This Valentine’s Day, someone you care about will hand you a foil-wrapped brown blob masquerad-ing as “fine chocolate.” Because you’re a trooper, you’ll take one for the team and eat it. Chocolate’s chocolate, am I right?
No. There’s greater similarity between moonshine and single malt than there is between waxy, oily commercial candy and real chocolate handmade in independent shops. Until you taste the real thing, you will be in the dark (and not the cocoa-based kind) about the richness, complexity and possibility in each sweet.
In a day of visiting some of Toronto’s finest chocolatiers, my friend Otis and I learned the hows, whats and wheres of Hogtown’s yummiest. Do yourself and your loved ones a favour this Valentine’s Day and venture beyond the grocery or corner store for your confections. Here are a few places to start.
32 Tank House Lane
Unlike any other chocolate shop in the city, Soma Chocolatemaker imports raw cocoa beans from farmers and does the rest locally: roasting, grinding, conching, tempering and forming the chocolates in small batches, using all-natural, time-tested processes. (Head on over yourself to learn about all the stages, from “bean to bar.”)
But don’t be too distracted by the hubbub of Soma’s mini-factory to notice that their chocolate tastes wonderful. Each small batch differs slightly from the one before and offers regulars ever-changing flavour profiles.
Store manager Stephanie rolls out the “brown carpet” for Otis and me, starting us off with a warm cup of drinking chocolate spiced two ways and then tray after tray of truffles. An “old school” chocolate bar, coarse and sandy, disintegrates on our tongues before melting. I love the green-tangerine chocolate bar and the single-origin cocoa truffles.
Traditional flavours like peanut butter and chocolate can be found elsewhere: “We like to stay away from too much convention,” Stephanie says. “We make our pure chocolate using traditional methods, but when we make truffles, we have a lot of fun."
361 Roncesvalles Ave
Once you tear your eyes away from the steely blues and manly physique of Chocolateria proprietor Tim English, you’ll notice a few curiosities. In addition to the truffle case (a standard at all the chocolatiers we visited), bags stuffed with chocolate-dipped Twizzlers, potato chips and sesame snaps line the counters, alongside homemade Turtles and bacon-chocolate bars.
There are dogs and guitars made of chocolate, and Tim will do custom orders for parties and large-scale events. Apparently the sky’s the limit with chocolatey forms: “You can find chocolate moulds in practically any shape,” he says with a smile.
Tim worked 20 years as a lawyer before leaving that profession to pursue his growing fascination with chocolate. Guess he was called to a different kind of “bar.” But don’t ask him to pick his favourite: “When it comes to chocolate,” he says, “I go all ways.”
753A Queen St E
After five years in Toronto and 15 years in the chocolate business, co-owner Patrick Smets knows a thing or two about chocolate. Born and raised in Belgium, he recalls a childhood “surrounded” by the tasty treats. “Instead of wine,” he says, “you would bring a box of chocolates to dinner parties and social gatherings.”
This guiding principle has influenced the edible art Patrick creates. His truffles are delicious and balanced to taste but are equally impressive as works of art. He prefers to reinvent classics, such as the caramel fleur de sel (incredibly creamy) or a lemon truffle made by combining two Meyer lemon ganaches made from different parts of the fruit (complex and bold), rather than experiment with trendy flavours that may not weave seamlessly with his quality chocolate tradition.
Ambiance Chocolat’s retail presence hasn’t much atmosphere, ironically, with fluorescent bulbs casting a chartreuse light on the truffle case framed by orange and lime-green walls. But while the idea of sipping a cappuccino at one of the few front tables might not entice, the chocolates more than compensate.
653 Dupont St
Stubbe is a sleek and inviting chocolate boutique with pyramids of perfectly round truffles and bonbons stacked against black marble and mirrored glass.
Even the gift boxes are decadent, hearkening back to a 19th-century refinement too often lost in the humdrum of modern urban design. While owner Daniel Stubbe has high quality and aesthetic standards, he prides himself on “keeping it real” — producing the smoothest, most delectable chocolate he can in line with six generations of family values, while presenting it attractively and at an affordable price.
Daniel makes only tried-and-true favourites: truffles flavoured with fine fruit essences or pure alcohol. Don’t look for porky or cheesy chocolate in this shop; if he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t serve it. “You won’t find coconut anywhere in my store. How can I tell if I’ve made a good product if I hate the flavour to begin with?”
For Valentine’s Day, Daniel plans to construct a model of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture.
3040 Dundas St W
Walking into Delight is like stepping across the ocean into a European chocolaterie. The barn-board flooring and whitewashed antiques make lingering at a sun-soaked bistro table with a plate of truffles even more delightful. And then you get to eat them.
All of the tablets, truffles and fillings are made in-house, from locally sourced and organically grown ingredients where possible, ranging from the toasted hazelnut butter to the locally smoked sea salt. Even the single malt scotch in one of the signature Valentine’s truffles is certified organic.
Rather than using detailed moulds, Jennifer prefers to hand paint her edible chocolate boxes and truffles, marking the Québécois organic blue- cheese truffle with a white fleur-de-lis.
After nine years in the business, she still feels at home making chocolates, experimenting with balanced new flavours (cardamom rosewater, chili cinnamon, pink peppercorn) while providing a sustainably guilt-free experience that feels as good as it tastes.
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