ST STEPHEN, NEW BRUNSWICK – My grandma, Muriel, was born in Saint John in 1916. By then, Ganong Chocolates had already been going strong for 43 years and was producing what was likely her favourite part of her diet.
When my grandma moved to Ottawa in the ‘50s, she never forgot Ganong, waxing lyrical about their chocolates until her death in 2008.
A visit to the source taught me that Grandma’s passion wasn’t unique: New Brunswickers are still gaga for Ganong, Canada’s oldest candy company.
“Want some chocolate?” is the first thing I hear when I enter The Chocolate Museum in the small town of St. Stephen.
Diane Lombard, the museum’s manager, points to a brass tray brimming with all sorts of decadent delights. It turns out that there are many platters of this ilk throughout the museum, which you are welcome to plunder.
This definitely makes a day at the museum more exciting than usual.
(Perhaps the Museum of Civilization should consider this tactic. Just an idea.)
While Ganong doesn’t own The Chocolate Museum, it does supply the nibbles, the spirit and a lot of the artifacts, including the building itself. When, in 1990, the operation moved to a modern facility up the road, the museum took up residence in the original factory.
There’s a good history of chocolate’s origins, starting with the Aztecs. But most of the museum is dedicated to Ganong itself, which began when brothers James and Gilbert Ganong added candy to their small grocery store on a lark.
It was smashing success, so they began concocting their own recipes.
Ganong’s first signature item was born in 1885: the Chicken Bone, a pink cinnamon stick with a chocolate centre. Then, in 1920, their new Pal-o-Mine (peanut fudge covered in chocolate), became the first wrapped candy bar in North America.
Red Wrap was introduced in the 1930s, by which time the company counted 700 people on the payroll.
“It’s labour intensive, isn’t it?” says Brenda Strong, visiting from Atlanta. Strong tells me her great aunt was one of those workers, so, naturally, visiting St. Stephen as a girl was a real treat.
In 1932, Ganong achieved another first by making and selling North America’s first heart-shaped boxes for Valentine’s Day.
It’s fun to ogle the dainty vintage boxes in the museum, many of which are adorned with Evangeline (from the poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie), Ganong’s poster girl for 74 years.
Lombard says chocolate wasn’t cheap in former times; some of these boxes would have fetched two weeks’ salary.
“It wasn’t like now, when you’d just pick up chocolate for the hell of it,” she explains. “And when you were done, you’d re-use the box. For instance you might put your gloves in it.”
At its zenith, Ganong had 300 hand-dippers on staff. Today there are but four, and they work in a glass-walled room inside the museum.
Up to their wrists in melted chocolate, they specialize in creating intricate “strings” (swirls that identify the filling) on top of each piece of candy.
Hazel Way, who has been dipping for two decades, says there are 40 strings in all, including “the clothespin,” “the snake,” and the “G,” which is by far the hardest.
“It takes three to five years to learn the dipping,” she says.
There is something distinctly warm and fuzzy about Ganong. Maybe it’s the small town pride in St. Stephen, the fact that the business is still family-owned after all these years or the continuity of Ganong’s unique candies.
I, for one, definitely inherited Grandma’s taste for Pal-o-Mines.
IF YOU GO:
The Chocolate Museum is located at 73 Milltown Boulevard in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Admission costs $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $22 for a family of four.
From mid-June to September, the museum offers an additional Heritage Chocolate Walk. The walk includes a tour of the museum, an outdoor walk, a bottle of water and a Pal-o-Mine bar.
For more information, call 506-466-7848 or visit www.chocolatemuseum.ca