Sunday, September 15, 2013

The real-life Willy Wonka: Brian Sollitt, inventor of the After Eight, dies aged 74

One of Britain’s most distinguished chocolatiers, whose proudest achievement was fathoming how to get the mint filling inside After Eights without it spilling from the sides, has died at the age of 74.

Brian Sollitt had an illustrious 53-year career with Rowntree’s in York, helping to devise many of the nation’s best-loved chocolate bars. Tirelessly devoted to his craft, he was involved in the creation of the Yorkie, Matchmakers, the Drifter and the Lion Bar.
Alex Hutchinson, a historian for Nestlé, which now owns Rowntree’s, said Mr Sollitt’s impact on British chocolate-making was “incalculable”.

Brian Sollitt, with a giant After Eight mint. Photograph: Nestlé
“It is easy to forget that the sweets we pick up in the shops today are things that would have been handmade lovingly in the early stages of development by Brian. He spent months – sometimes years – agonising over the technical details of his creations. He was an incredible man. He was asked to come up with this new chocolate and he did.”

Mr Sollitt was not always surrounded by sweet treats. Born in 1938, he grew up in a time of scarcity when chocolate was rationed. He got his first job at the Rowntree’s factory at 15, hand-piping chocolates for boxes of Black Magic. Swiftly promoted to the fantastically named Creme Experimentation division, he was asked to invent a luxury dark chocolate filled with a peppermint fondant.

The project was shrouded in secrecy, and to this day the process by which an After Eight’s fondant centre is encased within its fragile chocolate shell remains hush-hush. After its release in 1962 it fast became a dinner party staple. More than a billion boxes have now been sold.

Mr Sollitt was described as a popular figure within the company: a larger-than-life character who left seasonal gifts such as chocolate Santas outside his office for factory staff to take home. Passionate about the products he helped develop, he became an avid collector of After Eight paraphernalia, amassing one of the largest collections in the world. Last year, he came out of retirement to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his beloved creation, creating a special 3kg version of the chocolate to present to Parliament.

Kath Musgrove, a fellow confectioner, remembers Mr Sollitt lovingly piping and cooling new samples and presenting them in small, white boxes to the marketing department.

“I first met Brian in the covering room in Rowntree’s Creme Experimentation department. He was wielding his pallet knife deftly over the marble slab ‘tempering chocolate’. Watching him at work was like watching a true craftsman at his trade. Anyone who saw him was caught in his spell. He spent hours at that marble slab expertly hand-covering chocolates with their own individual markings.”

Millions of After Eights are made each year in Halifax, West Yorkshire, to be sold in more than 50 countries. Fans of the chocolate are said to have included the late Queen Mother.

Best bar none: Sollitt’s inventions

After Eight 800 million individual chocolates made each year
Peppermint fondant “enrobed” in a crisp dark chocolate shell. An enzyme is added to the mint to give it its consistency. The clock logo is believed to be based on a real timepiece in Rowntree’s head office.

Yorkie 64 million bars
A chunkier alternative to Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar. Variations have included raisin and biscuit, honeycomb, white chocolate and mixed nuts. Aimed mainly at men, it was famous for its slogan ‘“It’s Not For Girls”.

Lion Bar 17 million bars
Wafer, caramel and cereal covered in milk chocolate. Launched in 1977, it was known in some areas as Big Cat until the late 1990s. Nestlé angered fans when it cut the size of the bars.

Drifter 37 million bars
Two biscuit wafer fingers layered with caramel and milk chocolate. Discontinued in 2007, it was relaunched in 2008 and was at one time promoted with the slogan “the chewy chocolate bar that you really have to get your teeth into”.

Matchmakers 30 million boxes
Launched in 1968 at one-third their current length, Matchmakers are brittle chocolate twigs available in mint, coffee and orange flavour. A Christmas favourite, its variations have included Brandysnap, Cappuccino, Coconut, Lemon and Irish Cream.

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