I first had Chocolats Monarque two summers ago. I was attending the Fine Chocolate Industry Association’s New York City conference and, during a break, Christine Blais from Palette de Bine introduced me to Daniel Haran, the company’s founder. Right then, Daniel broke off a square of one of his bars and offered it to me. Watching for my reaction, he asked what I thought. I told him it was fine. There was no sparks, really, but I kept that for myself. I thanked him and headed to the next talk.
Earlier this month, my friend Barb drove us to Toronto for The Winter Chocolate Show. Amidst the busy crowd and flashy inclusion bars (raspberry rose bar, anyone?), I spotted Daniel in a quiet corner of the room. I waved bonjour, introduced him to my friend, then asked for samples. There wasn’t much on the table, just a few piles of bars with their simple – austere, really – black and white wrappers.
I tried a Guatemalan bar, which I didn’t think I’d like. It was fruity, which I expected, but its acidity was tamed, which I thanked Daniel for. We continued. There was a Madagascar chocolate with nutty notes and no hint of citrus (a first for both of us,) and a Sierra Nevada one, which I also liked. He told us a few stories, like how he determined his bar size (you know how I feel about the topic). I wanted the conversation to continue but other guests came in. We bought some bars and carried on.
Two weeks later, Barb asked me which maker haunted my post-festival thoughts. “Chocolats Monarque,” I said, “I’m obsessed.” She smiled. “Me too, I should have bought more.” I agreed. My love story with Chocolats Monarque didn’t start with sparks, but I know it’s meant to last. You’ll understand why after reading this interview.
Thanks for taking the time to answer to this interview, Daniel. For those who don’t know you yet, how did you get into chocolate?
Depression. I ate chocolate to get through my days.
When was that?
In 2008, a friend took me out to SOMA for my birthday, where I was doing a contract. I looked up other bean-to-bar makers after a quick conversation with David Castellan [co-founder of SOMA chocolatemaker,] who told me other makers might be free of allergens. A cousin is allergic to both nuts and soy, and grew up without good chocolate. Two weeks later I was home and getting a grinder from Chocolate Alchemy.
You’ve been making chocolate for some time, what eventually prompted you to make the transition for hobbyist to professional maker?
I had been thinking about it from the beginning, really. It was clear at first that the market was too small and I wasn’t ready to start a company.
Then 4 years ago I was burnt out professionally, doing consulting I hated after a startup in artificial intelligence… and a cancer diagnostic for my dad precipitated a midlife crisis; turns out I was 39, the age he had when he got married. I gave notice less than 10 minutes after getting the news.
There’s a thoughtfulness I really appreciate in your introducing chocolate to the market. Back in Toronto, you explained to Barb and I how you decided on the bar size. Could you tell my readers the story?
Hah. Sure: early on I went out asking people what the last bar of chocolate they bought was. I knew from sociology classes that asking people how often they bought chocolate would get messed up, biased answers. I’d also ask what the reason for purchase was. One woman just took out a small bar from her purse and point blank told me this was her emotional emergency chocolate. I was floored. That’s exactly how I eat chocolate! (Also: why the hell don’t guys have purses? Bars in pockets melt). It also clarified that my bars had to be small – portable, and people shouldn’t feel bad about eating them in a single sitting.
From a commercial standpoint, this has been great: it’s also a more affordable entry point for consumers. As an impulse buy, it works well in cafés. The big inconvenience is the extra labour. I really hope to be able to buy a packaging machine soon!
Now, let’s talk about what’s inside those wrappers. You currently offer dark chocolate, correct?
Dark chocolate only. Because of my family member, I decided early on to have no nuts, soy or dairy, all common allergens. There’s no gluten either, although I’m a bit puzzled as to how that ever ends up in chocolate.
Back in Toronto, I remember you giving some chocolate made with Madagascar beans. I am so used to Madagascar tasting citrus-y and bright, yet yours was, if I recall correctly, a bit nutty. It was a really nice surprise. How do you decide which origins to work with? What do you want to convey with your bars?
