In the kitchen: Ruth Hinks from Cocoa Black, Peebles

In the next in our series of chef interviews, Catriona Thomson talks to master chocolatier Ruth Hinks of Cocoa Black about being a real life Willie Wonka.

Published 24th Mar 2020
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

On the day of our visit, the hills around Peebles had a slight snowy dusting of icing sugar - a description which could have come straight from the pages Roald Dahl's Charlie and the chocolate factory.

All that was missing was some glace cherries from their summits, a couple of Oompa Loompas and a choco river.

It was particularly appropriate as we are off to meet a real-life Willy Wonka, in the guise of master chocolatier Ruth Hinks at her Borders based pastry and cookery school.

This cocoa inventing room is hidden above her stylish boutique cafe, Cocoa Black, which nestles in a building beside the River Tweed.

Ruth Hinks
A Mecca for Chocolate fans. Picture: Catriona Thomson

Inside our eyes bulged at the sight of the glass cases filled with an amazing assortment of brightly coloured sweet gems which are made featuring every flavour imaginable.

There was an eye-catching array of fudge lollies, Easter eggs and textured edible handbags of all hues, and even goodies which are low gluten and vegan-friendly.

Upstairs in her cook school, she runs a selection box of half-day classes; perfect for amateur bakery fans, as well as two-day masterclasses for professionals wanting to learn tips from the master herself.

While at her nearby industrial unit they produce cakes for the cafe as well as taking care of online sales.

Ruth Hinks
Chocolate & pastry School. Picture: Catriona Thomson

African skies

Ruth's idyllic childhood was spent growing up in the town of East London in South Africa, and just like Roald Dahl's fictional character Willie Wonka, her dad was also a dentist.

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Ruth tells us: "I was deprived as a child, and apart from a treat on Sunday, we never had sweets or a cake in the house, we didn't even have a biscuit tin.

"If you deprive somebody of something you will always find a way to get it," she adds mischievously when asked if that inspired her current passion.

By her own admission, Ruth hated academic learning and never really enjoyed reading as a child.

She failed her home economics examination, despite knowing that this was her passion, she said: "It was theory and they didn't teach me about cakes, so it wasn't the best."

Adding that or her, it was always about the chocolate.

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Now with two children, Aiden and Delphine herself, she understands exactly what her parents went through.

She believes that it is better to teach them about the consequences of sugar.

"I'm strict with my kids, but I'm more relaxed than my parents were. We eat healthily with not too much sugar," Ruth said.

ruth hinks

However, it was her father who encouraged her early entrepreneurial spirit.

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When she wanted to buy a double tape deck as a teen, she had to earn the cash herself, and decided to make Easter Eggs, she said: "I had a shop set up in a corner of my dad's waiting room, and the rest is history."

"It was quite an operation, I even had a little 50cc motorbike which I used to pick up deliveries and to deliver Eggs to my customers, and here I am today still working in my shop on a Saturday morning."

Family ties

Ruth's mother's family is originally from Hamburg however the family emigrated to New Zealand, while her dad moved from South Africa to Dunedin to study dentistry and her parents met there.

Her love of cooking comes from her mother, who she describes as being a good cook, adding that she visits Peebles every year, to take part in some of the cookery courses.

"Mum always learns loads and really loves it."

Ruth explains that her dad is more your typical South African male, she said: "He can't cook but he would eat whatever was put in front of him."

• READ MORE: In the kitchen: Fred Berkmiller of restaurant L’escargot blanc, Edinburgh

Her business-minded father was her entrepreneurial inspiration, Ruth said: "Dad could see some patients had great businesses from an early age, he was always there to help me, but he did want me to know just how hard it is to make money."

After school, she went on to study cordon bleu cookery at Silwood cookery school, Rondebosch in Cape Town.

By the end of the three-year course she had been named student of the year, Ruth modestly states that she hates "blowing her own trumpet".

She was then offered a job at five star Mount Nelson hotel, where she got a feel for the industry, stating that she "loved it".

Chic chicks. Picture Catriona Thomson

Her world travels began aged 21, when her dad bought her a ticket overseas, Ruth said: "That's been it. I've never been home apart from visiting ever since."

Her first international post came in 1994 as a commis pastry chef in the London Hilton, Park Lane.

