Local Business

Enjoying the Dark Side

Cumberland chocolate shop turns the sweet confection into organic art…

“It is like arts and crafts with food and it is so much fun,” says Jan Peavoy.  “The high point of this job is doing it and having it work out.” A zephyr full of rich, tantalizing smells slips over me as I open the door to Dark Side Chocolates. This little shop in Cumberland is home to some of the finest chocolates in the world. Jan Peavoy, owner and chocolate artisan, infuses each truffle with flavor, history and passion.

Peavoy’s dream of making unique, hand-made, organic chocolates is realized in this old building on Cumberland’s main street. The dark wood and granite case displays 18 different varieties of truffles, each one more beautiful than the next—Pomegranate-Orange, Salted Caramel, Beaufort Blackberry Currant, Mojito, Lavender Vanilla.

Other specialties include flavour infused bars—such as Dark Chocolate with Lime, Dark Chocolate with Chilies and Cocoa Nibs, and Milk and Dark Chocolate with Coffee Beans—and hot chocolate “bombs”.

As I sip on my mocha, savoring the combination of bitter coffee and sweeter chocolate, I am drawn into the history of chocolate and how it has come to shape Peavoy’s life.

“Chocolate was consumed as a drink for 90 per cent of its history,” Peavoy explains. “It originated with the Mayans and Aztecs. They would grind it down and make a bitter, gritty chocolate drink with hot water, chillies and honey.”

A little research into the history of chocolate reveals the diverse cultural history that led to chocolate as we know it today. The cocoa pods symbolized life and fertility to the Mayans, and stones from their palaces and temples have revealed carved pictures of cocoa pods.

Chocolate was also extremely important in the life of the Aztecs. According to Arthur W. Knapp, author of The Cocoa and Chocolate Industry, “The Aztecs believed that chocolate was consumed by the Gods in paradise and that the cocoa seed was brought to earth as a special blessing by the God of the air.”

Though Columbus was introduced to the beans and the drink around 1492, he saw no value in either. It was Cortez that brought the cocoa beans to Europe in 1528 and suggested that the beverage be blended with sugar. The Spaniards mixed the beans with sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and cinnamon. This concoction quickly became a coveted recipe as the Spaniards held onto their secret for more than 100 years.

The Spanish historian Oviedo noted: “None but the rich and noble could afford to drink chocolatl as it was literally drinking money. Cocoa passed currency as money among all nations.”

By the early 19th century, the Swiss had created a chocolate factory and chocolate was being made in both hemispheres. Chocolate quickly became an affordable and popular beverage. It wasn’t until 1830 that chocolate was served as a confection. Solid chocolate was developed by J. S. Fry and Sons, a British chocolate maker.

Throughout its history and across the cultures chocolate has been valued for its health benefits.

“Chocolate has always had a strong connection to the heart,” Peavoy notes, “and the purer it is the better it is for you.”

Peavoy’s last point is key. The health benefits in chocolate come from flavonoids which are natural compounds with antioxidant properties. They are also found in green tea, red wine and berries. However, flavonoids are lost in the processing and thus, the more the chocolate is processed, the less flavonoids it will retain.

Dark chocolate has four times as many flavonoids as milk chocolate and white chocolate has none.

Out of the rich tapestry of chocolate’s allure, I ask Peavoy about her part in the design. What inspired her to switch from her previous occupation as a cycle courier to chocolate making?

Peavoy’s face is earnest as she explains. “I was always an avid baker in my own kitchen and had an epiphany as I was cycling one day—I wanted to make chocolates. I wanted to know where the chocolate I ate came from and I wanted to eat a truffle that was organic.”

“I wanted to trace the roots of chocolate,” she adds. “I wanted to learn how to make my own. The next thought was that I should sell them, because if I wanted them, other people probably did too.”

It was important for Peavoy to find out where the chocolates were coming from because of the potential for child slavery and malpractice in African chocolate harvesting. She wanted to know that the farmers got fair wages and that her chocolate wasn’t coming from plantations that wipe out huge areas of forest to plant rows and rows of cocoa trees. These plantations don’t thrive as well as they would in their natural environment, and therefore need pesticides and fertilizers.

“If the trees are left in their natural environment then they thrive,” Peavoy says, her furrowed brow relaxing as the conversation shifts back to ethical harvesting. “Chocolate that is organic comes from a sustainable forest and is free from chemicals.”

“Cacao trees grow within 20 degrees of the equator. The chocolate that I get comes from Central and South America. I use chocolate from Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.”

The largest chocolate producers in the world harvest mostly from Africa, where harvesting practices are slow to change.

“The chocolate maker that I buy from buys directly from the growers, so there are no middle men,” says Peavoy. “From what I have read, a lot of the problems in West Africa stem from the people in the government who are involved with the buying and selling. It is such a huge trade for their country and the workers are getting shafted. The people who are trying to get in there to improve the practices are thwarted by the government and all the middle men who don’t want prices to increase. Fair trade means you are buying directly from the growers, which is always the best.”