Well, I do get requests for the Colmenero bar – based on one of the recipes in that first ever book A friend with a PhD in medieval history helped me understand the recipe (what’s two coins worth of anise seed? turns out it’s ~5g). I take a refined 100%, and add sugar, with ground up spices: cinnamon, anis, annatto and chili.
What do you mean by “that first ever book?”
Oh sorry, the first book published about chocolate. [Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma.]
So, as to what I want to convey: the biggest thing I try to get people to understand when they visit the factory is that cacao has varietals. It’s when their eyes light up and they go “OMG, this is like wine, they all taste so different.”
I get really tired of repeating myself at markets with people wanting to know what the differences are. So the new labels will have tasting notes! In any case: people are only receptive *after* they have reaction, until then it’s all theoretical. Tasting creates a teachable moment.
What about the more straightforward dark chocolate? Like Sierra Nevada, for instance, or Haiti. What makes you think “I’ll make chocolate out of this?”
In the last year I’ve tried a lot of origins. I like doing one or two dozen test roasts, so for Tumaco and Sierra Nevada, I bought an entire bag, and did a couple batches.
Can you describe their flavor profiles?
Maybe explaining my objective here would help? I want an assortment of 5 single-origin bars that all have interesting flavours and a distinct profile.
Taste is the primary consideration. Ethics matter, though I’m not terribly concerned when the broker is Uncommon Cacao or MABCO, or when friends have visited and can vouch for conditions. I have a short-list of origins that can produce great cacao, and I’ll be visiting them shortly.
You have a current favorite bar? What do people like when they visit?
Well, the most surprising for most people is the Guatemala, which is sourced by Uncommon Cacao . The village of San Juan Chivite produces a remarkable cacao, with aromas of red fruits. People keep insisting I must have added raspberries, but all the flavour is from the bean.
I can see why it’s popular. It’s fruity but not too tart or acidic.
Guatemala is the popular favourite right now, followed by Ucayali [in Peru.] At 80% my take on this origin doesn’t require any added cacao butter, and has a strong herbal note veering into eucalyptus – it’s got a long finish with very little bitterness.
When we talked, it sounded like you were ready to start a new page for Chocolats Monarque. But to get to this point, you had your fair share of challenges, like machines breaking, for instance. What do you wish people would know about chocolate-making?
Oh Christ. For 3 years I didn’t make chocolate. I repaired machines, and sometimes chocolate came out of them.
How did you find the strength to push through? And how did you pay your bills during that time?
Well, and IT background means some people will pay me absurd amounts of money for easy work. Unfortunately they expect me to attend meetings, and the time involved slows chocolate down.
The company I co-founded was also sold, and I got a small amount from my remaining equity.
At this point, I have found people that can repair my machines, and I have back-ups for the grinder if it should break for a 7th or 8th time.
As for big plans: I’m now raising capital and borrowing money to grow the company. I’m confident the recipes are good, and I mostly know what I’m doing in production. Now the focus shifts on marketing, distribution and scaling.
What do you find is the most gratifying part of your work?
Gratifying: seeing people understand. The best part of the job is that education work. You know it worked when later on they say “you’ve ruined Lindt for me.”
My dream is to have an affordable bar in grocery stores (CAD$8/75g, about USD$6), made with great beans. I’ll obviously have to focus on a few origins that can provide large amounts. Origins producing rarer beans will stay in small format, and be priced a bit higher.
Oh, also fun: seeing people realize they can eat my chocolate. Their faces light up if they’re used to passing because of allergy concerns.
You can currently purchase Chocolats Monarque at their manufacture in Le Plateau, Quebec, Canada. The company doesn’t have a website but you can reach out to them on Facebook.
5333 Casgrain, #308
Le Plateau, QC H2T 1X3
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