them in amaretto till they are plump and juicy and cover them in a crème and then dip them in milk chocolate hhhmmm”.
Celebrated far beyond The Kingdom, Skellig’s chocolate has received publicity worldwide. “We have been incredibly fortunate and are really punching above our weight with regard to the publicity we have received over the years. But it is nice to see the hard work we put in is being appreciated”, Colm says modestly. Most recently Skelligs featured in an unofficial chocolate tour of Ireland in the New York Times, which championed Ireland’s speciality, milk chocolate. The decadent dairy from our 1.1 million grass-fed dairy cows plays a big part, and of course is an essential ingredient Skelligs chocolate, Irish sea salt, honey and whiskey too.
Skelligs look outside our island for more exotic ingredients such as French Champagne and brandy, Jamaican rum, Turkish fruit and hazelnuts and Australian ginger. “It’s more important for us to get the best instead of focusing solely on price”, adds Colm. Just as sophisticated as these ingredients are the Irish palates, says Colm,
“I think the Irish palate has become much more mature over the last number of years, we have been travelling more, having incredible culinary experiences overseas and wanting to replicate that at home. Most start of with milk chocolate from their youth but as they develop the darker chocolates are much more satisfying”
At Skelligs they cater for these changing tastes, and then some. They have over 50 flavours of truffles including Champagne & Strawberry and Rum & Black Cherry, and their chocolate bar range features Lime & Black Pepper, Chilli & Pink Pepper and Gin & Tonic flavoured bars. “You know you are doing something right when other companies come out with ‘variations’ on your creations”, Colm says proudly.
The New York Times talked to Colm about the part Skelligs plays the artisan chocolate revolution taking place in Ireland. Of Ireland’s emerging chocolate culture Colm says,
“Ireland was never seen as a chocolate producing country, traditionally if you thought of chocolate you immediately mentioned Belgium, France, Switzerland or Italy. I don’t think it’s that we were underestimated, we just did not have the history other countries had, but boy are we playing catch up well”
If you are lucky enough to find yourself on the Ring of Kerry indulge your inner chocoholic with a visit to Skelligs, take in the views of the Skelligs Rocks with a hot chocolate and your chocolate tipple from their seasonal cafe, and, as Colm notes, “you never know you might just see a ‘death star’ fly by”.
TheTaste is giving readers the chance to win a Skelligs hamper worth €100. To enter click here.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.