‘Chocolate-maker’ is surely guaranteed a spot on almost anyone’s dream job wish-list, but it’s one of those things that seems too specialised, and downright dreamy, to be actually viable. However a newly heightened interest, both at home and abroad, in Irish artisan produce has helped to create a small but burgeoning community here who are blazing a trail. Much like cheese, beer and coffee before it, Irish craft bean-to-bar chocolate feels like it’s right on the cusp of being properly appreciated and encouraged along.
The Gift That Started It All
Kelli and Patrick Marjolet’s Proper Chocolate Company is one of just a handful at work in Ireland. They’ve been in business for almost two years. Prior to this the couple had been living in San Francisco where Kelli was working in Marketing and Patrick in IT. A gift from a friend started them on the path toward independent chocolate-making. Patrick explains;
‘A friend of ours called over with a gift of some cocoa beans he had picked up in a place called Dandelion, which is a bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the Mission District of San Francisco. Shortly afterwards Kelli went to visit her family in Chicago. I love to cook, so I was intrigued by these beans and what I could make with them.’
A fascination was born, and Patrick started to devote more and more time to sourcing and experimenting with different bean varieties. To this day Kelli says they are just as meticulous about where they get their raw ingredients;
‘We’re big believers in the success of the end product being down to the quality of the ingredients, which is why sourcing the best beans possible is so hugely important to us. It’s something we’ll never compromise on. We’re also very particular about who we work with. We only use ethical sources. There are some suppliers we refuse to use and that’s down to the treatment of their workers.’
Taking Their Product To Market
In San Francisco they had developed their chocolate to a point that friends and family were constantly encouraging them to take it to market. It was around this time that they decided to return to Ireland, having emigrated when the economy took a dip. Although they returned to the exact same apartment they had packed up 3 years earlier, they found post-recession Ireland to be a very different place. The time was right to give it a try, and so they got to work on setting-up their chocolate business. Becoming a vendor at the weekly Honest2Goodness Market in Glasnevin was an ideal way to test the waters; ‘It worked well for us because we weren’t competing with other chocolate brands, let alone ones with huge marketing budgets to work with’, says Kelli, ‘We have people that I call our ‘angels’, who for whatever reason have just got what we were doing from day one, from our regulars in Glasnevin to the independent retailers who have taken us on, like Rory from Lotts & Co and Finn from The Hopsack in Rathmines. They’ve been a great support to us’.
The Chocolate Making Process
Unbeknownst to us melty-chocolate-fingered end consumers there are several phases that the product must go through in order to become the chocolate we know and love. Patrick and Kelli are all-too familiar with this laborious process, and their insistence on doing it all by hand is a testament to their passion for what they do. There is no corner-cutting here. Their micro-workshop in Glasnevin is where the magic happens – sort, roast, winnow, mill, conch, age, temper, mould and package. Before that comes the research phase, and the perfect batch of beans are a hot commodity, so prospective buyers must act fast to get what they want. Patrick describes himself as ‘a bit of a nerd’ in this respect and has taken a keen interest in the genealogy of the plants. They track the conditions of them over the seasons and hope to travel over to some of their suppliers in the future so they can see the origin of their product first-hand. For now the beans arrive as you imagine they would, in large hessian sacks having journeyed from as far afield as Ghana, Venezuela, Tanzania or the Dominican Republic. Then they pick their ingredient pairings, choosing flavours to work with based on the ones they identify in the beans. For example, one of this year’s Easter Eggs was a strawberry and cream blend, and more of a sculpture than a chocolate egg.
The beans have already been pre-sorted by the supplier but Kelli and Patrick still painstakingly sort their cocoa beans by hand to ensure only the plumpest cocoa beans make it into their chocolate. Defective beans that would crack and burn when roasted are removed. The tempering process gives the chocolate its more aesthetic qualities, like its sheen and snap. The completed bars are sealed in an understated but elegant black glossy pack. There are 8 steps involved in this alone, and again it’s all done by hand. ‘We’ve had to get creative with the way we do things’, Kelli says, ‘There’s machinery that could speed things up that we just can’t access in Ireland. In some cases we modify existing machinery or build it ourselves’. Having come from a Marketing background, Kelli also worked on the brand design and graphics.
The demand to sell further afield is there but as they are a small operation, Kelli and Patrick are happy to concentrate on selling in Dublin so that they can manage the delivery and logistics themselves. Instead they see collaborations with other independent makers as a great way to keep things on an upward trajectory;
‘We’ve worked with Rascals Brewery who bought our chocolate nibs to develop a Chocolate Milkshake Stout. Teeling Whiskey have been amazing to work with also and we’ve enjoyed our chocolate and whiskey pairings with them. We also travelled to Castlebar recently and had the chance to meet the people behind Achill Island Sea Salt, the salt we use for our most popular 70% Tanzania Cocoa Nibs and Sea Salt bar. They were just the loveliest people, and having met them gives us even more pride to work with their great product’, says Kelli.
Patrick is particularly proud of their work with Cloud Picker Coffee; ‘They wanted us to help add a chocolate note to an Ethiopian coffee they were serving. It was tricky, but we never shy away from a challenge! The difficulty was in trying to ensure that we got the balance just right, so as not to overpower the coffee but to allow a bit of the chocolate flavour to come through. I was really happy with that collaboration.’
You can still find Kelli and Patrick at Honest2Goodness in Glasnevin every Saturday, building up relationships and spreading news of their product through word of mouth. For Patrick the key is in getting people to think of eating chocolate as more of a premium experience, something to be savoured and enjoyed;
‘We’re trying to get people to view chocolate as a craft product, in the same way that they view beer and cheese. When you try any product that isn’t mass-produced the taste is incomparable, and chocolate is the very same’.
At their stall their iced chocolate drinks have been proving popular in the hot weather, and the comforting hot version is in high demand in the winter months. They also host chocolate-making workshops for other budding chocolate makers who want to see the whole process in action. They just released a Peanut Butter chocolate bar in collaboration with The Hopsack, and have catered for coeliacs and vegans in some of their produce. Of course, the passion for the ingredients and blending of flavours is there in everything they make says Kelli;
‘At the last artisan market hosted by the Teeling Distillery Patrick met Olly, of Olly’s Farm, who makes this incredible Dublin honey. He and Olly could have chatted for days—it was only the fact that everyone else had packed up and left that we finally called it a day! Being around fellow producers who share such a passion for their respective craft is beyond rewarding and makes this chocolate-making journey even sweeter.’
Photos by Fran Marshall Photography