How sweet it is: Halifax’s chocolatiers
Heather Oliveira started Cocoa and Honey in 2011. At that time, she says, there was very little in the chocolate market in Halifax. “I love how luxurious it can be,” she says. “It’s a sweet little treat you can hold and it’s so delicate and wonderful. Chocolate itself is fruity, nutty, bitter, sweet. It can go with wine or coffee. It’s very versatile.”
Oliveira uses local ingredients when she can, including cranberries from Lunenburg and fresh plums from farmers’ markets. Her dairy products come from Quebec, and the chocolate comes from Cacao Barry in Montreal.
She changes her products over the year, introducing new flavours for the holidays. She makes nine artisan bars including plain milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and one with hazelnuts, ginger, and orange. Seasonal truffles, caramel roasted almonds covered in chocolate, and hot cocoa mix are all popular, too.
This season, she’s offering advent calendars with chocolates in small, decorative boxes. She also makes a chocolate centerpiece shaped like a pinecone that’s filled with chocolate-covered almonds. Oliveira works on production in a commercial kitchen two days a week during the busy holiday season. She sells her products on Etsy, as well as at Ratinaud on Gottingen Street where she works full time. Eventually, she’d like to host classes on how to make chocolates.
“When you’re melting and tempering chocolate, it’s fun to watch it transform,” she says. “This beautiful, shiny, dark, silky mass.”
Newfoundland and chocolate isn’t a pairing most people consider.
“A lot of our customers say, ‘Well, what’s so special about the Newfoundland Chocolate Company?’” says Colleen O’Reilly, store manager at Newfoundland Chocolate Company in Sunnyside Mall. “Definitely, it’s the story behind the company and their pride in Newfoundland, and their love for chocolate and where they started, and using all pure ingredients.”
Company owners Brent Smith and Christina Dove started the company in 2008, selling chocolates to retailers and markets before opening their first shop in St. John’s. They expanded to Nova Scotia this year, and besides Sunnyside, have locations in Halifax Shopping Centre and Mic Mac Mall.
The flavours here are distinctly Newfoundland, including regional ingredients such as bakeapple and partridge berries. The packaging is Newfoundland-inspired, too.
Many of the wrappings on the bar are decorated like the jellybean rows houses that are well known in St. John’s. Still others have quirky Newfoundland sayings like “oh me nerves” and “stunned as me arse.” O’Reilly says those are customer favourites.
Much of the chocolates are made in St. John’s and shipped to its stores. Truffles and the gelato are made in store at the Sunnyside location.
O’Reilly says customers are quickly buying into the idea of locally produced chocolate.
“We do a lot of tasting here,” she says. “When they taste it they are more inclined to buy here.”
Jean-Pierre Gallois was working as a chocolatier in a five-star hotel in Paris for several years when he became sick of the city. Then he saw an ad in a French newspaper looking for a pastry chef to work at the Keltic Lodge in Cape Breton. He got the gig and spent several years splitting his time between Cape Breton and France.
“I was young at the time and I said maybe I could go somewhere and learn something,” Gallois says.
Yselt Bertic saw the same ad, too, while she was working in London. Gallois hired her as a pastry chef assistant. Eventually, the pair married. Fourteen years later, the couple moved to Halifax and opened Gourmandises Avenue Chocolaterie.
“It’s always a dream in the back of your head that you say, ‘Maybe someday that might be something we will do,’” Gallois says.
They first sold their chocolates and pastries from a storefront on Cow Bay Road in Eastern Passage, as well as weekly at the Brewery Market. They still have the Eastern Passage location, but it’s a production facility now. They opened a new storefront in the Seaport Market six years ago.
Gallois says chocolate is versatile and can be used in so many ways. From the start, he has used local ingredients such as wine and honey. And there is no shortage of holidays during which their clients enjoy chocolate.
“Between the Santa, the snowman, the bunny, the hearts, we never stop,” he says.
At the Choco Café Chocolate Boutique and Espresso Bar on Lower Water Street, Lama Issa says chocolate is about happiness.
