My hands are covered in warm, silky chocolate. Suddenly my nose starts to itch and I’m I trouble. It’s not easy to scratch your nose when you’re fingers are full of gooey chocolate. I’m in the production area of Island Chocolates in Victoria-by-the-Sea in Prince Edward Island. It’s a messy, but downright delicious experience, in spite of having an itchy nose. Here’s my guide to the crafts and culture of the Canadian Maritimes provinces.
Island Chocolates is both a family-run business and an ÉCONOMUSÉE®.
Not only is it located in a charming village with wonderful places to eat, there’s also quirky places to shop, a fabulous kayaking outfitter, and great theatre in Victoria-by-the-Sea.
So much for the location; now to zero in on the company and what makes it so special.
What exactly is an ÉCONOMUSÉE® anyway?
For starters, I mentioned that it’s an ÉCONOMUSÉE®.
This means that it’s the workplace of an artisan who makes specialty crafts or food items.
Visitors are invited in to watch (and sometimes take part in) the process. Everything is based on traditional skills.
There are 70 ÉCONOMUSÉE® members in the world. Six of them are in Atlantic Canada, so this is pretty special.
Although the products differ widely, visitors can expect certain things at each location.
First, there’s always a workshop area where you can watch the artisans at work (in some places you can sign up for short workshops and work right along with the artisans).
You’ll also find a reading area where you can learn more about what’s being made; staff or owners who are happy to talk about the traditions used in whatever craft is being employed; and a boutique.
Prince Edward Island
Island Chocolates, where “life is better with chocolate”
Back to making chocolates on Prince Edward Island. At Island Chocolates, you’ll meet Eric, Linda and Emma Gilbert. What they’ve done here is simply amazing.
Their focus is on making high quality Belgian chocolate products. I learned more about cacao in a couple of hours than I did in a lifetime.
After we tried our hand at making hand-dipped chocolates, we had a delicious hot chocolate (natch!) and poured through albums showing different aspects of the family’s business.
It was especially interesting to see photos of Eric’s journeys to Guatemala and Nicaragua and his work with cacao farmers where he’s been instrumental in setting up cooperatives, which has enabled them to enjoy a bigger share of the profit.
Our visit to Island Chocolates was educational, delicious and inspiring.
Dark Tickle – the magic of berries
Over in Newfoundland, we visited Dark Tickle on the Great Northern Peninsula in St- Lunair-Griquet. Oh my. We saw berry products here that I didn’t even know existed.
The artisans here manufacture jams, sauces, syrups, teas, vinegars, chutneys, relish and chocolates made from wild berries found in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The berries—bakeapple, blueberry, squashberry, partridgeberry and crowberry—are picked by hand and carefully processed.
One of my favourite products is Iceberg Chocolates – Newfoundland “Bergy Bits” made with fine milk chocolate and wild blueberries.
Outside, there’s a lovely boardwalk where you can take a short hike through the bogs to see where some of these berries come from.
Be on the look out for Sebastien and Nieves, two Newfoundland dogs who are frequently on the premises. They are the friendliest dogs on the planet.
If you are lucky, perhaps you’ll be visiting at a time when at least one kind of berry is in season.
Anywhere you travel in Newfoundland and Labrador, the locals will be happy to share with you their favourite picking grounds so don’t be shy about asking.
The Bay Hammock Company – relaxing in a hammock
Nova Scotia has three ÉCONOMUSÉE® companies. The Bay Hammock Company in Seabrook features Canada’s largest hammock.
The hammock is 45 feet (13m) long and is a real eye-popper.
One thing that’s a lot of fun is to actually sit in the giant hammock.
Once in, you just want to curl up with a book and invite your family to join you.
Inside, you’ll likely meet the owner, Michelle Taggart and expert hammock weaver Lynn Sallans.
We especially enjoyed watching rope being made on 100-year-old machines, which is then turned by hand into hammocks, chairs and accessories.
Amos Pewter—the wonder of pewter
Further down the coast of Nova Scotia, in Mahone Bay, is Amos Pewter—the first artisan shop in Nova Scotia to become a member of the international ÉCONOMUSÉE® network.
It’s a large shop with many stations where you can see artisans making stunning pieces of jewellery, home décor items, table ware and collectibles.
The process involves ladling hot molten pewter into a spinning mould made form a wax sculpture that’s been carved to replicate a detailed hand-drawn design.
After it comes out of the mould, each piece is hand-finished.
Although the last three places I mentioned are not as large as the original setup in Mahone Bay, the staff at all locations love introduce folks to “the touch of pewter.”
Sprucetop Rug Hooking Studio—getting hooked on rugs
Also in Mahone Bay is Sprucetop Rug Hooking Studio, located in an old 1800s home.
Chances are you’ve never made a rug before … but chances are that you’ll want to after you visit Carol and Nan.
They are keen to show newcomers how to hook or braid a rug and there’s lot of kits available for you to take home.
If you have time to take a workshop, they offer several, from dying techniques to making custom designs. And, of course, you can shop ‘till you drop here as there are several galleries on site; the selection is huge.
Heritage Wrought Iron—more than forging horseshoes
The sixth ÉCONOMUSÉE® in Atlantic Canada is Heritage Wrought Iron in MacDougall Settlement, New Brunswick, where Acadian blacksmith Paul Fontaine not only does restoration work, he also makes everything from railings to fireside tools and ornamental iron works.
Some of his projects are huge while others are small, including hooks, wine racks and candle holders.
Alas, we’ve not had the pleasure of visiting Paul’s shop but it’s top of list as soon as we can plan a trip in that region.
As you can see, an ÉCONOMUSÉE® is a special place. The owners-artisans love to share what they do.
They also invite you to roll up your sleeves and to experience first hand what they are doing. Just don’t let your sleeves get into the vat of chocolate.
Then you’ll have to deal with both an itchy nose and some pretty messy clothing—albeit tasty.
Sandra Phinney lives in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Looking for more ideas? How about joining a food experience in St John’s?