She admits it was a baptism of fire and she was really thrown in at the deep end, but Ruth said: "I learned so much and I ate so much."

She jokes her weight gain meant her parents nearly didn't recognise her when she went home on a visit (like an inflated Violet Beauregarde.)

Her old boss was executive pastry chef Emmanuel Bonneau, the winner of Bake Off: Masterchef the professionals 2018. I worked there in 1994, but he still works there now, and Ruth said: "I still use some of those recipes today."

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Then her day to day tasks involved creating desserts for the world-famous Windows on the world restaurant and plated dessert sections of the Brasserie,  afternoon teas and banqueting events.

Aged 23, she emigrated to Tasmania, Australia where her parents were then living, before going onto work at 5-star hotels, The Sydney Observatory and the Ritz Calton.

Then she flew to the other side of the world, with a spell working at the Spittal of Glenshee hotel, where she said she just "fell in love with Scotland".

Then it was time to take her career seriously, heading back to Oz, where she was appointed Head Pastry Chef at the 5 star Windsor Hotel, in Melbourne.

Recipe for Success

Ruth’s extraordinary talents were quickly recognised by the Australian Culinary Federation, with Gary Mehigan the Australian Masterchef judge and Scottish born, chef Raymond Capaldi encouraging her to represent Australia in both the 2000 and 2004 Culinary Olympics, as the team’s pastry chef.

Ruth was also named Australian Pastry Chef of the Year 2002.

Even though she felt bad competing against the South African team she added that it was great to catch up with them.

In it to win it!

In 2013 she won the UK Chocolate Masters competition, going on to finishing fifth in the worldwide competition, the highest ever UK result.

She certainly must be a glutton for punishment, as the competition is held over three days, broadcast live from Paris, cooking in front of a panel of 3-starred Michelin chefs.

For this event, she trained for an entire year 25 hours a week with her coach, UK pastry team president, chef Martin Chiffers.

Ruth said: "I didn't think I was competitive but I must be, I really like doing well, so I suppose I am competitive. Competition mean that you are pushing yourself to see what you can do. Can you cope with the pressure? Manage your time well, you can make mistakes but you have to fix them."

Even as a child in school she used to compete at tennis and swimming, but Ruth admits: "I used to bribe my tennis coach with Easter eggs to get off lessons when I was busy with orders"

The proposal

In 2004 she left Melbourne to go to Sydney to help out her sister. However, she got more than she bargained for, meeting her future husband David there.

They met watching rugby in a pub with mutual friends, and just six months later he proposed, with Ruth saying that he went "down on one knee, right in the middle of the street."

The couple then moved to Scotland where David's family was and Ruth was appointed head pastry chef at Edinburgh’s Sheraton Grand Hotel in 2006.

In 2008 they both felt the time was right to launch their own business Cocoa Black, initially manufacturing for, and supplying, local cafes.

However, Ruth stated: "I wasn't completely happy so we opened our own cafe in 2010."

The couple have a great working partnership and won UK confectioner of the year in 2011. Ruth admits that they need it to be easy, so there's no rows but adds "if he annoys me I tell him".

David is fully immersed in the business, planning, administration and logistics side of things, while Ruth makes sure the kitchen, manufacturing and classes run like clockwork.

An absolute perfectionist, she said: "I have to be like that as it makes life easier, you have to be organised."

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Even though she is a brand ambassador for manufacturer Cacao Barry, she still feels she has a lot to learn with new advances, adding that the big trends just now are in vegan chocs and sustainability.

Ruth's work is very technical and exact temperature is critical.

Ruth explains that simple things matter, she said: "If you don't know your stuff it can be a bit tricky but, if you do it will react the way you want it and it is easy."

Another advantage of being based in Scotland, is that "it is cool".

She is keen to seize every opportunity that comes her way, in 2015 she was involved in a golden ticket campaign to promote the launch of the Borders Railway line. She made around 5000 chocolate bars, one for each Borders child, with one golden ticket hidden inside each bar for each school, the lucky winner getting to hop aboard the inaugural train ride.

Recently she was asked to film the Channel 5 tv programme The Hairy Bikers: Chocolate challenge, which she jumped at the chance.

