|Steve Sheldon, owner of Monty's Chocolates, Paddington|
"This is our flattest time of year," says Steve, an affable fellow who hails from London, without a trace of lament. "I haven't worked out whether it's faith-based or a cultural thing. But it's followed by enough people that it has a major impact. It's really interesting because you listen to radio and the media, and if you believed everything you read, you'd think we're living in a totally secular society, but I know, because of my business, that Lent has a major impact. No exaggeration. The one thing I can't answer is whether it's cultural or faith."
It took a good dose of faith to open the doors to Monty's Chocolates four years ago, on the cusp of the GFC. The couple arrived in Australia in 2003 and identified a gap in the market for a boutique fine chocolate shop in Brisbane. With Dori working in a corporate job, Steve, who has a background in software, has nurtured Monty's into two businesses: the Paddington store and a new gift-style store at St Andrew's hospital.
A chocolate passion was sewn into Steve's life when he was a boy of 14 and took a trip with his school to France. Stuck for what to buy his parents, he decided on chocolate. Like Charlie in the chocolate factory, he was a changed person: the gateway to a world of superior chocolatey experiences had been opened and there would be no looking back.
"I come from a working class background in London, so I grew up eating Mars Bars and Snickers like everybody else, but when I got home and opened up these chocolate, I just thought it was the best thing that had ever happened," says Steve.
"You can't eat French and Belgian chocolates every day of the week when you're at school, but the memory stays with you and you know from that point onwards that there's much better things out there to try, and if you have that knowledge, why not seek it out? Life's about passions, isn't it? You could spend a long time working doing something that's miserable or you can follow a passion and enjoy it and eat chocolate everyday."
Just the day before I pop in, a ton – one metric, to be precise – of chocolate has arrived care of the shop's world-class European suppliers and store assistant Sarah, a former teacher well versed in chocolate-lexicography, is attending to its unpacking and arrangement. There are enormous eggs wrapped in silver with signature blue Monty's Chocolates labelling, spotted pink ribbon ties and little pink pipe-cleaner chickens on the side all around the store.
Easter and Christmas are the biggest times of year in terms of sales, but this year Valentine's Day also saw a slew of new customers walking through the doors owing to a promotion the store placed on daily deals site Scoopon (they sold over 1,300 chocolate tasting plate experiences for two).
"As Christmas ends, you may sit down for a week or two and have a bit of a breather, but then Easter is straight on you – you really have to be organising Easter back in January," says Steve. "Chocolate is very seasonally driven. It's an important time of year for us, so we make sure we do our preparation. We have good relationships with some of the world's best chocolate makers, and they let us know about new things that are happening as well."
While Lent might keep customers away until the Easter week, when droves will come in to scoop up decadent treats for friends and family, they'll be greeted with an array of choices, including beautifully boxed eggs by Charbonnel & Walker. A glass display cabinet features an array of truffles, creams and caramels: peppermint, macadamia, blackcurrant, hazlenut, pomegranate, rhubarb.
Offering what's said to be the broadest range of world-class chocolate available anywhere in Australia,
the shop caters more to adults – serious chocolate lovers and the chocolate curious – than children, and the prices reflect this market. It's fine, luxury chocolate in decadent packaging. However, there are inexpensive options for the casual chocolate eaters and store browsers.
You can have a coffee for $3.50 and a caramel for $1, mini cupcakes and chocolate macaroons are priced at $2.80, chocolate and raspberry butterfly cake at $3.80 and a tasting plate for $11.80, an experience to savour if the five dark varities I sample – including a rose-flavoured morsel with intricate pink flower and butterfly detailing – are anything to go by.
"There's a growing band of people who are looking to cut sugar out of their diet, and obviously one of the casualties of that would seem to be chocolate, but 100 per cent seems to be doing fine," says Steve, showing me six or seven bars of 100 per cent dark chocolate. I'm encouraged to appreciate the taste of the dark chocolates I sample on my palette, enjoying and savouring in the way of a fine wine.
There are three main varieties of cocoa bean: forestero, the most common, not overly complicated, a good chocolate flavour, end of story; and the noble (i.e. fine) bean varieties Criollo (distinctive and complex flavours) and Trinitario (a hybrid of the former two). Over 90 per cent of the world's cocoa is from the Forastero bean, while the remainder is from the rarer two. When I ask Steve about fair trade, he says the issue is complicated.
"It's a good idea, but it's certainly not the full story. There are companies like Pralus, who, for example, have a Madagascan chocolate without a fair-trade stamp. They own the plantation, the beans are ethically grown, the people who work on the plantation are well looked after, they put money into local education, they buy the hessian bags the beans go into from within the community where they're grown," says Steve.
"The thing with Fair Trade, that I understand, is that the people who produce the chocolate and the people who grow the beans have to get the stamp. François Pralus works with the plantation owners to work on producing the best quality beans they can so they can dictate a higher price."
The store fit-out is basic, with chalk walls and a large wooden work bench, where people can experience their tasting plates. Against this backdrop the products themselves really shine, but it's Steve and Sarah who create the warmth within. A chocolatey haven for world-weary souls, I leave believing the world is a place where working-class boys from London can grow up to pursue their dreams as far afield as Australia.
"It's just like this, isn't it?" says Steve. "You have an idea, you start doing something, and you don't know whether anyone will like it. When we opened to doors, no one was asking us for this chocolate. You don't know if anyone's going to be interested in what's passionate to you, but you hope they will."
And isn't that just the sentiment, of hope and goodwill, that the season is all about? A sweeter refuge than Monty's to do your Easter shop would be hard to find.
Monty's Chocolates, 155 Latrobe Terace, Paddington, is opened seven days. You can friend Monty's on Facebook today.
Girl With a Satchel