Located on picturesque Market Street in Trentham is a little shop called Atelier Chocolat, home to Laetitia Hoffman's range of delicious chocolate confections. Hand-crafted from the finest ethically sourced cacao beans, Laetitia creates a range of treats that not only satisfies the palette but also the planet.
You migrated from Strasbourg, France. What was the inspiration for your move to Australia?
I migrated 20 years ago from France on my own and met my husband here. From a very young age, I knew that I didn’t want to live my whole life in France, but I also didn’t know where I wanted to live. This is fate.
You were working as a graphic designer but then made a career change and become a chocolate maker and chocolatier. What inspired this change?
I came to Australia as an experienced graphic designer. After more than 15 years in the trade, I decided it was time for a career change. Why chocolate? During most of my career as a designer, I worked for big name companies in the chocolate industry and I have always been a huge chocoholic! That being said, the change came pretty naturally.
Your ingredients are ethically sourced. Do you think people are becoming increasingly aware that child labour can be used to harvest cocoa beans for the chocolate industry?
I do think that people are becoming increasingly aware of the dark side of the chocolate industry. I feel that it is mine and other chocolatiers and chocolate maker’s mission to educate customers when it comes to making choices when buying chocolate. People need to be informed about what they buy and what they eat, not only about the ingredients but also the origin of the ingredients and the story behind them. They also need to know why they pay more for a bar of chocolate in our shop versus one at the supermarket.
Can you describe the process of hand-crafting your range of chocolates? Is the creation process quite labour intensive?
Atelier Chocolat is a unique place where we not only work with chocolate but also make chocolate from scratch, which makes us “chocolate makers”. A “chocolatier” is a person who fills chocolates, makes truffles and creates flavoured bars. A “chocolate maker” buys and roasts cocoa beans and grinds them into chocolate which is then used by the chocolatier to create the chocolate products.
The chocolate made from scratch is produced in small batches at Atelier Chocolat, with organic cocoa beans from Panama or Peru. It is then used in all our baked goods and limited edition chocolate bars.
It is our way to honour and respect the true nature of cocoa - Theobroma cacao, the food of the Gods - with minimal amounts of ingredients - cocoa beans and raw sugar - resulting in the best palatable experience.
All of our permanent range of chocolate bars are made using couverture chocolate from Felchlin chocolate makers in Switzerland. Felchlin, just like Atelier Chocolat, is committed to manufacturing superior quality chocolate with respect to the farmers and the environment.
In a few steps here is the process of chocolate making:
1. Before travelling to Australia, the cocoa pods are harvested by the farmers in the country of origin. The pods are then cracked open, usually using a machete. There are between 40 and 60 cocoa beans in each pod. The cocoa beans are then fermented in wooden boxes called “sweatboxes” - they are elevated off the ground and layered with banana leaves - for between 5 to 7 days and then sundried for the same number of days on the ground, or in greenhouse-like structures protected from the elements.
2. When we receive the beans in sacks, we have to hand sort them to remove any foreign items such as sticks, stones, glass, plastic, etc...
3. Once sorted the beans can be roasted in our oven. Roasting cocoa beans is the equivalent of roasting coffee beans. With variable temperatures, we can achieve light, medium or dark roast, depending on the final taste of the chocolate we desire.
4. After roasting, the beans will start losing their husk. We then crack them to make cocoa nibs and separate all the husks from the nibs. For this step, we use a Champion Juicer which makes the task quick and easy. There are several different ways to achieve the same result, some more laborious than others.
5. To separate the husks from the cracked beans, we use a hairdryer which makes it easy to blow the light husk away from the heavier nibs. When using specific machinery this step is called winnowing. Clean cocoa nibs contain all the flavour of fermented and roasted cocoa.
6. To transform roasted cocoa nibs into chocolate, nibs are ground down into “cocoa liquor” to which we add Australian organic raw cane sugar, cocoa butter, milk powder, spices, etc ... your imagination is the limit! The mixture is then refined for many hours to create the smooth texture we expect from chocolate.
Once the chocolate has been refined to the optimal texture, we then conche the chocolate, which takes anywhere from a few hours to several days, depending on the size of the batch and the desired flavour profile.
7. Finally for you to experience the snap and shine of our chocolate we need to temper it. There are 4 different methods of tempering: on a marble slab - the most traditional, hands-on and our favourite, seeding - using already tempered chocolate, in the microwave - similar as seeding an ideal for small quantities, and using cocoa butter silk - which is tempered cocoa butter. All methods will give you the same result. If the chocolate is not tempered it will not resist humidity and temperature. Unless otherwise stated, all our house-made chocolate is 70% dark chocolate and gets used in our cakes, cookies, madeleines, etc.
To make our bars, truffles, bonbons and any moulded products, we use couverture chocolate from Switzerland that we temper the traditional way, on a marble slab.
Both aspects of the production, chocolate making and/or tempering, are extremely labour intensive considering that we do not rely on machinery.
Your chocolates are so delicious! How do you come up with the different blends of chocolate? How much trial and error is involved in the creation process?
I create each blend according to flavour matching/pairing, the same as a chef would do to create a well-balanced dish, with strong, medium and low flavour notes, textures and colours. I am also very often inspired by flavours from other countries, the Middle East, Spain or Japan.