"They are such a great hoot, such nice guys, who are really down to earth, we had such fun filming in York. "

She is also in high demand as a competition judge. In 2016, she was selected to judge the UK Chocolate Masters, alongside Michel Roux Jr as a former World Chocolate Masters finalist, and understands the pressures.

There are downsides of running this chocolate factory, for example paying wages and juggling bills, and a huge amount of stress. However Ruth said: "I pinch myself that this is all mine, sometimes I forget how much we have done.

"I've got the best job."

It is hard not to wholeheartedly agree with her.

Vegan salted caramel hazelnut and Chocolate tart. Picture: Catriona Thomson

Vegan salted caramel hazelnut and Chocolate tart

First, make your shortcrust pastry, by mixing together 370g plain flour and cold butter until mixture is like sand.

Then add 40g cocoa powder, 160g icing sugar, 55g of ground almonds and a pinch of salt. Mix in 50g water and work together into a smooth pastry working by hand.

Roll out the pastry thinly between sheets of baking parchment and leave for 2 hours in the fridge.

Take out and remove the top paper layer to cut out circles for tart bases. Place in the bottom of tart rings on a metal tray.

Then score pastry strips using a scalpel and ruler for the pastry case sides.

Bake in the oven at 170 degrees for 10-12 minutes set aside to cool. When they are completely cool line with a thin layer of melted chocolate to seal the pastry case innards.

To make the salted caramel

Warm the 135g soya cream in the microwave. In a pan make a dry caramel using 105g granulated sugar which has been flavoured overnight with vanilla seeds from a pod.

Bubble until entirely melted. Ruth points out that she loves the smell of caramelised sugar but advises, "keep stirring so it is not grainy."

Then gradually add the melted soya cream, 60g vegan butter and 25g glucose syrup before adding the rich flavoursome 70g muscovado sugar.

Boil this mix until it hits the critical 110 degrees Ruth says: "When it starts to smoke you are not far off."

Strain the caramel mix carefully to remove any hint of lumps before adding a pinch of salt.

Stir leave to cool and thicken before filling a piping bag and swirling a deep circle of caramel at the bottom of the tart case. Place flat in a freezer to set.

Caramel. Picture: Catriona Thomson

To make the hazelnut and chocolate cremeux filling.

Melt both chocolates separately then mix together at 45 degrees exactly using 150g 65% dark chocolate and 140g vegan milk chocolate.

Heat 336g oat milk to 40 degrees. add the powdered 3.3 g citrus fibre emulsifier into the melted chocolates and make the emulsion by adding the oat milk into the mix.

In the mix. Picture: Catriona Thomson.

Using a blender mix together the chocolate emulsion with the two types of hazelnut 75g of pure hazelnut paste and 135g hazelnut praline which has around 50% sugar and add a pinch of salt.

The mixture is smooth and is easily poured into the pastry cases and left to set. Then the "creative part: the decorating" - the addition of a triangle of thin chocolate decadent, gold leaf half a roasted hazelnut and some chocolate swirls.

Vegan salted caramel hazelnut and Chocolate tart. Picture Catriona Thomson

Ruth's Easter egg

Easter Egg. Picture: Catriona Thomson.

Her fun Easter egg was influenced by fellow chocolatier, Toronto based engineer-turned-pastry-chef David Chow, Ruth admits she was inspired by his work.

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We then take a plastic egg mould and using some natural sea sponges dabs different layers of cocoa butter mixed with shimmering colours in a random pattern.

After applying the first layer of light blue colour it is placed in the freezer to cool, then the next slightly darker colour is applied and chilled and finally the last darkest blue.

"Next, I get to channel my creativity - the final colour is white which really makes it sing."

Going through 8 tonnes of chocolate a year, Ruth advises us to make sure your chocolate is tempered properly at the correct temperature.

This is to ensure that it hardens into the firm, shiny chocolate in a beta 5 crystal formation, otherwise, it won't come out of the mould gets stuck, Ruth said: "Be patient, and treat chocolate gently."

Ruth deftly fills the oval moulds to the top with chocolate and then taps the edges to remove any air bubbles and we wait for 5 minutes as the chocolate hardens and cools.

The chocolate cools from the outside first, Ruth then tips the moulds upside down and a perfect half-shells are left behind.

Colourful for the front and chocolate for the back are joined by melting the flat edges on a warm marble slab and a chocolate base is added.

