Quality from Bean to Bar

Linda Gilbert admits she’s no fan of take out. Especially when it comes to fine chocolate.

The co-founder of family run The Island Chocolate Company in Victoria-by-the-Sea believes good chocolate deserves to be enjoyed and appreciated. And that, she insists, takes time.

“We have this aversion to take out. We’ve tried a couple of different ways to discourage it. But I find the best way is to just talk people into stopping, sit down and relax.

“If you don’t have the time to eat it,” she laughs, “then don’t have it.”

Linda believes that chocolate is a metaphor for life. Both are better enjoyed if you take the time to appreciate.

“We take a lot of care and attention,” she explains, “and we use really great quality ingredients, so we really want people to taste and enjoy chocolate. We really want people to appreciate what we do. “

It’s difficult to imagine a family more passionate about chocolate than the Gilberts. Since opening their chocolate factory in 1988, the family has specialized in creating hand-made fine chocolates of the highest quality, following a rather unique formula that would be difficult to reproduce.

To begin with, any recipes are rather basic and adjusted to suit the family’s particular tastes.

“We don’t have recipes, really,” explains Linda. “You just put butter and sugar and chocolate and fruit and liqueur, and you taste every batch. So every batch is just by flavour.”

“We’re pretty consistent with it, because it’s our taste. It’s all made how we like it.”

They’ve always insisted on using the finest ingredients.

“Originally, we were importing chocolate from Belgium,” remembers Eric Gilbert, who was 11 when his parents opened what locals have always referred to as the chocolate factory. “We’d melt it and we’d do nut clusters, raisin clusters, dried fruit, almond bark and almost anything you could think of.”

They’ve always insisted on using fresh fruits when in season. They also developed a line of liqueur centres that has since evolved to include collaborations with such local partners as Deep Roots Distillery and Barnone Brewery and Hop Farm. And they use moulds, some new and some 70 years old when Linda’s husband Ron first used them, to create moulded chocolates.

“We’re a seaside fishing community, so we do a lot of ocean-themed chocolates,” says Eric. “We have chocolate seashells, chocolate lobsters, chocolate fish and other things that relate to the culture of our community.”

Island Chocolate’s commitment to using and producing only the best chocolates took a significant step forward in 2006, when Eric spent his last year as a university student in Equador. He worked with an indigenous farmers cooperative of cocoa growers, learning how to grow the beans and convert them into chocolate.

He’s since gone back 12 times, spending 5 months during some winters, bringing equipment and teaching locals to grind or temper chocolate. He also helps grow cocoa beans for chocolate that he ships back home.

“We’ve been making chocolate bean to bar since 2006,” explains Eric. “Now I’m shipping chocolate to myself and grinding cocoa beans here as well. So we’re doing chocolatier work, but also chocolate making work as well.”

He also owns a nearby farm, with 42 pear trees as well as strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and blackberry bushes.

“Not only are we making the chocolate, but I also grow the fruit that we’re using in it. So it really is a hands-on thing. We do almost everything by hand. I’ll still temper chocolate by hand, if I’m doing small batches.”

Island Chocolates occupies a building that dates back to the 1880s. Built just a few doors up from the Victoria wharf, it served as a general store – the central hub of any community – for what was once a major shipping port. Much of the original architecture was gone or covered up when the Gilberts bought the building, but Ron was determined to restore the old general store.

“Two neat things happened,” recalls Linda. “Ron had an old photograph and he restored the front with new windows just like the originals.”

“The other neat thing is that the (Victoria) Playhouse held an auction and the previous owners had donated the doors. So we were able to buy back the original doors.”

Ron also stripped away modern materials, added when the old general store was an apartment, finding much of the original architecture beneath.

“All of the original wood, the floors and ceilings, the molding and the shelving, was below that,” recalls Eric. “Over the years, we tore all that stuff down to the original, slowly expanding through the building, restoring it as we went.”

The Gilberts also added a few touches to complete the general store feel. The old shelving has been filled with Ron’s collection of antique chocolate molds, boxed chocolates and other goods for sale. A curved glass display case fills half of a massive wood counter. And an old cash register, purchased in 1911 for a store in St. Peters, sits facing customers, its open cash drawer filled with chocolate loonies.

“My dad really appreciated the architecture of this island village and this building in particular,” explains Eric. “He wanted to honour what was left here and to add to it.”

That commitment has proven to be a key part of Island Chocolates growing success. While the family’s reputation for quality bean to bar attracts the travelling chocoholic, the old world feel of the place is what brings many locals back.

Janet Lake has been enjoying Island Chocolates with four generations of family members for roughly three decades. Her parents spent their retirement summers at the family cottage in Victoria and we’re already regulars when she and her husband bought a home in Crapaud. 

“The first year or two that I went, it was because it was mom’s favourite place to go,” says Lake. “She loved going there in the summer time. It was her favourite spot.”

It later became a favourite of her three children and, more recently, she’s introduced her grandchildren. She stops by at least once a week in July and August, and estimates she visits at least 20 times in a season.

“I love their zesty lemon and I love their clusters, so I’m usually having one or the other when I go.”

“But also, aside from that, at certain times of year when strawberries are in season, they do a lovely strawberries and whip cream, and drizzle Belgian chocolate over the top of them. And it’s just to die for, so I certainly have one of them.”

But even more appealing is the environment the Gilbert’s have created. The feel of the old general store, the dedication to hand crafting chocolates from quality ingredients, and the insistence that people stop and sit a spell have all made Island Chocolates a place where people gather and connect.

“Soon enough people get chatting, whether they know one another or not. You end up sitting next to someone from who knows where and you get to chatting. So it’s more than just connecting with people you know. It’s just a natural thing that seems to occur on that deck.

“And, really, what could be better than chocolate and a good chat.”

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