“Whoever buys chocolate is happy,” says Issa who owns the boutique along with her husband, Omar Khartabil, and brother, Rami Issa. “He comes in happy and he goes out happy. It adds delight to my life.”
The business was home-based until four years ago, when customer demand inspired the owners to open the shop. Besides the chocolate offerings, there is a café that serves espresso and hot cocoas.
They make the hot cocoa with milk and white or dark Belgian chocolate. Customers can get a flavour shot such as hazelnut, pumpkin spice, or marshmallow. “Everybody says it’s the best hot chocolate in town,” says Issa. “You can really play with it.”
In the boutique, there are displays of boxes of chocolates, small treat bags, and other chocolate gifts. Here Issa puts together chocolate platters for weddings, baby showers, corporate parties, and other events.
The flavours change every few months and include nuts and cheesecake, and holiday flavours like ginger and mint. Issa’s favourites are the almonds.
They use Belgian chocolates, but are getting the machinery to produce their own chocolate in house. Issa says they found they were running out of chocolate supply well before orders could be filled.
But Issa says their business is about more than chocolate, and that’s why their clients keep coming back.
“I find people really like to support us as a small local business,” she says.
“As long as you’re opening a store in downtown Halifax, you’re supporting the economy, you have employees, you’re supporting the vibrant core of the downtown.”
Nathalie Moran says she has regulars who come in daily to buy chocolate at Rousseau Chocolatier.
“They work or live dangerously close to our shop,” says Moran, who along with her husband, Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet, owns and operates the Hollis Street chocolate shop.
They opened the boutique in May 2014. Rousseau-Dumarcet worked as a chocolatier across Europe and Canada for 15 years, before deciding on Halifax. Moran says they chose the city for its lifestyle, lack of competition in the chocolate market, and the city’s future.
The chocolates are made in small batches, and include unique flavour combinations such as orange balsamic caramel. Around the holidays, Moran says they make more chocolates with liqueur centres, which include flavours from local distilleries.
“Since we’ve been planted here, we noticed an incredible amount of business throughout the year, not just for Christmas, Valentines, and Easter,” Moran says. “And it’s exciting because it’s proving people not only get it for special occasions, but treat themselves and others. It’s the perfect gift, really.”
The couple would like to expand their shop in the future. They also hired a student from the NSCC culinary program to help Rousseau-Dumarcet make the chocolates.
“It’s really fun to transmit all of that knowledge,” Moran says. “She is really excited to learn. We want to make this place a real staple in Halifax.”
Chandra Lockhart started making chocolate eight years ago after first trying raw chocolate at a raw-food restaurant in the U.S.
“For me, it was like a really big deal, because it was gluten-free and dairy-free and good for you,” Lockhart says. “It was just beautiful.”
She took that immediate love for raw chocolate back to Halifax and opened the appropriately named Rawthentic Chocolate. She started experimenting with flavours at home, making the chocolate in her kitchen, and selling it at the farmers’ market.
Lockhart used to work as a soap maker and sees the similarities in the process. “Chocolate is a mix of science and alchemy,” she says. “There’s a bit of magic in there, especially when you’re hand making it.”
The bulk of products are made from Peruvian fair-trade chocolate.
She creates several artisan bars that range in flavour from sweet to spicy. She flavours truffles with orange, lavender, and rose. Products are gluten- and dairy-free.
Lockhart now sells wholesale to Pete’s, Local Source, The Nook, Organic Earth Market, and Noggin’s at the Alderney Market.
As a kid, Lockhart was allergic to chocolate, so she understands those clients who love chocolate but can’t eat it.
Chocolate also contains Phenethylamine or PEA, a chemical Lockhart says affects the neurotransmitters in the brain the same way love does.
“I think that’s one of the reasons people are so emotional about chocolate,” Lockhart says. “I have people cry because they can have chocolate.”
CORRECTION: Cocoa and Honey’s name was misstated in the first sentence of the print version of this story. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.