Dark Side Chocolates: The Chocolate Maker
Ten years ago, a client asked winemaker John Wade if he could supply chocolates to complement the range of wine they had created together. Intrigued, John promptly flew to Melbourne to take a course on chocolate making that would ultimately change his life.
When John Wade was a kid, he wanted to be a chef.“My parents wouldn’t let me because at that stage, the industry was diabolical and not good for young people,” he explains.
He took a job washing dishes in a Melbourne restaurant, where he worked for Ian Higgenbottom.
“He used to pay me in good bottles of wine, like Grange,” says John, “and that sort of sucked me in.”
John’s love for good wine would see him going back to complete his year 12 studies, followed by a Bachelor of Applied Science, in which he studied winemaking. This qualified John as an oenologist (wine chemist), a profession he enjoyed for the next 40 years. John has worked as winemaker at Wynns in Coonawarra, started his own label called Howard Park and consulted to various wineries (something he still does).
It was around 10 years ago, at a winery called Rickety Gate, that the idea of chocolate first came up.
“The owners wanted to put chocolate in their sales area to complement the wines. So I had to find somewhere to learn about chocolate, because I didn’t know anything about it.”
John attended Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School where his love for chocolate first sprouted.
“The next thing I knew, I’d been back to Savour eight or ten times. I did lots of courses, including a couple of master classes with Japanese and French chocolatiers. Then one morning I woke up and I had a shop—or at least that’s how it seemed,” he laughs.
That shop is Dark Side Chocolates, a fine chocolatery located in the tourism information centre in the Western Australian town of Denmark.
It’s here that John brings his winemaker’s palette to the craft of chocolate making.
“I’ve been balancing flavours in wines for a very long time so that’s the main thing I bring to chocolate making.”
He uses the analogy of a hatstand to describe his approach to getting the balance of flavours right.
“Depending on how you place your hat and your coat or whatever, it has to be in balance so it can stand up and won’t fall over.
“I approach chocolate making from that same point of view; it’s all about that balance, so when there’s more than one particular flavour you need to see all the flavours without something dominating.”
John points to the many similarities between winemaking and chocolate making.
“With winemaking, you have to ferment the grapes; before you make chocolate you have to ferment the beans. It’s all about flavour, structure, balance… those sorts of things.
“With chocolate plantations, it’s very much like having a vineyard; the soil and the climate impart what’s going on, and after that, with chocolate, is the way you handle the cocoa beans. That has just as big an impact on the flavour.”
John buys his chocolate from Swiss chocolate company Felchin.
“They’ve got plantations around the world, so when I decide on a particular chocolate that I’d like to make, I can actually choose a flavour profile and chocolate strength—be it milk, white or dark—to match.”
One of John’s favourite creations is his wattle seed chocolate, which has a nutty, coffee flavour.
“I had to find a couverture that matched it and didn’t drown out the flavours. Standard milk chocolate is usually around the 39 per cent mark so I didn’t want a standard milk because it would be too sweet. So I finished up with a 49-per cent Venezuelan dark milk for that particular chocolate.”
John also created his popular Jelly Sandwich using the hatstand analogy.
“It’s a three-part chocolate that’s got a raspberry pate in the middle and then on one side it’s got passionfruit white-chocolate ganache and on the other side it’s got blood-orange chocolate ganache. Then that’s dipped in dark chocolate.
“So it’s a case of balancing the four different flavours and because you’re using white and milk chocolate, you’ve got to be careful that those sort of characters don’t intrude too much and cover flavours. So it took a while to develop it and make sure I had the right amount of couverture in there so I didn’t make it too sweet or too passionfruit in flavour.”
John also makes a beetroot and Shiraz chocolate, and a liqueur Muscat, both flavours, he says, which are popular among male customers: a minority, it seems, in John’s customer base.
“One of the things I’ve learnt in nearly 10 years now of making chocolate is that men like chocolate, but women love chocolate. And it doesn’t matter whether the females are four years old or 80 years old—it’s the same attitude.”
John says as much as 85 to 95 per cent of his customers are female.
“I’ve got one particular chocolate—the blackberry and balsamic—and I sell 99.9 per cent of those to women. Occasionally a guy will take one but generally not. I’ve asked both males and females why and why not, and I can’t get a proper answer.”
So, being constantly surrounded by premium-quality chocolate, would John ever pick up a block of Cadbury?
“The best answer I can give to that is from my daughter. She went to university and while she was there she used to complain to me all the time: ‘Dad, I’ve been brought up on good wine and good chocolate, and on a student’s income, I can’t afford it!’
“And I do hear that a lot from my customers. Since they’ve had the chocolate here they realise they never knew what good chocolate was about!”
After yet another trip to Savour, John’s now trying his hand at patisserie.
“Since my last course I’ve been supplying tarts and other dessert-orientated things to cafes here in Demark and also Albany, which I’ve been enjoying immensely. The chocolate’s still there but it’s just a different presentation rather than a straight chocolate itself.”
Venturing into patisserie is a way, perhaps, that John is finally realising his childhood dream of becoming a chef.
“Maybe if I had have become a chef when I was younger I might have ended up doing pastry. It’s something I think about now and then,” he says.
“Maybe this is my way of getting back to it.”