Anyone who’s seen Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has probably imagined life as a chocolatier. But, as I stare at a pan full of melted milk chocolate, hesitating to put my hand in, I realize it’s not as dreamy as it seems.
I’m learning the art of hand-dipping Ganong Bros. confections at The Chocolate Museum in St. Stephen, N.B., located three hours southwest of Moncton. The museum celebrates Canada’s oldest candy company—it’s one of the last large manufacturers to make chocolate by hand—in the building that housed the original factory from 1883 to 1990. While Ganong produces many of its candy centres at a new factory located nearby on Chocolate Drive, the dippers work in the museum so visitors can watch.
It’s a coveted position (only four out of 200 Ganong employees dip). My guide, Sandy, worked in the Ganong factory for 20 years before becoming a dipper. I, meanwhile, have been hand-feeding myself chocolate for 20 years.
Today we are dipping chicken bones, the hard pink cinnamon candy traditionally enjoyed at Christmastime in the Maritimes. Sandy swirls the bone in the melted chocolate until it’s fully covered. She scoops it up, shakes off excess chocolate and gingerly places the bone on logoed parchment paper (the raised letters of the paper stamp the bottom of the candy with “GB”). Finally, with excess chocolate on her thumb, she drips an “X” on the already hardening chocolate coating.
Sounds like an easy process, right? Well, it’s not—at least not for me.
My creations either have bald spots or too much chocolate pooling around them. A few of them look like sad, skinny mice.
“Are you left-handed?” asks Sandy.
I am not.
It’s just really hard to concentrate with the sweet smell of melted chocolate permeating everything. With every candy I dip, it’s a struggle to place it on the tray instead of in my mouth, Lucille Ball-style. I start to worry that Sandy might fire me at any moment—and I don’t even work here.
Dippers typically undergo anywhere from three to five years of training, and when I learn this, I don’t feel so bad about my sad-looking chicken bones. And while my chocolates may not be pretty, every last one ends up in my mouth.
Of course, that doesn’t stop me from raiding The Ganong Chocolatier store that’s located in front of the former Ganong factory building. The old-fashioned boutique is the only store in the world that sells Ganong’s hand-dipped creations. The 22 varieties, like ginger or dark rum, have three times more chocolate and are three times more addictive than the machine-made Delecto boxed chocolates Ganong sells around the world.
Up to 500 pieces are dipped each day, but not all of them are good enough to sell. Hand-dipped chocolates that do not meet hand-dipper standards end up as free samples in the store. And there are even more samples in various rooms at the museum. So, I browse the exhibits and continue my grazing. I try a piece of Pal-O-Mine—Ganong’s famous coconut fudge candy bar with peanuts dates back to 1919—while placing chocolate-shaped packing game blocks into a large Delecto box. A maple confection sustains me while I read about Arthur, one of Ganong’s founders, who ate three pounds of chocolate a day.
That seems as impossible as my life as a chocolatier, but, as I try just one more truffle, I’m reminded of something Wonka said: “We are the dreamers of dreams.”