Q&A with the makers of the Queen’s chocolate carriage

Posted on 14 May 2013 by Tim Brown

The Manufacturer talks to Mike Zietek and Nicos Charalambous who helped create the model of The Queen’s Irish State Coach carriage made from chocolate.

On 5th April 2013, Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh visited Mars Chocolate UK, Slough.

The visit included a tour of the company’s new research and development facility and the MALTESERS packing line in the factory as well as meeting with a number of Associates from across the business.

The visit ended with an unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the visit and the presentation of a model of The Queen’s Irish State Coach carriage made from chocolate. The carriage was created by Mike Zietek and Nicos Charalambous, both Innovation Senior Scientists at Mars Chocolate UK.

Queen’s Irish State Coach carriage made from chocolate
Queen’s Irish State Coach carriage made from chocolate.

The incredibly detailed model made entirely from chocolate, finished with edible gold leaf and was set against a backdrop of a picture of Windsor Castle – also made from chocolate. There were even two M&M’s characters dressed as guardsmen, standing to attention in chocolate sentry boxes at the back of the creation.

Weighing 8kg, the coach took 150 man hours to create and measured 21 inches long x 12 inches wide x 18 inches high.

1. Who came up with the idea to create a carriage for The Queen?

Mike Zietek (MZ): When we first heard that The Queen would be visiting the factory, we knew that we wanted to create a special chocolate product that was fit for royalty. Nicos and I set about brainstorming something that would demonstrate the skill and talent we have here at Mars Chocolate, and which would be personal to The Queen. We had to work in total secrecy as no-one else could know until the visit was officially announced, we were excited about the project and her visit so it was a very difficult secret to keep!

Nico Charalambous (NC): To gather inspiration for the model, we visited the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace to look at the carriages. We had to think of something we could make that had enough detail to show skill and finesse and that would work well in chocolate. We both agreed that The Queen’s Irish State Coach was not only incredibly iconic, but would look great made entirely from chocolate.

2. What steps/processes did it go through?

MZ: Before we could make anything we had to create a drawing to scale that we could use to work from. Our visit to the Royal Mews really helped ensure this was accurate. Once our drawing was finished we had to work out in which order to assemble all of the different components.

NC: Once we had completed the design, we set about making each separate piece out of chocolate and sugar, carefully assembling each component to construct the coach. The backdrop painting of Windsor Castle was crafted using chocolate and coloured cocoa butter and the frame was finely lined with edible gold leaf.

3. What were the major challenges you faced?

MZ: Casting the intricate shapes was especially difficult as unfortunately it is not as simple as buying chocolate moulds for picture frames and carriages! We had to be quite creative designing each piece from scratch, in particular working out how to make the large curved section for the outside of the coach. Ensuring that the curve was absolutely accurate and to scale was a challenge. We ended up making a lot of those and selected the best, as well as keeping a spare just in case. We also spent a lot of time working out how to stop the picture frame falling over and breaking the carriage as it was quite heavy.

NC: The need for such a high level of intricacy was also a challenge. We needed to produce each component of the chocolate carriage to the exact measurements in order for them to fit together perfectly. There was also the small matter of finely painting a very detailed image of Windsor Castle.

4. How are these processes similar to those used in your day-to-day role at Mars?

MZ: Being able to creatively bring to life new product ideas in a chocolate format is one of the fundamental reasons our R&D projects are so successful and a big part of this is being able to understand and solve complex problems. Although, it is often easier to fully grasp an idea if you can hold it in your hand and taste it.

NC: Tasks such as strategic planning, visualising concepts and paying attention to the finer details are all part of the day-to-day role, as well as the broad range of creative, chocolate and confectionery skills needed to convert innovative ideas into products that will appear on shelves.

5. How long did it take to create?

MZ: We were only actually given two weeks notice, so the whole process from idea to creation had to be very quickly turned around! Needless to say it was a very busy two weeks.

NC: In total, the actual creation of the carriage took around 75 hours of our time each.

6. How was it received by The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh?

MZ: Very well, I think. They seemed really pleased with it and even commented on how detailed it was, The Queen in particular seemed impressed by how detailed it was.

