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Inspired by Japanese artisans

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Japan to learn from master craftsmen in Tokyo and Kyoto. I was inspired by their passion and dedication to honing their craft day in and day out, honouring long-established traditions and embracing new traditions as well.

I spent some time at the Valrhona school in Tokyo learning about Japanese ingredients and how to incorporate them into traditional French pastries which gave me a new look at refining what I do back at the chocolate lab.

One of the incredible craftspeople I met was Chikara Mizukami, the owner and master wagashi (Japanese confections) craftsman of the famed Ikkoan in Tokyo Japan.  I spent an afternoon in his workshop learning about his philosophy and approach to creating memorable wagashi confections. While Western confectionary is itself the star in a dessert, wagashi on the other hand, plays a supporting role to Japanese tea. In other words, wagashi's sole purpose is to enhance the taste and enjoyment of Japanese tea. Born into a wagashi-making family, artisan Chikara Mizukami created Ikkoan in 1977, his famed Tokyo shop.  I couldn’t help but be struck by the humble nature of this wagashi artisan and be inspired by his lifelong dedication to continually enhancing his craft.  He challenges himself to translate the seasons (and there are more than 70 in Japan) and the holidays of Japan by drawing inspiration from poetry, art and architecture. What a treat!

Because the ingredients themselves are so important, I also had a chance to travel to the outskirts of Kyoto to meet the artisans behind the famed Japanese matcha and sesame products.

Kiyoharu Tomita, President of the Nanzan-En Tea Corporation, a private matcha/tea manufacturer welcomed us to his plantation and explained the process from growing, picking, drying and grinding the tea leaves.  The employees expressed how proud they were to welcome us and show us how they produced this exceptional tea.  The president himself presided over the traditional tea ceremony and served everyone personally.  What an honour.

The last stop on this incredible journey was a visit with Koichi Yamada, the President of the Yamada Sesame Oil Company, who stubbornly, and thankfully, maintains the traditional way of producing sesame products, which in Japan is called the henko way. He told me he was born into a family who owned the sesame oil business and started helping out with business when he was in high school.  He has perfected his technique and timing to toast sesame so there is no bitterness. 

Looking back on everything I learned, I’m excited to put this new knowledge into practice with some of our existing products and to create a few new ones as well. 

You can see a few of the highlights by clicking on the photo below. 

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The Earth-friendly story of our chocolate

Yesterday was Earth Day, a time to connect with nature and think about what we can do to sustain and nurture nature.

While we all have a responsibility to be good stewards of this planet, it seems increasingly difficult to feel like we're making a real difference or having a significant impact.  The changing weather patterns at home and abroad all seem to be part of a larger narrative that there is much more to be done.

While I think we can all agree that there is a lot of work ahead, I don't want to forget to celebrate the successes and the models that are having an impact, not just on the environment, but on the economic conditions of people in regions around the world that will help sustain and promote positive behavioural change long term.

One of the producers we purchase chocolate from in Peru to make our award-winning Pure Nacional chocolates grows the rarest cocoa beans on earth. It's a special place high up in the mountains of Peru where the small team is working hard to establish beneficial direct trade partnerships with farmers and invest in protecting the environment in their region. They also create opportunities for the men, women and families in the community. They're making long-term decisions that will benefit the community, protect the environment and produce a superior product.

‘Chocolamentary’ is a documentary released last week by a company in the U.K. about these rare beans, the farmers who grow them and how Marañón cacao provides a sustainable future for this remote community. It's not a long video and it's time well spent. It will make you feel good about the chocolate choices you're making, especially this week as the attention of the world turns to our planet.

Watch the video here.

 Chocolamentary video takes you into the Maranon valley in Peru to meet the producers behind our Pure Nacional chocolate.

 Chocolamentary video takes you into the Maranon valley in Peru to meet the producers behind our Pure Nacional chocolate.

