Summer Festival Guide

Summer is festival time in the Comox Valley — don’t miss these upcoming annual events…

A zephyr full of rich, viagra 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.”

“The chocolate that I use is all made with organic cocoa beans and some of it is fair trade certified and some of it isn’t, but even if it doesn’t have the fair trade certification it is harvested ethically. The fair trade certification costs money and not every farmer can afford to do that.”

When asked if she has been to see the harvest and meet the farmers, Peavoy wistfully shakes her head, but brightens as she mentions the tip jar in the store that’s devoted to funds for a trip to Costa Rica.

“One of the guys I buy chocolate from, Steve Devries, takes people down there and runs a week long course in one of the plantations where he gets his beans. He is directly involved in the harvest.”

“The flavor starts right from how ripe the pod is when it’s taken off the tree to how it is dried and fermented and how long the flavors are left to develop. He takes 10 people each year to help with the process and learn how it is done.”

Peavoy hopes to be there to harvest next year. She points to a large narrow painting on the wall that at first glance appears to be a painting of chilies, but is, in fact, two cacao pods.

“First the cocoa pods are cut open. Then the beans are scooped out and put in vats of banana leaves and fermented for a couple of days. That is when they start to develop flavor and change into a darker brown color. After the liquid is drained off, the beans are dried in the sun for two days. They are then ready to be shipped to the chocolate maker. These are the raw cocoa beans.

“Steve Devries receives them at his facility in Denver, Colorado and he roasts them. Like coffee, you can roast them longer and at a higher temperature for a stronger flavor. That is the part that chocolate makers don’t reveal—it is the secret to their flavor. Then, the beans are ground down or ‘conched’ (blended for days) until it gets a super smooth consistency so that you can’t even feel the granules. Some makers will add cocoa butter or cocoa powder at this point.”

Once a bean has been roasted and ground it will separate into two parts—cocoa butter and cocoa powder,” Peavoy adds. “Those are the two things that make up cocoa mass. Some companies will separate these two and then add more of one thing or another into the main bulk of it to change the flavor.”

It is becoming clear why chocolate has evolved slowly and through the efforts of many hands. It is no simple thing making solid chocolate from the beans of the cocoa tree.

The day Peavoy decided she was going to open an artisan chocolate shop she went to the video store and rented Chocolat. After watching the movie she went online and looked up chocolate making schools and found a great three-month, part-time program out of Vancouver. She signed up the next day.

“The school taught me the basics,” she says. “It started with tasting different kinds of chocolate and then learning how to temper it. This is taking dark chocolate, melting it down, adjusting it to the right temperature so that it sets up correctly and then using it. You can tell if you are doing it right by how it sets up. If the room, the chocolate or the working surface is at the wrong temperature, or if there is too much humidity in the air or your timing is wrong, then it will have streaks or dots on it or it will be soft and floppy and not have a shine. If it is perfect temper then it has shine and snap and sets up quickly. Tempering was the first and most important thing that they taught us.”

Peavoy laughs as she explains that streaky, spotty chocolate “will taste great, but it won’t look very good.”
With a new appreciation of just how complex this process is, I ask about the early days of Dark Side Chocolates.
“In the beginning, I screwed up so many batches of chocolate and truffles. To make the chocolates you blend the chocolate with cream and infuse it with different flavorings. You make the centre which has to sit overnight before you chop it, roll it or scoop it and then dip it in straight chocolate to coat it. So, I would have already gone through the process of making the centres and then go to dip them and mess up the temper on the chocolate. They would have streaks all over them or they wouldn’t set up properly. It is really hard to maintain the right temperature in the chocolate, and I spent a lot of money learning how.”

Her biggest hurdle was getting past the mistakes and ruining batches of chocolate. “They were still edible and my friends got a lot of chocolate, but it cost me a lot of money and a lot of frustration. And of course, it would usually happen when I was still up at one in the morning making chocolates for the Farmer’s Market.

“It is some of the most frustrating work I have ever done, but because it is so frustrating when you get it right, it is the most rewarding,” Peavoy says. “It is like arts and crafts with food and it is so much fun. The high point of this job is doing it and having it work out because it is a treat every time it works out!”

The first truffle she created was the Mexican Chili, in honor of the Aztec and Mayan roots of chocolate. “It contains three different kinds of chillies, vanilla and cinnamon, which is similar to how it used to be drunk,” she says. “Ancho chillies gave it a nice rounded chili flavor without too much spice. It is a really full flavoured truffle.”

Setting up shop in the village of Cumberland was an easy decision for Peavoy. “Cumberland is a great place to have a store,” she says. “Everyone has been so welcoming. People often ask if I get enough business in Cumberland and the answer is ‘Yes!’ The locals are huge supporters of the stores in town.”

It is hard to leave the comfortable couches and intoxicating aromas of Dark Side Chocolates, but the tempering chocolate needs Peavoy’s attention and my box of chocolates is calling to me. Nestled into the black box are a double dark, tequila lime, chai spice, baileys and organic red wine truffles. I can tell that I will have no trouble finding inspiration in this box as I write.

Dark Side Chocolates is located at 2722 Dunsmuir Avenue in Cumberland. You can also find their products at the Comox Valley Farmer’s Market, Edible Island Whole Foods and Brambles Market in Courtenay.

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“A friend recently asked me what I’d do if I had a week to live,” says author Susan Ketchen, whose book ‘Born That Way’, a novel for young adults, has recently been published. “I’d be right here!”

Driving on Headquarters Road heading northwest out of Courtenay on a spring day, the world reads like a rapturous ode to the ideal of ‘rural.’ Fluffy white lambs frolic alongside their grazing mothers; green fields unfold gently under golden sunlight. The plum and cherry trees are losing the last of their blossoms, releasing pale petals out into the gentle wind where they spiral and eddy like confetti.

