Local artisans are turning Toronto into one of the world’s most exciting chocolate cities.
Published: Wednesday 17th May 2017
The granite wheels spin, churning a tawny wave of chocolate that glides around a stainless steel cylinder. The heady concoction looks like expertly pulled espresso, and it smells just as inviting: nutty, a little earthy and slightly smoky. A sweet whisper of caramel draws me in for a deeper smell, then, an ineffable musk of allspice has me doing a double take.
That’s when Chrystal Porter, ChocoSol’s head chocolatier, interrupts my reverie with a laugh and an explanation. What I’m witnessing is the refining of Jaguar chocolate, made from a rare white cocoa bean the company sources from Chinantec farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico. While it could pass for quality milk chocolate, there’s no dairy involved – just the unique natural signature of this exceptional cocoa bean.
For 11 years ChocoSol Traders has built a cult following in Toronto with its bean-to-bar chocolate, in which the chocolate maker oversees every step of the production chain. ChocoSol sources raw cocoa beans directly from farmers, then, it roasts the beans, shells them, grinds them and refines them before
turning them into bars. This chocolate is a missing link between the unadulterated, rustic, gritty and bitter chocolate of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica (cocoa’s birthplace) and the highly refined, smooth, sweet confection that comprises the majority of modern-day chocolate.
Education, Porter says, is like a fertilizer to help the city’s love of chocolate grow. As such, education is central to ChocoSol, which hosts regular workshops on a variety of topics such as cacao, horizontal trade and ecological chocolate making.
Chocolate, to me, was always like Willy Wonka. It’s a world of imagination. There’s no right. There’s no wrong
“It’s a culture we’re cultivating here, just like we would a garden,” she says.
Over the past few years artisan chocolatiers have quietly transformed Toronto into one of the world’s most exciting up-and-coming chocolate cities.
Local chocolate makers from in and around Toronto have been capturing the attention of critics internationally: Hummingbird – a chocolate shop based out of Almonte, Ont. – won best bar in the world at the prestigious Academy of Chocolate Awards in 2016. Toronto’s Soma Chocolatemaker, too, has won big at the International Chocolate Awards numerous times, including a gold in 2015 for its Porcelana bar and a silver in 2016 for its Old School Milk Chuao bar.
One of Toronto’s brightest emerging stars is Brandon Olsen, who collaborated with his fiancee – filmmaker and artist Sarah Keenlyside – to launch Chocolates x Brandon Olsen in late 2015.With top local restaurants such as the Black Hoof and Bar Isabel on his resume, Olsen is better known for his savoury kitchen skills, but sweets were his first love.
Armed with a toothbrush, a spray gun and his fingers, he uses a rainbow palette of coloured cocoa butter to create chocolate jewels that are equally Jackson Pollock, Emilio Pucci and Willy Wonka. But Olsen is well aware that having Instagram appeal means nothing if the flavours fall short.
“I’d rather eat something tasty over something beautiful,” he says.
Olsen draws on his diverse culinary skill set to create flavours that are left-of-centre in the normally conservative world of chocolate. His creations feature cocktail references (he uses sake and sherry), savoury combinations (such as lime, ginger and black pepper) and classic Middle Eastern influences (such as honey and orange blossom).
“Chocolate, to me, was always like Willy Wonka. It’s a world of imagination. There’s no right. There’s no wrong,” says Olsen, who taught himself the chocolate arts through trial and error. Rather than trying to please everyone all the time, Olsen opts to keep things fresh with a house collection of nine flavours and limited one-off editions.
“If you have 31 flavours, they aren’t special anymore,” he says. “They’re mediocre.”
Another rising star for Toronto’s chocolate-obsessed Instagram crowd is David Chow. His pastry background led him to focus on bonbons and bars he makes using high-quality chocolate from the world-famous Valrhona in France.
“I love the playfulness of it, the ability to do anything at any time,” Chow says.
He might conceive a flavour, like his award-winning honey-toffee-fennel bar, and move on to something entirely different the next day, like a Meyer lemon and thyme bonbon. His artistic sensibility allows him to dazzle his 20,000-plus Instagram followers, who turn the comment section into an infinity pool of superlatives and heart emojis.
Chow operates his business, David H. Chow Chocolates & Confections, as a one-man show, hand-crafting his creations and doing his own deliveries, so Instagram helps this talented and perpetually on-the-run chocolatier market and grow his company.
And growing is important, because aside from keeping up with production, Chow’s biggest hurdle is trying to find affordable real estate to open his own store. He rents a kitchen as he needs it and then sells wholesale to high-end grocery and specialty stores, including Pusateri’s and Drake General Store. He’s not the only Toronto artisan chocolatier facing this challenge.
