Written by Melanie May
Last March, Gráinne Mullins, Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year 2019, was about to head off to Bali and Vietnam to start a new job and adventure. Then Covid came and her travel plans were quashed. Use to working long hours, seven days a week, Gráinne, like most of us in Ireland, had a lot more free time on her hands, and, again, like many of us, she turned to the kitchen for comfort.
“Before lockdown, I was planning to move away. I had a job organised in Bali, and several events organised throughout the year, some even in Vietnam. Within a week or two weeks, everything was cancelled. So it was really, really hard at first to adjust from being somebody that’s so busy seven days a week, to being at home all the time. I really had to try to keep myself busy.
I was baking loads at home. I was thinking now that I have time, I’ll make my friends and family something nice. Then, when I made my easter eggs, people wanted to buy them and I couldn’t believe it. So, that gave me the inspiration to do a business course.
I actually didn’t think that this would be my business. I always wanted my own business, but back last April I was thinking I’ll just do a business course to keep me occupied to give me a bit of stability and structure in my day. It just went from there. Three months later, I launched Grá Chocolates.
Grá is a play on Gráinne’s name but it is also the Irish word for ‘love’. And these chocolates are made with love and lots of local ingredients.
Keeping with the love theme, Gráinne has created a special Valentine’s Day range of heart-shaped chocolates filled with divine and decadent centres.
We wanted to know all about the inspiration behind these incredible edibles.
Let’s start with the inspiration for the hearts. Was that in your mind for Valentine’s Day or were you gonna do hearts anyway?
“I wanted to do the hearts anyway, but specifically for Valentine’s Day. I actually chose my moulds back last summer. When I see something I often get a little bit of inspiration, like ‘oh my God, imagine if that was completely filled as a heart’. A few people were like that could be too much, too rich, too whatever. I said no, it will work. I had a lot of time to think about favours and how to balance them and how to make them really delicious without being too overpowering as well.”
Do you have a process for that or do you automatically know what flavours will work?
“Well, I think it’s a bit of trial and error as well as flavour memory. Take the one that’s inspired by Black Forest gateaux, we have rich chocolate, really sharp tart cherries – I love cherries, so that was an easy one for me — and then the kirsch balances it out. The first time you make it, it probably won’t be right and then you balance the acidity, sweetness and the richness of the chocolates making sure all the flavours are coming through correctly.”
Each of the chocolates is hand-painted and look like works of art, and yet Gráinne didn’t study art.
“I didn’t do art in school, actually. My father and mother, are quite artistic, my father especially. He’s an artist, as well as being a carpenter. So a lot of inspiration probably came from him without me even realising it. We mix the colours ourselves and I don’t have a chart for exactly how the colours should look because I want them to be slightly different every time. Because of this, they’re all individual and we put a lot of emphasis on that. I also want the outside to represent what’s on the inside. The colours will often be kind of an idea of what’s going to be on the inside. So the white chocolate heart with pink petal swirls has champagne, rose and raspberry on the inside. The Valentine’s Day range is really about romantic flavours and what you want to be sharing with somebody. The giant hearts are designed to be shared. They are so big and so rich that if you’re dividing it up ooey-gooey between two people it’s almost like a dessert.”
It looks stunning. I would not be sharing that with anyone. Those Turkish delight flavours I associate with spice markets abroad. Does travel influence your creations?
Absolutely! I love travelling and getting the full experience of food. Some of the spices I use in the ‘Hot Stuff Chocolate’ – cinnamon, coriander and star anise – are the spices I would have gotten in Morocco a year and a half ago. So I’m always picking up ideas and inspiration and trying to incorporate them into food. I sometimes don’t even know I am doing it, then I taste it and I’m like ‘that transports me straight back’.
You also draw inspiration from what’s around you too, right?
Yeah, there’s a lot of inspiration from what’s around me, especially in the original range because that was invented after the first lockdown. I had a lot of free time and I was walking around my area and connecting a lot with local suppliers. To be able to get the inspiration for their projects and show that off in another vessel really is amazing. It’s a nice opportunity to be able to do that. I try and support Irish as well because the products are so delicious and they help to make my product what it is. So there’s a lot that goes into the inspiration and where it all comes from. Sometimes it can be things in-season that inspire me. I’m just thinking of things, talking about them out loud and then trying them out when I get time.
From trying ideas out in her kitchen, Gráinne has expanded out into a micro-kitchen in her parent’s garden.
We had an old kiln outside of our home, and nothing was happening in it, it was completely empty. So I very cheekily asked my parents if I could have it. And they agreed, eventually. Then my father built it into a chocolate factory with help from my amazing neighbours and my brother. So yeah, within a month they had turned it from a derelict shed into a micro chocolate factory.
What was the first flavour that you made? The one which made people say that you needed to start making more of these.
Well, one of them, that I haven’t done commercially yet, is lemon meringue pie, which I did at the very start. That one definitely hit the spot. It was really, really tasty. But there was a lot of work in it, and I didn’t have it adapted perfectly. But there will be one coming along the lines of a lemon meringue pie. I’m getting some inspiration right now. Maybe for Mother’s or Father’s Day, we’ll see.
Speaking of which, what future creations can we look forward to from you?
We are working on a few ranges. We’ve got Easter coming up next, so we’re gonna have giant versions of the original box, which is going to be good fun. Then we are working towards Mother’s and Father’s Day, and we are going to work along the heart theme. We are working on different flavours and combinations that mothers and fathers would like. We are not trying to be stereotypical, but want to develop flavours and see what people like as well. We want to see what sells well, what people in enjoy. All the feedback is so important.
And any future plans to expand out of your parents shed?
Yeah, so I’m working hard towards that. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy with construction being shut down. But I’m hoping to be able to move within six months to my own space. That would be lovely.
So no jetting off to Bali when the restrictions lift?
No, Grá Chocolates is my baby. I love it. It’s been brilliant. It’s been such an adventure. There are ups, there are downs. There’s every kind of emotion. But it’s amazing being your own boss and I’m really lucky to have a little amazing team here. Everyone is so supportive and so great and everyone works really hard. It’s fantastic. And having people enjoy it is the nicest part of it all.
For those who haven’t had the chance to enjoy Gráinne’s beautiful chocolates, you can buy them online at www.grachocolates.com, and you can also buy them in Brown Thomas stores online.
So go, order a chocolate heart this Valentine’s Day and fall in love with Grá Chocolates.