For the Wild Blueberry, they add candied wild blueberries to the maple fondant, and then dip them in two coats of French Cacao Barry. For the Maple Blueberry in Milk Chocolate, they do the same soft maple centre with candied blueberries in Belgian Callebaut Milk or White Chocolate. The Maple Creams have a smooth maple fondant boiled just a little harder than usual, so the centres are a bit firmer and then dipped in Cacao Barry Amer Extra – a very nice French dark chocolate. The Maple and Cranberry contain whole dried cranberries from Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia which are shredded and kneaded into the maple fondant and then dipped in French dark chocolate or Belgian milk chocolate. The Cherry is comprised of locally dried, no sugar added cherries from Ontario dipped in Cacao Barry Amer Extra dark chocolate. The Black Currant consists of dried and powdered black currants harvested in Nova Scotia that are kneaded into a white fondant and dipped in dark chocolate. If you can resist reading on, you’re doing so through sheer tyranny of will.
When I first spoke with Michael and Heather Foote, the owners of and chocolatiers at Appleton Chocolates in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, I had already fallen under the spell of the descriptions at appletonchocolates.ca. The imagery that dances around in your head when you read these narratives is like a segment from TV’s How It’s Made, especially when you read them on your smartphone at 3:00 p.m. on a workday.
“For most of our centres we start with a maple fondant, which is a moist mass of very fine sugar crystals. Our fondant is similar in texture to firm maple cream or maple butter. We add different fruits and berries to the fondant, and we roll them up (by hand) into centres. We dip these centres twice in European chocolate, and then we wrap them in coloured foil, package them up, and sell them to our customers. Sounds so simple!”
But it’s not simple. Every Gold Box of 12, every Tin of 24, every Bag of 12, every Gift Box of 16 or 24, every Small Box of Two is a testament to a handmade family tradition that this husband and wife team – parents to twin boys – has turned into a Canadian symbol.
“We don’t have distributors outside of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but we have customers as far away as Western Canada, the United States, Europe, all over the world – all through our website,” Michael said. “We’ve got a customer in Dubai who every single year calls and orders for their family in Ontario and the family in Ontario does exactly the same. We have a lot of customers who fell in love with our chocolates while living here or were here visiting. We also have a lot of customers who shop online for quality maple and berry chocolates. Either way, they’re people looking for a taste of Nova Scotia.”
When I asked Michael and Heather how long a chocolatier typically has to practise their art to achieve this kind of reach, I was shocked to learn that they’ve only recently entered the kitchen.
“Appleton Chocolates was created by my step-father, Alan Huestis in 1997,” Michael explained. “He built a cabin in the woods across the street from his house with the intention of running a casual retirement business with his first wife, Merle. They settled on the idea of making maple-blueberry chocolates. Sadly, two years into making the product and selling it locally, Merle passed away after a battle with cancer. Several years later, my mother, Beth, became a customer and then friend of Alan’s. Eventually they got married and continued to run the business – still in a very casual manner – with no set hours until it got so busy that they had to make a decision to expand or shut the company down. They decided to shut down in 2012. Fast-forward to 2014. My wife and I were living out West in Edmonton, Alberta and we had the opportunity to come back to Nova Scotia and takeover the company. The company had the potential to continue its success – and beyond that – and with our energy and enthusiasm, we decided to buy it from Alan.”
Michael wasn’t totally without experience, but even he admitted that not a lot of it entailed recipes.
“My father was a chef so I have kitchen experience, but I’m actually a mechanic by trade. I was an automotive mechanic for a number of years. I eventually moved into the customer service side of things because I love working and interacting with people, the public. I met Heather in the automotive industry in Alberta – she’s actually from there. We have the administration side of that industry in common. We’re both experienced at managing people and interacting with customers. From there, I took a job in banking until the opportunity came up to return to Nova Scotia.”
I was curious as to why Michael and Heather had the, as he put it earlier, “energy and enthusiasm” to leave reputable careers. Heather’s response was a homerun.
“We realized we needed to find more than a job. What we wanted was a lifestyle where the people you interact with are happy; you make them happy. Nobody wants to fix their car; nobody wants to go to the bank, so you generally get the hard edge of people in those industries. Now, making chocolate, you see everyone come through the door with a smile on their face.”
The Footes have a feel for Nova Scotia.
“The lifestyle in Nova Scotia is much more laid-back; it’s mostly a slower pace of life. We take the time to enjoy everything. We get to know our neighbours, we take the time to listen, share, and experience other people’s interests. I guess the mantra is that it’s more about the quality than the quantity,” Michael explained. “Visitors – and consumers – from outside the province get that immediate view that we’re going to take the time to get it right. People envision a country kitchen feel where everything is hands-on and done with care. It’s going to be a recipe passed down through the generations – a kind of ‘I used to make them at home, but now I make them for everyone else feel.”
