A five-storey, 600,000 cubic feet industrial space is transformed for this walkthrough exhibit.
At first glance, Chocolats Andrée seems like any other chocolatier. Step inside the small store in Montreal’s Mile End, and you’re greeted by a glass display case filled with neat trays of bite-sized, chocolate-covered treats; a chandelier overhead adds a little luxe ambience. The scent of melting chocolate and caramel wafts in from the back kitchen as you choose from some 40 options: chocolate-covered dates and citrus peel; maple or hazelnut creams; salty-sweet enrobed cashews nuts; or chocolate-dipped caramel and nougat.
But a quick peek behind the scenes reveals that the passing of three-quarters of a century has barely made a mark here. A handmade calendar adorns a bulletin board in the hallway, each day pinned up as a separate piece of paper; inside the chocolate-dipping room, employees, many of whom have worked at the shop for the past 30 years, set chocolates on paper-lined wooden trays before laying them in boxes or out for sale.
“The main prep kitchen still has two original gas stoves—we’ve learned to take good care of them,” says owner Stéphanie Saint-Denis, whose grandmother, Madeleine Daigneault, and great-aunt, Juliette Farand, moved into the building in the 1940s to house their growing chocolate-making business. Back then, it was unusual for women to run a business, and it was Daigneault’s husband who signed the papers. Even the name Chocolats Andrée was chosen strategically: not only is it easy to pronounce in both French and English, but, while feminine in spelling, it’s a homophone with the masculine André.
Saint-Denis grew up doing her homework at the shop’s marble work tables and is third in a line of women running the show since taking over from her late grandmother more than a decade ago (Saint-Denis’ mother acted as a consultant for the store from 1992 to 1996). And, while it’s too early to say if Saint-Denis’ 17-year-old daughter, Corinne, will follow the family occupation, Corinne did come up with the idea of chocolate lollipops as party favours for her eighth birthday. “My grandmother had a fit,” recalls Saint-Denis, claiming that by introducing the lollipops she was “breaking with tradition.” But the lollipops were a success and have become a regular feature on special occasions such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
Saint-Denis inherited not only the sweets shop, but also a thriving community hub. Back in the ’40s, the Mile End neighbourhood, just north of downtown, was favoured by Greek and Jewish communities. Since then, the population has shifted somewhat; the shop is still just steps from Greek restaurants and the city’s famous bagel competitors—Fairmount and St-Viateur—but the area continues to build on its reputation as the “hipster capital of Canada,” with art collectives and a vibrant music scene.
But it’s the quality of the wares that keeps Chocolats Andrée’s customers coming back. Seventy-four-year-old François Verdy started visiting the shop as a child and considers it the city’s best chocolatier. “There’s nobody in Montreal that can match them,” he says.
And it’s not just the layout of the store and the gas stoves that have remained constant; the heritage recipes and the chocolate-making techniques themselves are relics, too. Creams and caramels, for instance, are still poured into indents made in compressed cornstarch by antique plaster moulds and then left to solidify.
As for the chocolate coatings themselves, each piece (save a couple of milk-chocolate options) is hand-dipped in 64 per cent cocoa Guayaquil dark chocolate from Ecuador, a process that requires not just dexterity, but skill—and, ideally, cool hands. The melted chocolate must be kept at the right temperature and consistency so that it will set properly. One recent hire, Saint-Denis notes, spent more than six months, two to three days a week, learning to be “fluent” at hand-dipping. “It’s the work of an artist,” she says.
While Valentine’s Day is not the biggest time of year for Chocolats Andrée—that honour goes to Easter and Christmas—it represents 20 per cent of their annual sales. “[Everything] has to be wrapped and ready to go, as people are in a rush,” Saint-Denis says. Heart-shaped boxes are a top seller, of course, as are chocolate-covered maraschino cherries, which require a four-day process that involves coating the fruit in housemade fondant, hand-dipping in chocolate, and then waiting for the fondant to melt around the cherry.
These cherries have long been a bestseller on the menu, which has barely changed over the decades. In fact, Saint-Denis has noticed a resurgence in the popularity of classics like chocolate-covered marshmallows and wrapped caramels. Despite a lifetime of sampling, she refuses to commit to a favourite. “It changes every [few] weeks. [Lately] I’ve been into dark chocolate-dipped pecans. But I’m waiting to start making violette truffles,” she says, referring to the truffles made with shredded walnuts, covered in chocolate and a sprinkle of hot pink sugar on top. “I’ll let go of the pecans for them.”