Welcome to the Chocolate Capital of Canada
The town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, makes a sweet stop on any traveller’s east coast adventure.
In 1873, St. Stephen, New Brunswick, was a bustling destination. Located just over the border from Calais, Maine, and a stone’s throw from the Bay of Fundy, the town was dominated by the lumber and shipbuilding trades. Brothers James and Gilbert Ganong saw local industries booming and decided the time was ripe to establish a new general store and expand into an emerging market: Chocolates and confectionery. Little did they realize their humble enterprise would become Canada’s longest-operating family-run chocolate company—and put St. Stephen on the map. In fact, the destination has become so synonymous with chocolate that in 2000, it was officially recognized as “Canada’s Chocolate Town.”
Ganong’s Claims to Fame
Innovation has been key to Ganong‘s 150-year history. Take the company’s Pal-o-Mine bar, for instance. The delicious mix of chocolate, fudge and peanuts debuted in 1920 and is now one of the oldest continuously-produced candy bars in North America. Local legend has it that second-generation candy-maker Arthur Ganong wanted to bring chocolate on his fishing trips, but needed something that wouldn’t melt in his wool trousers. (He was famous for eating two to three pounds of chocolate a day and certainly wouldn’t let a little fishing stand in his way.) His invention—a fully-wrapped chocolate bar (most chocolate at the time being sold as tablets or in boxes)—paved the way for the chocolate bar packaging (and Pal-o-Mine bar) we know today. Oh, and the price of that first run of Pal-o-Mine bars? A mere five-cents each.
This wasn’t the only time that Ganong was responsible for a memorable “first”. The company also introduced Canada to the heart-shaped chocolate box in the 1930s, first as a Christmas treat and then later as a Valentine’s Day product.
While many of Ganong’s products have been around for more than 100 years, the company continues to experiment with new flavours. Their New Brunswick-inspired collection of truffles contains some classic Canadian ingredients, like molasses, blueberry and maple, along with one you might not expect: Dulse. This tasty seaweed found along the shores of New Brunswick has a deep saltiness that’s reminiscent of bacon.
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For a brand renowned for chocolate, it’s ironic that Ganong’s signature product is relatively light on chocolate content. The company’s “Chicken Bones” candy was created by confectioner Frank Sparhawk in 1885 and remains a best-seller today. These bright pink, spicy cinnamon candies contain a bittersweet chocolate centre and can be found in just about every Maritime household during the holiday season. Look around New Brunswick and you’ll see Chicken Bones-inspired lattes, brownies, ice cream, and even a liqueur!
The Chocolate Museum
St. Stephen and Ganong’s shared history is celebrated at The Chocolate Museum, which was established in 1999 at the old Ganong factory. The museum offers fascinating tours that cover how the once-exotic cocoa bean changed the community forever. Such was the demand for chocolate—as well as employees that could keep up with the pace of production—that Ganong even established a boarding house for their female staff in 1906. Photos of the young women of Elm Hall, as it was known, are on display at the museum, and their story leaves a lasting impression. Among these women were the elite chocolate dippers, whose high-speed skills at hand-dipping the gourmet chocolates became the stuff of legend. At one point, Ganong employed around 300 of these artisans, finishing each dipped confection with a swirl or splash of chocolate as distinctive as their signatures.
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Visiting St. Stephen, New Brunswick
Michelle Vest, events coordinator with the Municipal District of St. Stephen, reports that delicious treats are just the beginning of St. Stephen’s attractions. Some of the non-chocolate activities around town include the International Homecoming Festival (which celebrates the friendship between St. Stephen and Calais, Maine), the Charlotte County Museum (which chronicles local life from the late 1800s onwards), and even the world’s oldest basketball court (which dates to Oct. 17, 1893).
There’s also an abundance of outdoor spaces worth exploring, including the Ganong Nature Park, which is a popular spot for hiking and picnics, as well as the David A. Ganong Chocolate Park, boasting a splash pad, bandstand and boat launch for the St. Croix River.
Come August, everyone in town is busy with the annual Chocolate Festival. Highlights of this beloved tradition include make-your-own chocolate bark workshops, a jellybean fun run, a pancake breakfast, treasure hunts, recipe contests, movie nights, and bingo. There’s even a pudding-eating contest—chocolate of course.
Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth, you’ll be welcome in St. Stephen. As Vest says, “We truly are a happening little town here in southwest New Brunswick!”
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