Then white chocolate is dripped on the top like egg white and a coloured yellow edible shell placed to mimic an egg yolk

Then the fantastic character is ready to be packaged and a ribbon tied into a perfect bow.

The Verdict

A light tasty cocoa pastry case, with a wonderfully rich and velvet-smooth caramel centre, which lies hidden beneath mouthfuls of hazelnut infused cremeux. Topped with a solitary half hazelnut, decadent gold leaf, and a slither of dark chocolate and oodles of shavings. A vegan-friendly scrumdiddlyumptious treat.

Eggstraordinary cute character, it seems wickedly wrong to break into the shell before Easter day. As I crack it open I hear the characteristic snap of well-tempered chocolate followed by that familiar melt in the mouth flavour. And before you know it I've eaten the lot.

Ruth Hinks
Master Chocolatier, Ruth Hinks. Picture: Catriona Thomson

Under the grill: Quick Q & A with Ruth

Describe your cooking style? and why are you passionate about it? Traditional, French-inspired fusion etc.

"I like stuff that tastes good, I don't like anything too fancy. At home, my focus is on simple cooking with local, fresh and seasonal produce. Fish is always a favourite with the kids.

"At CocoaBlack we sell between 50-60 different types of cakes, While upstairs I have the Cook school, where we hold 6-8 classes a week, teaching home enthusiasts how to make tasty treats. I'm passionate about sharing a bit of my knowledge, which I have gathered over the last 35 years of cooking."

What was your first job in the industry? Plus where were you before?

"My first job was as a commis pastry chef at the London Hilton, up until then I’d been studying at Silwood Kitchen in South Africa."

Favourite spice? And what dish/recipe would you suggest using it in? 

"I love the versatility of cooking with ginger, it's a lovely flavour which works well in both savoury and sweet recipes.

"It reminds me of Christmas, but it is also good for seasickness, you never know when you are going to be out at sea. At Cocoa Black, we often use it in our chocolates, cakes and patisserie recipes."

Are you sweet or sour? So is it all peace and harmony in your kitchen or do the pots and pans fly? What little things annoy you?

"Is there ever peace and harmony in any kitchen? I have worked in a kitchen where pots have gone flying, I have ducked a few peppermills in my time.

"Here, most of the time the Cocoa Black kitchen runs pretty smoothly, I try not to lose my rag in the kitchen. In any job that is high pressure sometimes you might snap, we've got a great team, but occasionally the pressure mounts (e.g. in the run-up to Easter) and I don’t like silly mistakes."

What is flavour of the moment in your kitchen right now? 

"The big trend at the moment is vegan. Over the past few months, we’ve been busy developing Cocoa Black’s 2020 range of vegan chocolates and patisserie in the experimental lab."

Tea or Coffee? Is it Darjeeling darling or bitter Colombian? What's your brew and how you like to drink it? Camomile, Milky brew or builders elaborate, please?

"I’m a coffee person or chef's petrol as we call it.  I usually start the day with a double shot latte at 6 am.  Our old Italian coffee machine was the first piece of equipment we bought when we started the business. Although the staff have limited my caffeine intake otherwise the pots and pans do fly."

Everyone has one at least one guilty food pleasure, so what do you love but are too embarrassed to admit?

"Sweet potato fries."

Who is your favourite chef? Plus everyone has a food hero/ local supplier, who is yours and why? 

"One of my favourite chefs is Gary Mehigan (former judge Masterchef Australia) who I worked with, in the early years.

"As for local suppliers, one of my favourites is the beautiful Bonnington's Farm in Peebles where we source our free-range eggs, which make our sponges so yellow."

Fantasy dinner party guests? and what would you cook for them?

Ruth Hinks
Chocolate Challenge with the Hairy Bikers and Ruth Hinks. Picture: Channel 5

"The Hairy Bikers they are such a riot and the party would probably get out of control. I recently spent two weeks filming with Si and Dave on The Hairy Bikers Chocolate Challenge.

"It was a blast and they’re coming to Peebles later in the summer. I’ll probably just fire up the BBQ with fresh salads and wait until one of them takes over."

I don't like...or I'd rather not eat....

"Tripe.  Enough said!!"

Cocoa Black

1-3 Cuddybridge,
Peebles EH45 8HX

(01721 723 764)


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