Culture  Sweet and bitter sweets

The world of artisanal chocolate in Montreal

I love chocolate. You probably love chocolate. And since the demand is firmly established, it only makes sense that there be a large supply. Within this supply exists the subsection of artisanal chocolate – that is, chocolate made by hand, and not produced by the giants of the industry like Nestlé, Cadbury, and Hershey. Montreal is home to quite a few of these artisanal chocolatiers and, thanks to the growing market for artisanal chocolate, continues to attract new talent.

The word talent brings about a few interesting questions: just who are these chocolatiers? And what should we call them? “Artisan, definitely,” said Chloé Germain-Fredette. “I don’t consider myself an artist at all.” Germain-Fredette owns her own shop, Les Chocolats de Chloé, in the Plateau. Nada Fares of Le Maitre Chocolatier considers herself an artisan too. While these women do not consider themselves artists, it certainly takes a kind of creativity and intuition to put together so many different chocolates. Not everyone would think to combine masala spices and milk chocolate, let alone mix chocolate with balsamic vinegar.

A large part of the artisanal chocolate industry involves this kind of experimentation; in fact, it’s one of the things that separates it from the larger, mass-manufactured chocolate industry. Chocolatiers are not afraid to try new things and push the envelope when it comes to combining flavours. Suite 88, which has two stores in Montreal, is not completely artisanal in its chocolate production, but hand-makes its truffles in small batches. The shop’s selection is constantly updated with rarities like lychee-ginger that are only available for limited periods of time.

The chocolate industry, much like any other, is not impermeable to trends. There are two principal schools of chocolate-making. The Belgian school relies heavily on milk chocolate and cream, which creates a sweet taste; the French school prefers to use darker, richer chocolate, and maintain a more bitter flavour. Les Chocolats de Chloé and Le Maître Chocolatier adhere to the latter, while Divine Chocolatier on Crescent, and most of Montreal’s other chocolate shops, are committed to the Belgian school. “The Belgian chocolates are sweeter and appeal to more people,” Fares said in French, “so there are fewer French chocolate shops.”

Most people tend to prefer milk chocolate, which is a large part of the reason why the Belgian method has grown rapidly and gained popularity. Dark chocolate, however, tends to appeal to an older crowd, not just connoisseurs. In the last few years it has gained popularity in North America, due mostly to the cancer-fighting antioxidants it holds, and the fact that its fats are vegetable fats instead of milk fats. In fact, Business Week quotes the increase in dark chocolate sales as just over 200 per cent between 2007-2008. During the recent recession, chocolate was one of the few industries to avoid catastrophe. It helps, too, that it is said to fight depression.

Being a chocolatier is not as easy a job as one might think. Germain-Fredette says that most people give up relatively early in their careers as chocolate-makers because “they don’t realize that it’s hard work – it’s a lot of manual work.” Artisanal chocolate makers spend long hours working with their chocolate, whether by experimenting with new flavours, which can take up to one year to perfect, or simply hand-dipping and decorating every single truffle. “Each kind of chocolate has its difficulty,” Germain-Fredette said, “but dipping especially takes a lot of skill and patience.”

According to Germain-Fredette, the chocolate industry in Montreal has grown considerably in recent years, maybe starting five to 10 years ago. “I think in Quebec our interest in food in general grew as well, but also a lot of people are realizing that this is something they can do,” she said. And it’s true – being a chocolatier is gaining credibility. She points out, however, that it is unlikely the chocolate industry will ever be as prominent here in Quebec as it is in France, where chocolate is part of the cultural heritage.

Fares agreed, saying that “Montrealers are very receptive to new food,” but was not as adamant about the chocolate industry growing, so much as the population’s palette refining. “They know more about chocolate now and can see the difference between artisanal chocolate and the chocolate they buy at a dépanneur, as well as the difference between real artisanal chocolate and those that are sold by resellers,” Fares explained. Thanks to a more discerning public, it is now harder to open a chocolate shop or become a chocolatier that does not sell quality artisanal chocolate.

But few people think of chocolate-making as a viable career. “It took me a long time to figure out that’s what I wanted to do,” Germain-Fredette explained. She went to university, but soon realized that she needed to do “something more manual.” After meeting pastry chefs as she tried to find her calling, Germain-Fredette realized that it would be possible to make a living from her hobby, and enrolled in a course for pastry chefs. Upon graduating, she worked in pastry for a little while before returning to her first love: chocolate. From beginning to end, it took Germain-Fredette seven years to finally open her own shop.

Fares said that for her, however, chocolate had always been the plan. Her decision to open a shop was influenced by the fact that there was little French chocolate in Montreal. “No one was really doing what I wanted – there was a lot of extravagant chocolate, a lot of new flavours, but no one was making simple French chocolate,” she said. Her French chocolate was well received in Montreal, thanks to the population’s enthusiasm for food, and also the rarity of that kind of chocolate.

While we are not all cut out to be artisanal chocolatiers, there is more and more of an industry waiting to welcome those who are. Quebec has yet to open a school or a chef course specifically dedicated to chocolate-making and lags behind Europe in its chocolate production, but the industry here is gaining a reputation. As for the rest of us, we can do our best to keep the demand for artisanal chocolate high.

Les Chocolats de Chloé is located at 546 Duluth E. Le Maître Chocolatier is located at 1612 Sherbrooke O. Suite 88 is located at 3957 St. Denis. Divine Chocolatier is located at 2158 Crescent.