Move over Belgium, the Irish chocolatiers are taking over
Once regarded as little more than a sugary indulgence, our chocolate is in the midst of an artisan revolution
Published 13/11/2015 | 02:30
Irish chocolate is having a moment in the sun according to the New York Times, which this week gushed about our "ridiculously creamy" fudges, toffees and truffles.
In a departure from the shamrocks and shillelaghs tone often adopted by Americans writing about Ireland, the newspaper painted a glowing portrait of an artisan chocolate revolution in full swing, claiming our booming confectionery industry was a "source of intense pride".
That may be overstating the case somewhat. Still, it is undeniable that the country's sweet tooth has matured considerably since the 70s and 80s when chocolate meant something squishy and inexpensive purchased from the corner newsagents (and liable to melt in your pocket on the walk home from school).
More remarkable still, Irish chocolate is now hugely respected on the world stage - regarded as a worthy rival to long-established national brands in Switzerland, Belgium and France.
"When I went to my first international trade show in Cologne, the European chocolatiers were mostly men," says Mary Ann O'Brien, who established Newbridge-based Lily O'Briens in 1992 (the company is named after her then-toddler daughter Lily).
"They were laughing their heads off that an Irish woman could take them on. They're not laughing now."
"I've worked all around the world as a chef - and in places like France I'd be blown away by the chocolate shops and wonder why we had nothing like that here," says Mary Teehan, founder of Thomastown, Co Kilkenny-headquartered Truffle Fairy, one of the producers profiled in the New York Times.
"I thought, wouldn't be be wonderful if we had memories like that - going into chocolate shops when we were kids, the way French kids do? So I started 10 years ago on my kitchen table."
Initially, Irish consumers were wary of "artisan" chocolate. The concept struck us as pretentious. With increased prosperity, however, resistance has crumpled faster than a Cadbury Flake nibbled by a pouting model.
"In the past 10, 15 years people have travelled a lot more," says Colm Healy, who established Skelligs Chocolate in Kerry 20 years ago.
"They have brought back the experience of unusual foods. And they have tasted better quality chocolate than what was available in Ireland. It has raised the bar. People are expecting a better sensory taste experience."
"We used to be the old meat and veg country. We started to like our wine and Italian food and to become a bit more adventurous," adds Mary Ann O'Brien.
"I wanted to bring something a bit more special in terms of chocolate rather than the mainstream of what was available at the time. People in Ireland were very excited about it."
The New York Times argued that Irish chocolate's unique selling point is the quality of Irish milk. Chocolatiers on the ground tend to see this as an oversimplification.
For one thing, the article glossed over the rising popularity of dark chocolate (which does not contain milk).
Moreover, it isn't mere raw materials that distinguish our chocolate - it's a willingness to take chances and challenge the fustiness that is a feature of more established chocolate-producing nations, such as France and Switzerland.
"We're not just beholden to using Irish and Irish only," says Healy. "We will use Irish honey, Irish milk, Irish cream, Irish whiskey.
"But we want to make the best chocolate, so it has to be French champagne, Jamaican rum. You are combining the best Irish ingredients and Irish skills, with the best ingredients from around the world."
Foreigners, he says, can't get enough of our chocolates. Skelligs supplied trays of confectionery to the cast and crew shooting Star Wars: The Force Awakens at nearby Skellig Michael, while less glamorous visitors are just as eager to try the sample the company's produce.
"When you think of Ireland you think of Guinness, you think of cows. Irish chocolate can piggyback very well on the fact that Ireland is highly regarded for food. Our dairy is world-leading - there's no issue there.
"From a chocolate perspective, we can take advantage of that."
Such is the esteem in which Irish food is held, tourists often gush about products we take for granted - such as the humble Cadbury Dairy Milk bar (because Cadbury Ireland is a self-contained division of the global conglomerate, many of its chocolates are unique to Ireland).
"I was taken by their incomparably creamy mouth-feel," swooned the New York Times, recalling a chance encounter with a Golden Crisp, "…that heavy shot of lactose - my intended sampling turned into full-on consumption."
To a degree, the present boom is a story of things turning full circle. In the 19th and early 20th century, Ireland was home to a range of sweet and chocolate makers.
The company that today trades as Butlers Chocolate Cafe, for example, was founded by Indian-born Marion Butler in 1932.
Lemons Sweets was established in Dublin in 1842, Hadji Bey Turkish Delight in Cork in 1902. Only during the impoverished grind of the 20th century did these traditions die away. Now they're back, arguably stronger than ever.
"Ireland has grown in confidence and has started to believe in its ability to produce quality food," says Healy. "For instance, three or four different companies provide high-end sea salt. People are selling sea-weed - only it's no longer seaweed, it's sea veg. We're not just operating in the traditional areas of meat or dairy any more."
"Ninety per cent of the people who come through our doors are foreigners," he continues. "There's a kick for us when we're selling chocolate to Swiss or French or Belgian tourists. They rate it as highly as their own.
"They aren't faking it - this is absolutely genuine. People have long under-estimated the ability of Irish companies to make world-class chocolate."