ATHABASCA – Looking for inspiration?
If so, be sure to look far beyond the remaining bargain bin variety Halloween candy still being sold in bulk and treat yourself to something a little more … self-indulgent. Just like the makers of finely-aged wines or exotic, new coffee roasts and preparations, for the creators of the world’s finest chocolate, presenting the highest quality product is an imperative that must be met.
In one corner of Athabasca, tucked away in the basement of her home, Inspiration Chocolates owner and head chocolatier Josie Hladki is doing just that, and she has the awards to prove it. The latest being a silver prize last month at the Canadian portion of the International Chocolate Awards in Toronto where her Strawberry-Rhubarb Licorice Bon Bons were recognized in the category of ‘flavoured ganaches or truffles with combination coating or filling.’
It wasn’t her first foray into the world of chocolate competitions either, having won a bronze prize at the 2017 international competition, that typically follows the Canadian contest.
“I’m pinching myself still,” Hladki said, noting she’s so busy, she wasn’t even aware of the accolade until three days after it was announced. “It humbles us … like anything, you just have to practice and practice — ‘What did I do, and how did this work, and why did this screw up?’”
If you visit the Hladki household, Josie will lead you down a tall staircase and into her kitchen, where she concocts her recipes, and makes ideas come alive. You will pass by some of the hot chocolate bombs that have become so popular in recent years — it’s a hollow ball of chocolate, filled with marshmallows and other fixings that you drop into a warm cup of water or milk, let melt, and watch the magic happen.
A plethora of other treats like caramel corn with an orange chocolate twist and a variety of bite-sized chocolates with previously unheard-of flavour combinations await you there. In the lead-up to Christmas, Hladki is also busy completing advent calendars for the kids.
It’s a delicate process, especially when working with a medium as finicky as chocolate.
“Chocolate is susceptible to temperature and humidity and because we work with high-end couverture chocolate, if it gets out of temper, then the sun and the moon don’t line up and your life can be a nightmare,” said Hladki. “You have to babysit your chocolate.”
She recalls spending long, emotional nights in the past, trying to perfect certain flavour profiles, and getting all the variables in place. Many times, she was still working when her husband left for work in the morning. She also remembers her son saying he could tell she was getting better when he was getting less “flops” to eat.
Becoming a renowned chocolatier wasn’t in the plans for Hladki when she and her husband came to Athabasca from Calgary in 1993. Her background is engineering and geology, but when the oil boom became a bust, the Hladkis headed north.
In 2004, her interest in chocolate grew to a point where she decided to take a class through NAIT. Besides a few other courses over the years, that is the extent of her training — she never studied under any famous French pastry chefs. Instead, Hladki has used her natural talents and curiosity to build a business that has been hitting a sweet spot for customers for more than a decade now.
Hladki, who operates the business with just one other employee in the kitchen, uses only the finest chocolate available. Her preferred brand is Valrhona, a French manufacturer, whose product is monitored in every aspect of production — from how the cocoa beans are grown on their own South American plantations, to how it is refined, and how it is prepared by their own renowned chocolatiers.
Hladki makes the comparison to fine wines and coffees, in that variables such as soil composition and chemical make-up, weather patterns and other specifics contribute to the precise flavour profile of the finished product.
“There are single origin chocolates that are specific to an area, which makes it expensive because they’re rare cocoa beans, and there’s only so many and they’re specific to a certain area,” she said. “They just have a great product, and there are a lot of great products out there, but the more cocoa butter you have and the process of conching the beans and getting it smooth so that when it hits your mouth, it just slides down your throat — that’s what you’re paying for.”
Also, much like coffee beans, the scarcity of cocoa beans is becoming more and more apparent, and the future is dependent on how the land is preserved, how pests are controlled, and who is tending the farms. Many of the issues facing Canada’s agricultural producers, including succession planning, could have a significant impact on the quality of the chocolate being made in the coming years.
Hladki has no intention of slowing down just yet, and is working hard to fill orders at this very second. The possibilities are endless and as long as it continues to provide a creative outlet for her, she’ll be working away on her newest flavours and products, and producing chocolates made with love and care.
“I’m still learning, and that’s probably what makes this field, even though it’s frustrating sometimes, so exciting, because there is so much information available, and ways to do things,” she said.
You can find Inspiration Chocolates on Facebook and Instagram, or by visiting inspirationchocolates.com.