Old World Chocolate crafted in Quinte
There are so many ways to satisfy and indulge in this area home to artists, vintners, brewers, and foodies. Taste, scent, texture, allure.
There are so many ways to find magic, to experience what lies beyond science; what mystery is left unexplained when chemistry and biology have had their say.
Not the terroir of Prince Edward County’s established wine country – another terroir, as old as the wines, as craved as the nectar.
Chocolate. Yes. Chocolate. Crafted here in the Quinte region. Chocolate. Artisanal chocolate contrived, created, crafted at the hands of a third-generation master chocolatier with four decades of experience, trained as a young man by another master in Italy, enchanted by the ideal of Canada, establishing his own reputation in a modest yet mighty atelier in Belleville.
This is not a traditional studio, although certainly it is a creative workspace, renowned for its unique and consistently superior products.
Vigilio Salvoni, chocolatier at Donini Chocolate in Belleville, is happy to reveal many of the secrets learned during his lifetime of taking a few simple ingredients, blending them, and creating one of the most craved delights in the history of the human existence. Maslow would probably add it to his hierarchy of needs – one of the core needs without which the others cannot be achieved.
Not to be overly dramatic, but chocolate for many is an essential ingredient to a happy life, and therefore, really good chocolate can be life-changing. At least, that’s Donini’s goal, and has been since the company started in 1950.
The Donini family launched the company in Vigevano, a town in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Nello, the patriarch, worked in chocolate factories throughout nearby Milan, perfecting his craft, adopting what he liked, making changes where he felt they were needed, and developing new ways to enjoy his products. After working for famed chocolatiers, including Ferrero, Nello opened Cioccolato Donini Spa, offering artisan chocolate for everyone to enjoy, with an emphasis on holidays. His specialty was a line of hollow eggs filled with surprises called Sorpresino. He also made chocolate bunnies, and Christmas ornaments like lanterns, snowmen, and Santas, perfectly sized to decorate a tree.
Nello took traditional Old World European recipes and made them accessible for all to enjoy. Working in chocolate factories since he was a child, Nello especially wanted children to enjoy his confections.
The New World was calling the family, and in 1980, Nello and his son Franco came west, settling in Belleville. Vigilio made the move as well, coming to Canada to set up the new site. Other than a change of address, everything remained the same, with three generations of the family involved in the business. Vigilio learned from the master, and when Nello passed away in 1987, he took over as senior manager and head chocolatier, working alongside Franco, who now was the owner and financial administrator of the factory. Franco was lost in a tragic accident in 2006.
His experience with the company, the family, and the two worlds offers a glimpse into cultural differences and economic necessity. While still in Vigevano, Donini was exporting the Canada, the United States, and all over Europe.
“When we came to Canada, we learned it was a different market,” recalled Vigilio. “When we started here, we tried to introduce what we made in Italy – novelties for Christmas and Easter. Our specialty was hollow chocolate; we quickly learned Canadians like solid chocolate.”
Donini quickly adapted and learned there was an extensive market for liquid chocolate, a raw material for companies who would incorporate it into their products, like coatings and fillings, retaining the European style and taste.
They added one retail product to the line, making chocolate bunnies for Lions International, and Donini is still the official licencee of chocolate for the organization. “It was a huge part of our business,” smiled Vigilio. “We exported them to Lions Clubs around the world. Our chocolate, made in Belleville, went to the Caribbean, throughout Canada and the United States, and we even sent a container to Australia.”
The allure of Donini chocolate comes from the simplicity of the process and the complexity of its taste. “At most, we use only four ingredients in our chocolate,” revealed Vigilio. “There is cocoa butter, and cocoa liquor (a blend of the cocoa butter and cocoa solids after the bean is ground – not to be confused with chocolate liqueur, which has alcohol. Cocoa liquor is also known as unsweetened baking chocolate), sugar refined onsite, and sometimes we add vanilla and milk.”
With so few ingredients, their quality is paramount. Vigilio travelled the cocoa world, one taste at a time, sampling in Brazil, Asia, Central American, and chose a mild cocoa from West Africa, with cocoa butter from the Ivory Coast and cocoa liquor from Ghana. “We’re a small artisan chocolate maker and sourcing our cocoa from multiple regions and blending it isn’t feasible. We stick with one source, and we felt the West African region was most consistent with our goals and quality standards,” explained Vigilio. “Terroir isn’t just for grapes; what you grow will breathe the character of where it is grown.”