NC: After the visit, both Mike and myself delivered and presented the carriage to The Queen’s personal chef, although I couldn’t speculate on whether it was eaten or whether it will serve as a reminder of their visit.

7. Have you ever been involved in any similar projects?

MZ: I first began making things out of sugar and chocolate when I was at catering college, and since then I’ve had the bug. I have entered a few competitions over the years, my traction engine made out of boiled sugar earned me a gold medal at the international Salon Culinaire in 1996. However, I have always enjoyed making displays that people can enjoy, hotel guests especially get a lot of pleasure from seeing sculptures made from food. When I worked at Claridge’s, the Head Pastry Chef and I iced a giant 4 tier cake that was 6ft wide for the hotel’s 100th birthday.

NC: I have produced many chocolate models for VIPs over many years and before joining Mars I was awarded a total of 6 gold medals for Chocolate Models at Food Exhibitions in the UK, France and Germany. One of my favourites has to be a fully working Victorian clock!

8. How long have you been working at Mars?

MZ: I originally trained as a chef; that led to working within patisseries in 5 star London hotels as well as teaching. Whilst teaching, I decided to study for a degree in food science at the University of Surrey. Through the University, I was offered a placement year at Mars, which I loved. The placement led to a full-time role and I never looked back. That was nearly nine years ago! My background as a chef is really important to the way I do my job. The experience I gained working under some great pastry chefs like Alan Whatley, Claire Clark MBE and Ernst Bachmann is incredibly useful in my work, even when you get to the scale we work at there are times when that intuition is vital to solving problems.

NC: I joined Mars in 1989, initially as a Research Technician and worked across Product Development, Science & Technology and Recipe Systems in R&D. Nearly 24 years later, I am working within the Future Innovation area, which I truly enjoy. Mars is a great place to work and one of the reasons I have stayed so long is that everyday I have the opportunity to combine technical skill and creativity in a manufacturing environment.

9. What is your day-to-day role at Mars?

MZ: At present, we are both in the Future Innovation team. We’re focused on product innovation which looks three to five years ahead at the future of chocolate, trying to identify and address unmet consumer needs. A great part of the job is connecting across our global and regional businesses, sharing our work and learning from each other.

10. What does your day-to-day role at Mars entail?

MZ: My role is extremely varied, some days I could be going to consumer tasting sessions and another day I might be discussing how to build a production line. I have to be able to look at our production lines and understand what is happening to the food during the process – my hands on experience as a chef really helps with this. Understanding the lines not only helps identify new product opportunities, but also helps solve problems when commissioning new products.

My background as a pastry chef is put to regular use, developing new and interesting ways to combine flavours and textures within our products. I’m really proud that two of our Bitesize launches this year started with work I was involved with over the last couple of years. Ultimately, the role of my team is to fuel the innovation pipeline, developing great quality products that people will love, just like our new Maltesers Teasers.

NC: My role allows me the freedom to develop and create new products to be launched in the UK Market. I am able to test the products I develop with consumers at the very early stages of development and gauge the best direction to take in order to improve them and understand how they can fit better to our brands.

11. What skills do you need to work in R&D?

MZ: Working in future innovation you need to be able to articulate your ideas very well. It’s important to be able to engage with teams across the business and at every stage of the product development, especially at the very beginning. You need to have an infectious passion not just for the idea, but for the science and culinary angle too.

NC: An interest in science is crucially important as it touches everything we do on a day-to-day basis. An experimental nature is also vital as in R&D we always have to be prepared to try something new.

12. What is working at Mars like / what is the best thing about working at Mars?

MZ: Aside from projects like this and the opening of the £7m R&D facility last year, one of the best things about working at Mars is hearing people getting excited about products you make. Chocolate is a really fun product.

NC: Being asked to create this gift for The Queen has been a real honour and one of the highlights of our careers. Opportunities like this aren’t something you get at many companies and are one of the best things about working at Mars. Most recently we launched Maltesers Teasers, it’s such an exciting feeling seeing a product you were part of developing on the shelves.