By Laura Aiken
Driving around Ontario’s countryside is often full of surprises. One
minute you’re sailing along an ever-unfurling slab of superhighway, the
meat in the middle of a farmland sandwich.
Driving around Ontario’s countryside is often full of surprises. One minute you’re sailing along an ever-unfurling slab of superhighway, the meat in the middle of a farmland sandwich. The next, you’re rolling through the maple tree laden streets of a village so charming in its heritage that you imagine you’re in a Model-T Ford posturing away in a top hat and tails. This is certainly the nature of driving east along the 401 toward Ottawa and stopping off in Cobourg, which, if you choose to do, will reward you with a most interesting chocolate experience.
At 260 George St. in downtown Cobourg sits an unassuming little house that’s quietly signed Mercury Chocolates. Here, chocolatier Darren Johns, 40, is playing out his own version of life as Willy Wonka, a dream he’s had since seeing the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as a youngster in 1975. At press time, Johns was in the midst of moving to a new location but this Bakers Journal interview took place here.
You can see little inside from the street, which piques curiosity and makes you all the more curious. Johns’ love of Italy, where he takes small tour groups of Canadian foodies, is evident in his German chalet-style cuckoo clock, which he says are the same that typically adorn the wall of many shops there. True to tradition, it’s set to the wrong time. A white board lists the available chocolates, which are displayed neatly in a glass case. They are adventurous chocolates, chocolates bearing a design patent, but that’s unsurprising after having met their creator.
Johns grew up in Grafton and attended high school in nearby Cobourg. He first joined the Canadian army as a field medic, but decided to leave and train to be a chef. He travelled to western Canada where he found work in high-end hotels. He came up through the ranks, eventually venturing back east to work at upscale inns until about 1999. Johns, decidedly, needed something a little more exciting.
“I’m a wanderlust-y, adventurous kind of guy, so I hired myself out as a chef-medic for exploration expedition groups on cold-climate shoots. I’ve seen the Arctic and the Antarctic looking after groups like National Geographic and a film group from France…. One of the best times [from life as a chef-medic] was when I got hired as a consultant for the U.S. navy on their Los Angeles class nuclear subs and ships and that’s as close as you’re going to be to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It was a bonzo good wild time.”
However, after injuring his hands in the cold on assignment in 2007, he was forced to search for a new adventure.
“I had about half the equipment from Italy to start to do chocolates and I just decided it was a full circle of what I wanted to do as a child, so here we are.”
Friends with knowledge of engineering and AutoCAD design software helped him customize his equipment. He came across Botticelli’s 15th century image of the mythical god Mercury in 2007 and decided it was the perfect simple, yet memorable, image to represent his chocolate shop.
|Mercury Chocolates specializes in custom lines that pair wine with chocolate.|
His niche market is working with wineries and restaurants to create customized chocolate lines that are matched to the wine and can even act as carriers for it. Johns learned about wine through his work and training as a chef as well as touring the Niagara and Prince Edward County regions of Ontario and his many trips to Italy. Mercury Chocolates operates with three staff and a distributor, AARC Sales & Marketing. The business is 80 per cent wholesale to hotels and restaurants through custom lines, dessert-size lines, and individual lines for wineries that would like an alternative method for presenting their wine. He also does some retail sales through the storefront and online ordering.
“We’re a wholesale custom shop. It’s not about what we have but about what you would like to have. What can we design for you to highlight what you have? We can do it through chocolate.”
Johns holds an industrial design patent on his line of chocolate cheesecakes. This was no easy feat. He says that while you can’t patent food, you can patent the look and feel of something that is innovative and new. He notes that while big companies have the resources to defend the look and feel of their products, it’s not usually feasible for small operations. The patent process is very specific about what you can and can’t do, and your creation has to be pretty innovative to earn this kind of patent.
“The concept of how it’s put together, the method and technique hasn’t been approached before so it’s easier for me to do it and look after it [the chocolate cheesecake design] than have the big companies copy it and end up with something that’s a shadow of it. I think you’re going to find this [patents] a lot more prevalent as we move on in the food business because it’s a lot more innovative now – a lot more.”
Johns says he was blessed with an unusual gift that has helped him in the intricate art of chocolate and wine pairing. He describes his palate as photographic, which he says is a photo
graphic memory and acts “like a hyperactive hard drive in your head that lets me taste foods on a molecular level.” This begs the question of whether he was a fussy eater as a child, but he shakes his head and says the only thing he’s really never liked is creamed asparagus on toast.
A purist in the truest sense, Johns procures all of his raw cocoa from micro plantations in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Madagascar. The chocolate is all fair trade but not much is certified organic. He says when it comes to wine and chocolate, you have to have to have the raw cocoa and you can’t just match a 60 per cent from Ecuador and say it’s going to go with all the Barollo or Cabernet Sauvignon.
“The profiles are completely different. You have to have each profile and know how it works on the palate. It’s all completely different. Some cocoa is a lot higher in acidity so you know if you have a vino that has a higher acidity level it’s not going to work.”
The wine and chocolate line is meant to help restaurants serve their patrons who don’t want to move to a dessert wine after dinner, or to offer them a new vessel for the wine itself. This is done by creating an ultra-thin shell and infusing the ganache with the wine.
“[This] completely moves away from the notion that dessert has to be sweet. The chocolate has the natural flavour that can stand up to the red wine but the mascarpone on the inside can be infused with the wine; there’s a continuity thread with the flavour profile in how it moves in the mouth. You have the perception of sweetness but you can still drink the red wine. Normally when you drink red wine and you have something sweet it throws it off, but there is no white sugar here, we don’t use it in the shop at all.”
Mercury Chocolates is serving a niche market that’s growing internationally for Johns. He’s created lines for establishments in British Columbia, California, Halifax, Toronto and Montreal, and is slated to be in Italy by March for a winery in the Chianti Classico region. Johns says he would like to see about 50 per cent growth over the next three years and that will be about as big as he’d like the company to get.
A self-described wanderlust, Johns is now living the studious and disciplined daily life of a small business owner and innovator in small-town Ontario. His most memorable moments in the shop are when he opens his doors to host chocolate labs and birthday parties for children.
“Just seeing their eyes you know what’s going on in their mind – it’s complete chaos. They’re like WOW. Seeing the expressions on their faces when they come into the actual shop and realize where they actually are, seeing that expression is priceless. It just makes the whole business that much nicer. It can never just be about money or you. It’s what you’re doing for others.”
But is it enough of an adventure for this entrepreneur?
“For now, between the chocolate and the Italy trips – the food and wine hosting – yeah, it’s enough. When you’re in these remote climate places and you see that you’re not at the top of the food chain anymore and you don’t know a lot – if you’re going to get home, get out alive – it sets thing in perspective. So chocolate is a pretty good lifestyle. It’s a pretty good lifestyle when you’re getting home at the end of each day.”