It’s a feel that couldn’t be more genuine.
“We’re very hands-on. The fondant we make is a maple syrup-based fondant that Alan created. He actually got the original recipe from The Joy of Cooking and adapted it and adapted it to make it work for what he, and we, were looking for. He was also very good friends with local maple syrup producers – actually the same people we continue to get our maple syrup through. He really studied the product by talking to his friends, the producers here in the Wentworth Valley, and figured out a way to make it completely smooth. It has an amazing texture and taste and it’s fairly simple to make. From there, my wife usually does the rolling of the centres and then we hand-dip them into the chocolate and then use a small wire tool to extract them. We really need to understand the look, the feel, the smell, the taste of properly tempered chocolate.”
Chocolate dips – whether they’re Belgian Callebaut (milk or white) or French dark – and maple fondants are only parts of a whole at Appleton Chocolates.
Michael and Heather use only the best, locally-sourced blueberries and cranberries. “Our cranberries come from the people at Terra Beata Farms in Lunenburg – the home of the Bluenose,” he explained. “Things we can’t source locally like walnuts and ginger, we use a source that’s just into New Brunswick. Everything we can have produced in Nova Scotia is; anything we can’t produce in Nova Scotia is sourced in the Maritimes. Even the rum we use in one of our truffles is from here.”
This collaboration of heart and mind has proved to be a winning combo for the Footes.
“We have a great rapport with our suppliers and distributors. The gentlemen who delivers supplies from New Brunswick always stays to chat for a while when he makes a delivery,” Michael laughed.
“Our cranberry supplier in Lunenburg knows us quite well. They know what we’re looking for and they set things aside for us,” Heather added.
“Our maple syrup supplier, we actually pick up the product from their house, not their business location. They set it on the porch and we haul it away and, again, that’s the result of a long-time friendship Alan had with them,” Michael said. “As all of these businesses grow, so do we.”
“We get even more hands-on with our distributors,” he went on. “Almost all of them are within driving distance and we’re able to make our deliveries directly to them. We know the owners and they know us. We invite them to our location so that they can see what we do, that way they have an idea of what goes into the product, what kind of effort. Sometimes people lose sight. When they see hundreds and hundreds of chocolates they assume it’s all coming from a giant factory when in reality it’s a two-person enterprise in a small building. It puts us all on even ground.”
“Plus, we don’t want to sell out of a Big box store. Right now, we mostly focus on high quality gift shops because our chocolates are high quality gifting items. Our chocolates are more often enjoyed by groups of people as opposed to a single person. People are more likely to buy it for gatherings or as gifts or to send away to what I like to call ‘Displaced Nova Scotians’ to give them a sense of home.”
The Footes’ sense of home is something to admire.
“The advantages in Tatamagouche are quite numerous. Tatamagouche is growing by leaps and bounds. From what I understand, it’s growing by approximately 10% a year. It’s actually the only village in all of the Maritime Provinces that’s growing. We’ve been getting huge numbers of travellers and tourists from around the world, particularly from around North America. It’s become a real destination rather than a place people pass through. For us, the community is very family-oriented. Every family spread across this small community supports one another. We’re a young family that wants to plant our roots here, including our business, so we get a lot of support. With the way the village is growing, our business model fits perfectly with what’s happening here.”
Tatamagouche agrees. Appleton Chocolates is a perfect fit. So is the Maple Ginger, their number one seller. “Ginger lovers go wild for these,” Heather said. “I prefer the Maple Creams – a maple fondant centre and then double-dipped.”
Michael said his “favourite would have to be the maple blueberry truffles. They’re our signature product, it’s what people know us by and really they’re what helps us stand out among our competitors around the world. The Maple Wild Blueberry is a fantastic truffle, especially with the beautiful dark chocolate we use from France – it’s my favourite.”
“Production is really our biggest challenge. Because it’s all handmade, it takes a long time to produce. Being a growing small company, we’re trying to do as much ourselves as possible so that we are sure what it is we can handle as a business. Being able to produce enough products for the demand is a tough job in itself, but we are willing to put in the time to maximize efficiency if it means keeping our product off automated production lines. Once we’re comfortable with our production needs in the new, bigger location we’re hoping to take our chocolate on the road to an in-province winery. A former owner of a winery is actually a local business mentor of mine and he and I have been discussing the possibilities of a pairing like this. A kind of ‘You promote ours, we’ll promote yours” is what Heather and I have in mind.”
When we did the interview for this article Appleton Chocolates was in the midst of a tear-down and rebuild of their website and looking for a new larger location for the company. We are happy to say that both have taken place and that Appleton Chocolates moved into their new location at 261 Main Street, in between the coffee shop and the Chowder House, sounds like a beautiful location to visit when you are in Tatamagouche and we are hoping to visit again soon.
By David MacDonald