What Vigilio does with the raw materials adds to the magic. Currently Donini has 14 distinct chocolate formulations – the result of adjusting the percentages of each of the ingredients – resulting in three qualities of chocolate – white, dark, and milk. The dairy is sourced within Canada. From couverture – a high grade chocolate made with extra cocoa butter to give it a gloss – to industrial chocolate, which is typically the liquid form provided to wholesale customers, Donini knows the science behind its hundreds of products. Couverture demands a minimum of 32 per cent cocoa butter, but the range is small. “We can go up to 40 per cent, but after that, you can feel it; it becomes waxy,” explained the chocolatier.
After blending a formulation, the chocolate churns for 24 hours, slowly moving the ingredients, letting them get to know one another, often in huge batches. A newly acquired milk chocolate machine can make 3,000 kilograms a day.
While the chocolate is working, the rest of the plant is busy. Donini imports cane sugar and refines it once more in a specially designed room. “The extra step develops subtle caramelized flavours,” shared Kim Bushell, Donini’s Director of Operations, adding the sugar arrives in 1,000 kg sacks.
Working with commodities has its challenges. Dairy, because of the marketing board, is stable and predictable. Vanilla, cocoa, and sugar are commodities and present an unknown factor. A recent worldwide vanilla shortage created a massive rise in its cost.
Donini adapts. It’s what the family and company does. With the increase in demand for industrial chocolate, Donini began to specialize in products to non-producers. The company makes chocolate confectionery for Ovation, wafers, blocks, and shapes and sizes in demand by pastry chefs. In 2017, Donini produced several million kilograms of chocolate, including almost seven million chocolate inserts for croissants. It also shipped a good portion of its liquid chocolate to other confectionary companies, with more than 80 per cent used by their commercial customers to enrobe almonds.
Impressive numbers, but it’s still very much a small batch artisan producer. “We are unique because we are semi-automated, but after a certain stage in production, we’re still hands on,” explained Vigilio. “No two pieces are alike. The chocolate is removed from the molds, stacked, packed, and sealed by hand.”
In the Donini retail outlet attached to the factory, hundreds of confections delight a visitor, and all are finished by hand. White chocolate is swirled into dark by hand; crushed toffee is added individually; each marshmallow is coated one at a time. The product is highly consistent, but never identical.
Donini is available in the wine community, featured at wineries in the County and throughout Ontario’s wine regions. Colangelo’s in Bayside – probably the first winery in the area and a pillar of the local wine scene – carries Donini. “We enjoyed working with Vigilio to develop chocolate for the store,” said Dan Colangelo. “What’s better than wine and chocolate, and it’s just two local Italian family businesses working together.”
Family to family, and throughout the region, working with the community is paramount to the Donini ethos. They partnered with the local humane society for a fundraiser, making custom molds, which they also did for the City of Belleville and Bay of Quinte Tourism. They work with Gleaner’s Food Bank, donating chocolate and items for raffles.
Donini can also be found in disguise. “We produce private label chocolate bars for major grocery chains,” shared Kim. “If you see a store brand in Canada or the eastern United States, chances are we made it in Belleville.”
With 25 team members – up to 50 during busy seasons – Donini understands the need to be a good corporate citizen, and to help and ask for help from community partners. The company works closely with Loyalist College, participating in training courses, and offering tours for the summer day camps. Donini works with Community Living Belleville’s competitive work program, integrating its clients on the line an hour a day for a week.
“We have the flexibility to respond to these opportunities because we are a small family company,” reiterated Vigilio.
Through its connection with Quinte Economic Development Corporation (QEDC), Donini found another reason to love being part of the Quinte region. QEDC has been pivotal in our growth,” said Kim. “They present us with opportunities, include us in training sessions, provide introductions and exposure to fellow manufacturers and clients, and enable us to move forward. When we were looking for funding for a new machine, QEDC was there to help.”
With the world craving chocolate, Donini found ways to make it accessible to a large consumer base by making it acceptable. The company rigorously sought and keeps its Kosher certification and is GMO-free. All products coming into the process are confirmed Kosher, tested where necessary for GMO, and the everything Donini produces is subject to a daily microanalysis. When a finishing ingredient is added to the chocolate, its ingredients are scrutinized as well. Although chocolate has few components, once something is added to the product, the label changes.
“A pure chocolate bar might have three or four items on the label, but we bring for the ingredient deck for all the additions as well, and then we need a much bigger label,” noted Kim.
The retail store is proof of that. Located at 335 Bell Boulevard on the corner of Hanna Court, it is unassuming from the exterior, and a burst of scents and colour inside, and there is little hint that on the other side of the wall, magic and madness is occurring, huge machines are churning, refining, molding, and creating.
What happens behind the scenes at Donini is reflected in the joy of the simple confection that puts a smile on any face.
After all, they’re just making chocolate.