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Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008

Life is sweet

Chocolate heart

Work doesn't have to be a chore. Launching a series looking at dream children's careers, Lucy Rodgers unwraps the secrets of the professional chocolate taster.

As far as fantasy jobs go, chocolate tasting must come pretty near the top of many people's lists - children and adults alike.

However, sampling and buying the best sweets the world has to offer for luxury Piccadilly department store Fortnum and Mason is probably beyond most chocoholics' wildest dreams.

That is what Darren Williams does for a living.

Fortnum and Mason chocolates
Someone has to check they taste nice...

The 43-year-old confectionery buyer spends his working hours researching, sampling and negotiating deals on top-of-the-range chocolate and sweets from across the UK and abroad. And he is unable to disguise his glee.

"I get to eat and taste an awful lot of sweets and chocolates," he smiles. "I taste them daily.

"I get to travel around and search for products and then I get to eat them."

Working in the high-end of the market, Darren is constantly on the hunt for the "best of its type", which can be anything from the perfect Cadbury's sample to unusual and elite single-estate foreign products.

Learning to spit

All in all, he oversees, and samples, about 500 different lines at Fortnum's - from Fruitellas and Black Jacks, right through to rare ganaches.

"I taste everything - fudge, nougat, Turkish delight - everything," he says, quickly explaining the techniques he employs so as not to get fat.

Darren Williams
You do have to eat things you don't like, but you have to get over that. It doesn't stop me doing that part of the job
Darren Williams

"I am not the size of a house. You have to get used to spitting. You have to do this to taste the premium products properly. But you do have to be careful.

"I have 16 boxes of chocolates right next to me now - it is a temptation to keep eating them."

Darren reads widely and visits trade fairs to ensure he is aware of the newest confectionery at all times. The internet has made his job a lot easier compared to that of his predecessors, who would have been forced to "search the jungles" for unusual products, he says.

The average day begins by assessing what sold well the previous one and what needs to be bought, before the enviable task of sampling new products.

"Most of the tasting is done in the morning before the palate is ruined for the day," he says.

"If you are doing fillings then you can do more because the flavour variants are so significant. But with chocolate itself, you would probably do about six."

Salary: General retail buyers 12,000-50,000+
Numbers: Estimated 146 UK chocolate buyers
Breaking in: Join retail industry after school or take course in supply chain management, logistics or business studies
Source: Skillsmart Retail/Careers Advice

As the store's chief confectionery taster, Darren tries not to let personal preference affect his choices. For example, he doesn't like marzipan and doesn't drink alcohol, but still has to buy products containing those ingredients.

"You do have to eat things you don't like, but you have to get over that. It doesn't stop me doing that part of the job."

When judging bars of chocolate, Darren looks for the balance of cocoa and sugar that best brings out the character of the bean. Contrary to what many assume, it is not necessarily true that the higher the quantity of cocoa, the better the chocolate.

Making it

So, how would budding chocolate connoisseurs get to do what is potentially the industry's top job?

Darren began his route to a career in chocolate after leaving sixth form when he entered the retail industry. He went on to become a coffee buyer for Marks & Spencer and it was a short leap to confectionery buyer at Fortnum's, for whom he also continues to buy coffee and tea.

Apart from having well-trained taste buds and an understanding of quality, he believes one of the crucial parts of his role is understanding what customers want when they enter the store. At Fortnum's that is premium products.

But, like other buyers, Darren confesses to sometimes getting it wrong and, he says, this is the most frustrating part of the job.

"You are always going to have things that don't sell, but it is always disappointing when you have put a lot of work into a range when it doesn't come off as well as it could."

Fortnum and Mason truffles
Fortnum and Mason aims to stock the best of the best

His advice to those with a sweet tooth wanting to follow in his footsteps is to acquire a reasonable level of education and the ability to do basic maths, but, he says, no professional qualifications are necessarily needed.

Wannabes can become buyers by entering the retail industry and working their way up through merchandising, or they can join with a specialist tasting skill, for which there are courses available.

However, Darren warns the job requires a certain natural flair and is not just for gluttons.

"Not everybody can do it," he says. "You can train your palate. To get the basics it shouldn't take longer than six months. But if you haven't got it by then, you probably won't."

The crucial thing is to have a "passion for food" and "to want it enough", he adds.

So, does Darren have one of the world's best careers?

"It is a job that you would die for. It is really good fun."

Next week: The professional Lego modeller.

Below is a selection of your comments.

My Dad grew up near the Cadbury's factory and they used to send trays of chocolates to the school for the kids' opinions - he now hardly ever eats the stuff.
J Jarman, Lincoln

You would get pretty sick of it in the end I would imagine. And spitting it out is the worst part of it. Extreme care would need to be taken in order keep your sugar levels and BMI right. Although if all you do is put something in your mouth and spit it out, it wouldn't be hard to make time during the day to keep your body in a good condition. You would get many varied opinions on this kind of job. Although the salary sounds more tasty than the actual job.
Luke, Farnborough

I actually don't think that would be my dream job. I love chocolate, but it's better as a treat with a cup of tea than as a daily thing. The pleasure I derive from chocolate comes, for the most part, in the fact that I don't have it often.
Sophie, London

I agree. Too much of a good thing would spoil the enjoyment for me. This would become like any other job. I have a newsagents/ confectionery/tobacconist background when I worked in the sector there were only so many free Mars bars I could stomach in one day.
K, Pinner

I had a friend who never touched chocolate. When I asked him why, he said that as a kid he'd been taken to a chocolate factory and was encouraged to gorge to his belly's content. But he was so sick the next day that it turned him off chocolate for life. Never too much of a good thing, I'd say.
Judy, London

Yum! What a fantastic career, a heady mix of chocolate and travel. My dream job although as a chocolate purist I would have to agree with Darren that I would struggle with the marzipan and liquor variety.
Masie B, Leeds, Yorkshire

I would think that eating chocolate most every day would take all the joy out of it. For me, part of what makes chocolate so special and delicious is that it's a once-in-a-while kind of treat.
Sara, Dallas, TX

I think it would be fun to taste chocolate but how do you keep your teeth in good shape???
Jim, Greece

By brushing one's teeth twice a day and also taking extra precautions in brushing the teeth instantaneously after work. It also works wonders for the teeth if one can visit the dentist quite often. Now would this be sufficient to "keep your teeth in good shape"?
Ghumra, Leicester

Your teeth can't be "in good shape" if you have to visit the dentist "quite often". Do you consider yourself healthy if you spend lots of time in hospital?
Steve, Southampton

Marzipan is like Marmite; people tend to love it or hate it. I love both.
Mike R, Southend on Sea

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