The inspiration behind our egg art

Oriol Balaguer is an award-winning Spanish pastry artist and chocolatier whom I had the great honour of working with in New York a little while back to learn about his passion for chocolate and his techniques for making showpiece eggs. This Easter season, you’ll see Oriol’s influences in my own work on display in our shop, or here online

 

I learned that Oriol got interested in the sweet arts at an early age when he watched his father at work in his own bakery while he played alongside him.  After studying and working in some of the best patisseries in Spain and Belgium, Oriol worked for seven years in Ferran Adrià's team at the famed elBulli restaurant in Spain. Adrià has been considered one of the best chefs in the world and defined Oriol as "one of the most all-round professionals in gastronomy". At just 21 years of age (1993) Oriol won the award as Best Artisan Pastry Chef in Spain and many more awards since then.

 

I’ve taken some of his techniques and others I’ve learned along the way to develop interesting egg showpieces that capture the light in interesting ways, hold interesting textures, show off luminous colours and incorporate the very best tasting chocolate from around the world.

Helping Peruvians recently hit by severe floods

We recently received urgent appeals for help from our cocoa producers in Peru. Several of our chocolates come from the region, including the single origin Illanka from the rare Gran Blanco cacao and our Pure Nacional chocolate from the Maranon region.

 

Over the past several weeks, torrential rains have battered northern Peru and thousands of families have been affected by severe flooding, losing their homes and crops. Many areas have also been cut off by landslides. 

 

Help has mobilized to get supplies to as many families in need as possible. 

We have provided some support and we’re proud to work with companies like Valrhona who have provided $10,000 to help the families affected and the people at Maranon Chocolate who are on the ground helping with harvest and have raised more than $14,000 to help local farmers.

 

Our thoughts are with everyone and we thank you for your support of the local community by buying products from that region like those we use to produce our chocolates.

Key roadways have been completely washed away and will take many months to repair.

Key roadways have been completely washed away and will take many months to repair.

Ever wonder about our chocolate Valentine traditions?

Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays with murky origins.  I did a little Internet sleuthing on a few credible sites, like the Smithsonian and History and learned that it wasn’t until the 1800s that both the technology required to produce really good chocolates and the broad appeal of acknowledging your sweetheart with symbols of your affection, that chocolate become intricately linked to the international day of sweethearts. Because when you think about it, chocolate was and still is today, a sought-after treat made with rare ingredients.  There’s no better way to express a rare affection for that someone special. Back then, cupids, lace and anything heart-shaped won the day as a sign of affection. 

Today, while cupid still makes an appearance on cards and in ads, a study last year by MasterCard in the United States indicates that Americans consider food the most important aspect of a successful Valentine’s Day celebration.

And in Japan, while food is important to the celebration too, there is a strong tradition of women giving chocolates to men on Valentines Day.  

I think it was Charles M. Schulz who once famously said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.” I have to agree.  Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone celebrating love with their soul mate, their family or their besties. And don’t forget to indulge in a little fine chocolate too.

 

  

Valentine chocolate box picture

American Express lists us among the best in the world

American Express lists us among the best in the world

This month, American Express covered the world of fine chocolate in their gorgeous online magazine, Amex Essentials. Each month, the magazine presents a selection of the most original travel and lifestyle trends and ideas around the world.  

Their dive into the best artisanal chocolate around the world was intent on finding chocolatiers who were passionate about giving people that perfect chocolate moment using the finest cocoa and lots of finesse. We were delighted to be on that list -- and the only Canadian chocolatier to be recognized.

Sometimes its easy to think that the good work you do in a niche market can only be recognized or successful on the stages the world is most familiar with -- stages in New York or the world's chocolate hub of Paris. It's exciting for us to see that no matter where you hang your chef's apron, there are appreciative audiences.  And if you're doing things right and truly passionate about your craft, the fact that your stage is in a remote part of the world doesn't really matter.

For all of you who appreciate our work, thank you! You inspire us to do more of it, and better, each day.

You can see the full article here: https://www.amexessentials.com/worlds-best-artisanal-chocolates/

Celebrating 7 international medals

October is something like the Olympics for small and large chocolatiers working with fine chocolate from across the globe who compete for coveted medals in the International Chocolate Awards. 

After some success previously winning awards in this competition, we decided to put a few of our chocolates before the judges again this year.  We picked seven bonbons we thought would stand up well and were ecstatic to win two gold and four silver medals in the most technically challenging category of dark chocolate ganaches during the Canadian leg of the competition.  