My grandparents were Spanish-born, my Mum was born in Morocco and I grew up next to the German border, all of that brought many influences in our way of cooking and eating. I also think I was very lucky to grow up in a family of foodies and my parents always took us to fine dining restaurants from a young age. Not often, but when they could they did, and I have fond memories of that.
The creative process is primarily based on memories and experience. It also relies on the perfect ratio of chocolate and other ingredients. Finding the right balance between the flavour profile of the chocolate - the country of origin is a big factor - and the ingredients mixed with it. It usually doesn’t take me long to get to what I am looking for.
What do you do to unwind after a busy week?
The first year of Atelier Chocolat has been extremely intense, both physically and mentally. Apart from the couple of weeks that I had to close the doors to get organised for upcoming events, I didn’t have any days off. Like most of the small businesses out there, I do everything myself, from the design concept of the packaging to the final product, with help from my daughter with the wrapping. I am still surprised to hear people visiting the shop and asking where the factory is located?! I promised myself that I wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes in 2020 and take the time to unwind!
People need to be informed about what they buy and what they eat, not only about the ingredients but also the origin of the ingredients and the story behind them.
You were originally creating your ‘Pain et Chocolat’ range at home. What prompted you to seek out a commercial kitchen and retail space?
Pain et Chocolat was created while I was still working full time for other chocolatiers in Melbourne. I used to attend local weekend markets to sell the bars. I would wholesale as well. It all got a bit stressful with the growing success of the brand and so I ventured out on my own. I have now nearly 99% freedom of creation and decision in the creative process and, beside all the stress and sleepless nights of owning a small business, it is totally worth it!! And most importantly, I can also have fun baking, another one of my passions.
Do you know any of the history to the building that now houses Atelier Chocolat?
I know very little of the history but many years ago it was a café run by Mrs Hammond and it was called “Smilin’ Through”. I find that very cute. On the side of the building there is a plaque saying Dorothy Walsh Lane. Dorothy Walsh was a local lady from Irish descendants who only died over a year ago, aged 97! I have been told by a family member that she was fit as a fiddle! More recently, it used to be a real estate office, a hairdresser and a gift shop.
What challenges, if any, did you face fitting out the kitchen and creating the retail space?
I must admit that I have been very lucky with the fit-out. The owner who bought the building a few months before I signed the lease, is a builder and did an amazing job at renovating the space to a very authentic and rustic state. Just the way I pictured it. It was then very easy for me to fit it out. The beauty of it is that I only wanted to get preloved furniture to fit the shop, so it would match the natural beauty of the building. Only the chairs and the kitchen equipment and appliances are new. The big pieces, like the counter and the communal table, have been sourced locally. I have met amazing people along the way.
What has been the greatest challenge in establishing Atelier Chocolat within a relatively remote location like Trentham?
The distance from my home in Preston!
Who has been your greatest support in your business endeavours?
The customers and my family.
What do you have planned for ‘Pain et Chocolat’ and your beautiful Atelier Chocolat store? Are you working on any new products?
I am always working on new ideas, there is never a dull moment! My biggest problem is creating too many new things all the time, whether it is chocolate making or baking. I am not very good at planning, I just get inspired and go for it! This is my creative process.
Are there any particular chocolatiers that inspire you or that you would love to collaborate with?
Thanks to Instagram it is easy to access the worldwide panel of creative minds in the industry. It is mind-blowing! I follow so many people and they all inspire me for different reasons. But the one that is on the top of my list is French chocolatier Patrick Roger, also known as the ‘Rodin of chocolate’. He is a mad chocolatier who works with chocolate the way Auguste Rodin used to work a block of marble. His most famous chocolate sculpture is a life-size chimpanzee.
What has been the best chocolate you have ever tasted?
There is not one, but rather several chocolates. They are all single-origin chocolates. So rather than a particular brand, it is the country of origin that I appreciate. Each cocoa bean origin carries a flavour profile depending on many factors. We chocolate makers also talk about “terroir”, the land where the trees grow; chocolate is like wine, in the sense of the origins of the grapes.
Some of my favourite origins would be Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vietnam, Belize, Peru, Madagascar. Venezuela. All of those origins have distinctive profiles that can be described as smoky, floral, fruity, woody, nutty, spicy, bitter, tobacco, molasses, grassy.
Dark chocolates above 65% are my favourites.
Do you enjoy listening to music? What artists would we find on your playlists?
Life without music would be life without chocolate for me … they work perfectly together! I listen to everything but French music. French music is played all day long at the shop to create the right atmosphere that the customers expect. I have been in Australia for 20 years and have unfortunately lost connection to French poetry in songs.
What would you recommend people see and do whilst in Trentham?
Trentham is a foodie destination but also one for the nature lovers. As most people would know, Trentham has the biggest drop waterfall in Victoria, Trentham Falls, and in full rainy season it is magnificent! Red Beard Bakery and Annie Smither's Du Fermier restaurant have also put Trentham on the map. But there are many other little treasures to discover around town.
I also think that it is not only the destination, but it is also the road to get there that is truly beautiful: a great drive through the Macedon Ranges.
If you can have three people over for dinner, living or not, who would they be and why?
My late grandfather, the man I admired the most in my family, who taught me many things in his atelier (workshop). He was a very clever blacksmith.
Sir David Attenborough, an incredible and wise human being. I would like him to convince me that there is still hope for the planet, for the animals and people living on it.
Yotam Ottolenghi, a famous London chef. I actually would like him to make dinner for me [laughs] and I would be happy to make the dessert!