Roadside signs advertise eggs, free-range meat, horse rides and bedding plants. The farmhouses and barns suggest lives that follow the rhythms of the earth, rather than the non-stop rush of cyberspace that seems to drive much of the Western world these days.

At the end of a quiet gravel road is a grassy driveway that winds past grazing horses, sunny pastures and a well-kept barn, ending up at a welcoming country home. And in the house and up the stairs is a small room with a desk, computer, well-stocked bookshelf, and a view up the driveway—a writer’s den.

This home—fields, barn, den, all of it—is where Susan Ketchen has done two remarkable things.

One of these is tangible: a book. In her upstairs room-of-her-own, Ketchen produced Born That Way, a young adult novel she wrote in a three-month period and which was picked up by one of the first publishers she sent it to, Oolichan Press. No easy feat these days, when the vast majority of manuscripts submitted end up feeding the publisher’s paper shredder.

The other remarkable thing is not tangible at all, but is perhaps just as rare: Ketchen has realized her childhood dreams.

Pretty much from the moment she was old enough to think about her future, Nanaimo-born Ketchen knew she wanted two things: to ride horses, and to write. Although her life has taken her in a variety of directions, not all of them necessarily leading directly toward these two desires, she somehow ended up just where she wanted to be.

“Miraculously, I now live on a small hobby farm in the Comox Valley with my husband, two cats, two horses and a flock of chickens. I write and I ride,” writes Ketchen on her website.

Riding and writing meet in her book, Born That Way. The 185-page novel tells the story of Sylvia, a 14-year-old self-confessed ‘horse-nut’ who, much to her frustration, has no horses in her life, beyond clandestine visits to a chestnut mare who grazes in a field near Sylvia’s home.

Her mom is an overzealous psychoanalyst who, in spite of good intentions, smothers Sylvia with her psychological theories, seeing Electra complexes, unconscious sexual drives, and potential neuroses in Sylvia’s every thought and deed. Her dad is friendly and easy going, but distracted and unengaged.

On top of all this, Sylvia is abnormally short. Why isn’t she growing? How can she convince her parents to let her ride? How can she take charge of her own life?

The novel answers all these questions in an engaging, wise and often very funny account in which Sylvia gets help from unexpected allies including her pet barnacles, the Internet, a mysterious blond stranger, and a perceptive psychiatrist. But perhaps most important to her journey are her inner resources: a series of vivid and increasingly lucid dreams, and a deep determination that pushes her forward. Once she learns to trust and direct these inner powers, she begins to transform her life.

“I wanted to write something that would be uplifting for me,” explains Ketchen. “It was winter when I was writing it. It was dark and raining. I wanted something light, not oppressive.

“I’d been doing some research on plot. I’m part of a writers’ group and in response to [my earlier work] they kept saying this is all really well written but where’s the plot? I became curious about ‘what is plot?’ I was reading Jack Hodgins’ book, A Passion for Narrative, and he had a quote from someone saying plot is a character struggling toward the light. That really appealed to me.”

Born That Way reflects Ketchen’s interests—horses, psychology and neuroscience—but it is not autobiographical, she says. The characters and events in the book originated in her imagination and were fleshed out with research when necessary.

“You know, writers say things like, ‘Oh the character showed up and was in the room with me the whole time.’ Well that’s nonsense really, they are in our brain,” she says. But not necessarily the rational, logical part of the brain. The work of the imagination is still very much a mystery and Ketchen really doesn’t know quite how she came up with all the vivid and powerful details of her story.

“The book came to me in little pieces. I had the initial idea that begins the book—a girl riding a horse in her dreams. I started with that, and then things came to me. It unfolded itself to me—in my brain and on my computer.”

Writing, she says, has something in common with riding. “Both are tremendous challenges. You need to think of several things at once and also, you need…” She hesitates a long moment before continuing… “not to think.

“Riding, physically, takes a lot of special muscles you don’t use otherwise. But it’s not just strength that you need. It demands a certain relaxation. You need to flow with the movement of the horse.

“In writing, there are rules and conventions of grammar structure, but there is also the creative side. You can’t write good fiction just out of a rule book. Some of it has to come out of your more intuitive side.

“I can have some intentionality—I’m going to come up here and work on Chapter 3 and I have an idea of where I want it to go. But if I plan it out too much, it’s not as good as the times when I let stuff come to me.

“And that’s where the fun is, when the flow happens. Some of this book just came to me out of left field, I don’t know why or from where, and that’s what’s the most fun,” she says.

This balance—keeping a degree of conscious intention while going with the flow—applies to Ketchen’s journey through life. “I very much believe in keeping my wits about me, but going with things as they happen as well,” she says.

By the time she was 20 Ketchen was already competing in equestrian sports and had published a couple of short stories in Miss Chatelaine, a national magazine. She was obviously on track with her two goals, but a practical inner voice was pointing out that she might need to explore other fields if she ever wanted to make a living.

And explore she did. Her university career was marvellously varied: “I studied everything that interested me: psychology, anthropology, sociology, creative writing, philosophy, economics, social theory, law, business. Just one problem: to earn an actual degree, you’re supposed to focus on something. And ideally, you don’t travel around the country sampling one university after another,” she writes.

Well-educated but degree-less, she still knew exactly what she wanted: to have time to write, to have horses, to live on a farm. So she began a career as a financial policy and procedures writer with the provincial government. She invested in property, hoping to make enough to buy a rural acreage, but was stymied by a market crash. She leased a horse for a while, hiked, kayaked and kept at her job.

One Response to Summer Festival Guide

  1. Nice job on Festival Valley InFocus mag (and nice job on the site Dialect). ;-)