– Story by Chelsea Foreman Photographs by Don Denton
Much like the yuletide season, chocolate has a special way of bringing people together.
One of the most beloved foods all over the world, it dates back some 5,000 years through Mesoamerican history. The journey of a single chocolate bar might begin with an ancient tree in a remote jungle, and then travel through the hands of the farmer who harvests the cacao fruit, and on to the chocolatier, who imagines its unique flavour profile.
When you first begin to examine chocolate, the process can be overwhelming, as David Mincey and Paige Robinson discovered in the late 1980s. At the time, the couple owned a fine dining restaurant named Camille’s in Victoria’s Bastion Square. In 1989, Camille’s was one of the originators of the farm-to-table movement in Victoria. David, a professional chef, and Paige had just one ingredient key that was next to impossible to source.
“At our restaurant, we wanted everything we cooked with to be traceable, but the one thing we couldn’t source was chocolate. In 1989, we could not buy a single piece of chocolate that didn’t come from a slave trade plantation in West Africa,” David explains.
The couple began to research chocolate and travel to where cacao was growing to meet with chocolate-makers.
“With a bit of time and persistence, we discovered this whole underground world of ethical chocolate that was developing called ‘bean to bar’ or ‘single-origin chocolate.’ And then I became obsessed,” says David with a smile.
David and Paige began offering after-hours chocolate lessons at Camille’s. These lessons covered everything from the history of the cacao fruit and the unethical side of the industry to tasting and exploring chocolate from around the world.
“People wanted to purchase the bars they tasted, and know that they were eating ethical chocolate. We brought bars in to sell at the restaurant and had satellite stores in local businesses all over Victoria. This slowly morphed into our permanent residence at the Victoria Public Market in 2012,” explains David.
Now known to the public as The Chocolate Project, David and Paige’s passion project has transformed into a major staple in the Victoria food scene.
“Chocolate is just now on the same trajectory as micro-breweries or fair-trade coffee. Fifteen years ago I couldn’t do this, but now there are hundreds of people out there making small-batch, sustainable bean-to-bar chocolate,” says David.
With the top 400 ethical chocolate bars in the world, The Chocolate Project has an endless selection that can be a bit daunting to the first-time shopper. Luckily, David, now a renowned international chocolate judge, is there to walk you through the selection process. As someone with an intimate knowledge of each bar in the shop, David can’t stress enough that this store is so much more than a place to buy great chocolate — it’s an educational facility.
“This is not just a store, this is a school, and we really want to focus on that. It’s a place for both chocolate lovers and people who are curious about chocolate and want to know what’s happening in the industry,” he says.
The Chocolate Project offers full chocolate-tasting parties, which can be self-guided or led by David at the shop or a private residence. Tasting packages are custom-created by David based on the customers’ requests and come with the same scoring sheet used in the international chocolate awards.
“This is a fun way for people to taste chocolate, rate it and review it, just like we do as judges. When people go through chocolate this way, they really start thinking about what they’re tasting. It’s amazing how much you can learn about chocolate when you pay attention to it,” says David.
The first step in any chocolate-tasting party is understanding just how to taste it.
“When you taste chocolate, you never chew it because your teeth destroy the flavour profile. You put a piece on your tongue and let it slowly melt with your body heat. Chocolate bars, like the ones we sell, are like a fine wine in a solid form and that’s how you should think of it. You need to make it into a liquid to really taste it,” David explains.
Whether ending a dinner party with a new dessert experience or simply showing guests a different kind of holiday celebration, a chocolate-tasting party offers people a new way to bond and spend time together this season. While every bar will offer a different flavour and story of origin, one thing promises to remain true: your appreciation for chocolate will be forever changed.