The city’s newest single-origin chocolate maker, Soul Chocolate, has a similar arrangement. Owners Katie Bartlett and Kyle Wilson rent a small room in the back of a Corktown cafe to accommodate their time consuming bean-to-bar process.
Open for a year-and-a-half, they currently sell wholesale, but their dream is to move to Niagara, where they met, to open a coffee roaster and bean-to-bar chocolate facility.
Perhaps the most creative solution to city’s chocolatier real estate challenge is taking the store out of the equation completely. Last May, Sean Hyun and Jeremy Guan – who became friends at University of Western’s business program – launched Cacao Avenue, the first monthly subscription service focused on Canadian artisan chocolate.
If we want good chocolate in the future, we have to care for it
Over the past couple years, they noticed new local chocolatiers emerging every month. But it’s often difficult to connect all these talented chocolatiers with customers who would appreciate their work, so they started their service, which offers monthly chocolate collections that highlight local producers. One of the chocolatiers they’ve worked with is Sandra Abballe.
Abballe has been a cocoa lover since she was a child, when she used to hide chocolate under her bed. She trained as a pastry chef, but her passion for chocolate was reignited full-force when she had the opportunity to compete at Canada’s World Chocolate Masters competition in 2013. She won Canada’s best moulded bonbon, and that sparked a business idea.
At the time, no one in Toronto was making intricate chocolate show pieces or colourful hand-painted bonbons, so she began setting up Succulent Chocolate and Sweets. After the competition she found an affordable space in Vaughan that she transformed into her dream chocolate lab. Less than half a year later, Succulent opened up for business – but not in the traditional sense.
“Instead of opening a door and waiting for customers to come in and purchase chocolate, we approach them and bring people together with chocolate,” she explains.
She and her team visit clients to host chocolate workshops and custom chocolate tastings, where they provide some education along with a chocolate fix.
Although Toronto’s chocolate history dates back to over 100 years ago, when the now-ubiquitous Laura Secord opened its first store on Yonge St., the city’s modern chocolate scene began a decade-and-a-half ago with bean-to-bar pioneer Soma.
When owners David Castellan and Cynthia Leung founded their business, California’s Scharffen Berger was the only other North American chocolate maker focused on bean-to-bar. Today Soma is one of a few in Toronto, dozens across the Canada and hundreds in North America.
With a focus on quality ingredients, small batches and flavour, it’s easy to draw parallels to the craft beer movement that has exploded in the last decade. That comparison isn’t lost on Castellan and Leung, but they see the process as more similar to winemaking, though with one key difference.
“A winemaker can just go into a field and take care of his grapes, but we have to depend on what happens before we get the beans,” Castellan says. “That’s the missing link, and it’s far away.” He’s looking for a creative solution to bridge that gap.
In January he and Leung visited Bachelor’s Hall farm in Jamaica, where they source some of their cocoa. They plan to set up a small chocolate line so the farm’s owner, Desmond Jadusingh, and his team can taste how growing, drying, fermenting and roasting impact the finished chocolate bar. It seems obvious, but it’s revolutionary: most cocoa farmers never get to taste the end result of their hard work.
The investment in Jamaica is about more than the practical result of better chocolate for Soma. These days the cocoa industry is threatened on all sides by global warming, child labour, crumbling infrastructure, unfair trading practices and decades of prioritizing a bean’s hardiness and yield over flavour.
“All great cocoa is hanging on a thread,” says Leung. “So if we want good chocolate in the future we have to take care of it.”
This holistic philosophy is inherent in the bean-to-bar process and permeates Soma’s entire chocolate making approach. If their international awards are any indication, it’s a process that has served them well so far. That recognition goes hand-in-hand with our increased food I.Q. here in Toronto.
“We want more high quality products. It’s an extension of the food knowledge and sustainable food movements, and chocolate is just the next in line,” says Jennifer Lakhan-D’Souza, a program coordinator at George Brown College in Toronto.
Not having a history of tradition gives us freedom to experiment
She developed George Brown’s professional chocolatier program eight years ago in response to industry demand. This autumn, the school is updating its program again with a new lab capable of making bean-to-bar chocolate.
Unlike cities with established chocolate culture like Brussels, Paris and Zurich, Toronto’s chocolate culture is young, but the local community sees that as an advantage.
“I think not having the history gives us the freedom to experiment. There’s nothing tying us back to tradition,” says Lakhan-D’Souza.
She has a point. Chocosol’s Jaguar is so rare it’s virtually unheard of, even among the most hardcore of chocophiles. The creative whimsy of Olsen and Chow has the internet buzzing, and even veteran producer Soma is pushing the definition of chocolate (it has been known to substitute raspberry or mango for milk to create innovative twists on white chocolate).
“We have great ingredients and food here, and people are starting to finally take notice. Not just here in Canada, but internationally as well,” says Chow.
So you’re officially on notice, Europe. Toronto’s coming for your chocolate crown.