Story by Jody Robbins
Vacay.ca Family Columnist
VICTORIA-BY-THE-SEA, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — Dipping my hands into vats of molten chocolate, I realize I’m living out every child’s fantasy. Swirling sugary concoctions through a silky sea of chocolate before plopping them onto a marble counter brings me to a near-transcendent state. I feel as though I’ve ascended to chocolate heaven — without even taking a bite. If only I could summon up such self control come Easter morning.
I’m at Island Chocolates, a chocolatier and cafe, where my daughter and I are taking a hands-on chocolate-making class. Located in Victoria-by-the-Sea on Prince Edward Island’s southern shore, it’s one of a handful of artisanal shops that tempt summer tourists to this storybook village. Rustic and filled with intimate charms, the shop is decked out with antique furniture and intricate silver chocolate molds. A long wooden display counter contains all manner of fresh, handcrafted temptations that beckon for a bite: lemon-lime cream centres, peanut butter supremes and dark chocolate caramels dusted with local sea salt.
Folks drop in for coffee or homemade desserts such as fresh PEI strawberries, drizzled with warm Belgium chocolate and topped with cream. This is a family business run by Linda Gilbert and her children, Emma and Eric. Their open workshop along the back wall makes you feel like you’re in their own home, and it’s where we gather to make our very own chocolatey concoctions.
Chocolate Heaven in PEI
Lessons start with students learning about harvesting and production practices from Island Chocolates’ suppliers in Ghana and Ecuador. Fortunately this discussion takes place over frothy mugs of velvety smooth cocoa lashed with whipped cream. It’s a rich beginning to our morning, but no chocoholic ever complained about too much decadence.
I realize this is going to be hands-on work — no factory-type assembly line, here. Linda Gilbert feels our hands to gauge for temperature. The kids in our group have warm hands, but I have nice cool hands, which are great for molding, our teacher informs. “We call it streakers and leakers when the chocolate cools improperly. Warm hands tend to make chocolate streaky,” Gilbert warns.
Gloves aren’t worn at Island Chocolates, since chocolate absorbs odours (like plastic) and bare hands can better sense its temperature. As a parent, I’m initially panicked about working with bare hands. Anyone who’s spent time around kids knows their lackadaisical attitude towards hand washing. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. I’m reassured after Gilbert supervises a robust hand-washing job (the first of many), plus she informs us hand dipping nets 30 per cent more chocolate on the treats than those made in factories — and I’m all over that.
We start hand rolling maple walnut cream centres into small balls. Gilbert encourages us to make different sizes, so we can figure out if we prefer more chocolatey chocolates or slightly less so. Our shapes are pretty irregular, but she isn’t fussed. “No matter how they look, they’ll still taste wonderful!” Gilbert promises. Scooping up these little morsels with one hand, we plunge them into a bowl of deliciously warm chocolate to evenly coat, before shaking off the excess, being careful not to steal the occasional lick.
It’s a surreal feeling playing, er, I mean working with chocolate. At times it feels like finger painting, especially when we’re plopping nuts into a chocolate pool, creating Jackson Pollock-like works of art. Yet, it’s certainly harder than it looks. Feeling the chocolate thickening and hardening as it cools means it needs to be worked more, and we learn how to quickly massage it with our hands.
Gilbert is a natural with kids, giving chocolate readings as one might read tea leaves. She correctly guesses my daughter is good at math and sciences, yet organized. I am apparently hyper-organized and creative. Benjamin, our 12-year old classmate, appears to be extremely creative with a lot of options in his life. Focus and discipline are strongly recommended. (No word if his mother had a private conversation with Gilbert prior to class.)
After two hours of rolling, dipping, molding (and occasional sampling), we come to the end of our heavenly adventure. Our fantasy turns into reality when we ditch our self control and reap our just rewards. As we sink our teeth into our creations, we know our vacation isn’t likely to get any sweeter than this. The chocolate gods and even Willy Wonka himself, would’ve been proud.
MORE ABOUT ISLAND CHOCOLATES
Location: 2 Russell Street, Victoria-by-the-Sea, P.E.I. (see map below)
Contact: 902-658-2320; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Class rates: $45/person
More Info: Island Chocolates opens each summer in June until the end of September. They also take Christmas orders. Hands-on chocolate classes take place every Wednesday or by appointment.