Winners of each of the individual country competitions were then judged together at the World Final in London England this month, which celebrates the best entries of the year. This year, more than 1,700 finalists from around the world were sampled and judged by a grand jury. That’s a lot of chocolate to nibble your way through in the week-long judging marathon.  We were proud to have all our chocolates recognized as finalists in that competition with our Pure Nacional chocolate winning silver!

So, you may be wondering what goes into making chocolates that stand up to that kind of scrutiny and come out rated among the best in the world?  Well, we think it’s a special recipe of using the very best chocolate and other ingredients, mixed with careful care and attention at every step of the multi-day process of making great fine chocolate and then constantly refining and perfecting your technique as you continue to learn more from the best chocolatiers around. 

We find great local ingredients and pair those with only the best, and some of the rarest chocolate on earth – chocolate made by producers with more than a hundred years of experience, who value everyone in the production chain. Each of these dedicated cacoa farmers has their own great story. At the heart of our story is a drive for creating good things, by and for good people, supporting strong communities.  While the award wins are pretty cool, it’s the bigger story and all the people in the process we’re connected to — including people like you reading this blog — that really gets us out of bed in the morning.

international chocolate award wins 2016
Chocolatier at work in the chocolate studio

Chocolatier at work in the chocolate studio

It's the time of year to thank the teachers in our lives

It's the time of year to thank the teachers in our lives

This month, as students close one chapter and graduate to another level of learning, and as we celebrate one of the greatest mentors in our life – our dad, I thought it would be interesting to share an inspiring experience I had recently with one of my own mentors and teachers.

When you work hard to be the very best you can be at your craft, I find it’s inspiring to look at the people who have moved the needle in new and interesting ways, to drive your own creativity and skill forward.

In April, I had the chance to be a part of a small, intimate gathering of chocolate and pastry professionals from across North America who had met up in Brooklyn to get insights and perspective from French pastry chef, Pierre Herme.

If you’re not familiar with Pierre, he began his career at the tender age of 14 (which is something that really does happen in France) as an apprentice to the master, Gaston Lenôtre. He now has a successful enterprise of chocolate and pastry boutiques in 12 countries around the world.  He’s been called the Picasso of Pastry and the inventor of the Pâtisserie Haute Couture concept, but I like to think of him simply as the father of modern pastry and chocolate.  But what I learned in Brooklyn is that he is someone who relentlessly pushes himself to be better and more innovative all the time.

Pierre generously shared details about his journey to open the very first Pierre Herme boutique, in Japan not France, and his pursuit of new flavour pairings and techniques to satisfy his curiosity and keep his tastebuds tantalized.  One thing that struck me during our time together is that he seems genuinely interested and curious about everything, and just about anything inspires him.  He has a very sophisticated palate, which helps him imagine unusual ingredient pairings, which he admits over the years have taken more than a thousand recipes to master. 

That’s something I can relate to because I’m always tinkering with my recipes to continuously refine them. Pierre shared a story about his now best selling cake, the Ispahan, which is a delicious harmony of rose-flavoured almond cake, raspberry and lychee. In Brooklyn, Pierre admitted that he originally developed the recipe with just rose and raspberry notes.  The cakes weren’t popular and his team pressured him to take it off the menu year after year.  The interesting part of the story is that Pierre said he could always see and taste the potential for this cake and refused to drop it from the line up.  He refused to measure success through sales.  He said that sometimes you have to imagine what isn’t there today and bring your community of customers along the journey with you. After years (yes, years) of tinkering with the recipe, he finally added a hint of lychee and today it’s consistently one of the top five selling products in his boutiques.

For me to hear that someone, who is considered at the pinnacle of his career, struggles and fails and doggedly pursues perfection…well it just leaves me with a renewed sense of purpose, focus and inspiration.

So for the graduates moving on, the dads imparting words of wisdom and everyone who has a few impromptu moments to mentor, don’t forget that everyone is always learning and growing.  The brave find new ideas and inspiration in their failures and stick with the journey for the long haul.