Every year on Easter Sunday, my mom used to drive by the Purdy’s plant on Kingsway and Earles and I would look longingly out the window at the line of people outside. They were waiting for the factory’s annual tour, and I desperately wanted to join them. When I was 10, it finally happened. As I watched a woman paint curlicues on caramels, I thought, that is what I want to be when I grow up.
Safety regulations no longer allow public tours, though Gary Mitchell, head chocolatier at Purdy’s, remembers them fondly. “We used to put 6,000 people through the factory that day. It was a lot of fun.”
Mitchell joined Purdy’s in 1993. While the company still makes peanut butter daisies and Sweet Georgia Browns, Mitchell has helped create more outlandish offerings, such as chili pepper truffles, pear-lemon caramels in spring, and pumpkin spice truffles for fall.
In business since 1907, Purdy’s is a Vancouver institution, but as the city has grown, so has the number and diversity of its chocolate shops — and some of them are attracting attention on an international scale.
Case in point: Beta5 Chocolates. In last year’s inaugural Canadian National Competition of the International Chocolate Awards (full disclosure: I’m the Canadian partner of the International Chocolate Awards), Beta5 Chocolates took home an armful of awards — and then competed against the world’s best in London, winning a silver medal for their Imperial Stout confection. Shortly afterward, co-owner and head chocolatier Adam Chandler was named one of Dessert Professional’s top 10 chocolatiers in North America.
“It’s all still sinking in,” says Chandler. “The recognition has given us the confidence to keep doing what we’re doing… it’s helped in that the average customer off the street is more intrigued to try the more unusual stuff we’re doing.”
Originally from Ontario, Chandler’s taken to Vancouver and its food-obsessed denizens, and particularly the influence of Asian ingredients on an otherwise European culinary scene. Working in hotels and restaurants opened his mind to different flavour combinations, such as “the sweet-salty-bitter combinations that you don’t think about when you’re doing just European cuisine,” says Chandler. “And I really love the environment here. The geography, the physical place itself is inspiring for me.”
In October, Beta5 will launch their seasonal caramel line — and with Christmas just around the corner, Chandler’s thinking about peppermint patties, edible sculptures and Christmas crackers filled with chocolate-covered fruits and nuts.
While Purdy’s and Beta5 specialize in confections, there’s growing interest in chocolate itself — not just as an ingredient, but as something to taste on its own. At Xoxolat, owner Hodie Rondeau has curated the city’s most extensive collection of bean-to-bar chocolate: chocolate made from cacao bean into chocolate bar, often on small scale. In addition, the shop teaches classes aimed at helping people learn how to appreciate the finer qualities of something they might otherwise scarf down.
Rondeau is quick to debunk the idea that tasting chocolate is snobby or elitist. “I think that learning to taste chocolate, or to taste anything, helps you enjoy things more. But when you do it through chocolate you don’t get a hangover.”
After several years at the corner of Burrard and Eighth Avenue, Rondeau and her team are settling into their new digs at 1271 Homer St. in Yaletown. “The people in Yaletown, they’re amazing,” she says. “They stop in and try something and they get it. They get it better than I do, sometimes. It’s just so cool.”
Vancouver, we’ve come a long way since chocolate curlicues on caramels — and I couldn’t be happier about it.
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