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By Sandy Rockett, Funding Officer, Big Lottery Fund

Imagine my delight at being invited to the Chocolate Memories project! Autism Work Ventures Ltd, which is a social enterprise organisation, was awarded funding of £10,000 from Awards For All in September 2011, to purchase a chocolate tempering machine and associated equipment.

The organisation works for the benefit of people diagnosed with autism or who have autistic tendencies, living in Northern Ireland. The project was designed to employ autistic people to create chocolate products and be self sustainable. It had me intrigued from the very start!

So along I went to the taste testing event – try saying that with a mouthful of chocolate! After leaving the office to travel approximately 8 miles to another part of Belfast, I was slightly nervous – not about the event but the fact I had to use Mr Sat Nav and would he get me there on time? Plus the vanity of it all – would there be a hairnet involved – not a good look for the pending photographs! But then again – FREE CHOCOLATE!

So I arrived on time and was greeted by Fiona McGarry, the driving force behind the “chocolate memories” project and who would give Mr Wonka a run for his money! The building was buzzing with trainees and visitors and I soon entered the factory part of the building where I experienced a trainee demonstrating just how the chocolate was made.

All guests were asked to taste different chocolates with different fillings and then grade them between 1-10 from ‘dislike’ to ‘love’ and also comment on the flavours, via a questionnaire. The findings will inform new flavours to produce and sell. So without a hairnet in sight, I, along with the other Charlie’s, were led to large tables containing the samples.

What a chore, having to taste around 20 different chocolates, with flavours ranging from honeycomb, peanut butter, strawberry, apple and cinnamon to chilli and dark chocolate. My personal favourites were lemon cheesecake and strawberry but I really had to stop as I was imagining being kidnapped soon by the Oompa Loompas!

Autism Ventures delivered a perfect event and made all visitors feel at ease. It was clear to see how passionate they are about their enterprise and it was truly inspiring to see how much they want to develop including placing people with autism at the heart of their operation.

As I was driving away, I couldn’t stop smiling, thinking about what a fantastic project this is, what a small amount of funding can achieve and how proud I am of the job I am doing. Nothing at all to do with the bags of chocolate in my handbag ……………

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