The founder of Rococo Chocolates on rococo art, packaging design and the influence of her Persian roots 

Interview: Clare Finney

Art and design are clearly inherent to Rococo—the name itself is that of an art style. What exactly inspired it?
The name came to me when I was doing a three-week business studies course. I was being pressed to give a name to my business, and I couldn’t think of one. They said, “Just make something up then,” and Rococo just tripped off my tongue. They said, “That is brilliant!” It was only then that I looked it up, and discovered it was a French word meaning shell work or scroll work, florid ornamentation. I thought, this is perfect. I can run with this.

How did the name manifest itself in the business?
Art and design is my background—I studied art at Camberwell College—so I was always going to bring it to anything I did. A lot of my inspiration for Rococo came from trips to Paris and Belgium: seeing the beautiful chocolate shops, and feeling there was nothing in this country that had that kind of excitement or magic. When Rococo first opened in 1983, we had pink candy floss walls, sugar chandeliers and Botticelli on the ceiling.

And the iconic blue and white pattern?
The pattern we have now is the third incarnation of the design, and has become the cornerstone of our branding. It was inspired by a 19th century illustrated French catalogue of chocolate figures, brought to me by an antiquarian bookseller. “You have to buy this,” he told me. “It’s expensive, but I’ll give you a discount. I know you’ll do something good with it.” At the time it was about a month’s salary. I bought it and, looking through, got the idea of photocopying the images, cutting them out and laying them out as a random repeating design. The printer loved it, and it has remained at the core of the brand. If you look closely at a Rococo wrapper you can see the illustration of beautiful, intricate chocolate fish or shells, next to their price in French cents, and their catalogue number. Even today I’ll take elements from this—a dog or a cat, say—and use them to create a special chocolate figure or bar. The handwriting you see on the bars and boxes is mine.

Are you particularly interested in Rococo art?
I didn’t study it much at college, but I have come to love the music, the art and the whole idea of the Enlightenment period. I was in Potsdam earlier this year and we visited the Emperor Frederick III’s palace. It was amazing—like a German Versailles. One particularly lovely thing about rococo is that it’s asymmetrical by definition, because it’s about forms that occur in nature. There was an exhibition I saw at the V&A a long time ago, which showed how they dipped crayfish into porcelain, fired them, and the inside got so hot it would vanish, leaving the crayfish’s perfect form.

Does the same artistry go into creating new tastes and flavours?
I think so. Just as there is a palette of colours, so there is a palette of flavours in my head. There’s something visual about it for me. It’s hard to describe, but I can almost see if a particular combination is going to work or not.

Last year you joined forces with Roald Dahl’s estate to create chocolates inspired by his books, and at Christmas you launched a range of chocolate and clothing in association with Jigsaw. How do you decide who to team up with?
The Roald Dahl project was a dream for us—literally. I used to dream about chocolate after reading his books as a child. Jigsaw meanwhile actually approached me to do an accessories collection. It sounded fun, and I like their style: classic, but a bit quirky. We’ve been working together since early last year: there’s a purse with a gold chocolate coin inside it and a series of wristlet wallets and wash bags, and even a set of pyjamas in the classic blue and white print.

You were born in Iran. Have your Persian roots influenced you?
A lot. Even though I have not been back since I was a small child and have no conscious memory of Iran, I feel it in my bones. The blue skies, the smells, the colours, the sounds—you can be very tiny and still absorb those sorts of things. The garden at our Belgravia store is Moorish in design, for example, as are the tiles in my bathroom at home. It was that which in part inspired me to create our Moroccan mint bar.

Why do some other European countries have a more refined chocolate culture than we have?
The difference between England and the rest of the continent is the industrial revolution, and its effect on our methods of food production—for a long time we were more concerned with feeding our population than we were producing fine food, and the continent, particularly the French, had the monopoly on gastronomy. Now of course we have come full circle and we have the most amazing cheesemakers, bakers, chocolate makers and so on.

How far have we come in our appreciation of chocolate?
I think we are pretty much leading the chocolate world to be honest, there are so many great chocolate makers in this country. I don’t know how sustainable it is—a lot of them are very tiny businesses—but we have always been a bit out there when it comes to challenging tastebuds and pushing boundaries. It’s something of a national sport, in a way.

How significant has investing in your own plantation in Granada been in ensuring the ethical and qualitative value of your chocolate?
It’s very important. It’s complicated, of course, and quite political, but I do think the big producers could do more than they are in terms of fair trade. It is all about adding as much value as you can to where the cocoa is being grown. If you think about a regular high street bar of chocolate, the amount of cocoa contained in it is less than 10 per cent. There’s VAT, the retailer’s margin, and everyone else along the way, so the amount that finally gets to the cocoa farmer is very, very little. What we try to do is ensure that more of the value of the bar stays within the farmer’s local economy. Watching that happen in our estate in Granada has been fantastic: they are very poor, but they have all the basic medical stuff, schools, infrastructure, and the chance for bright people to go to university. To understand more about this side of chocolate is really important for me.

Rococo Chocolates