It’s the scent that gets you first. When you walk into Deirdre McCanny’s tiny chocolate boutique, Co Couture, just metres from Belfast’s City Hall, you are instantly enveloped in the most extraordinary aroma. Warm, fruity, tantalising. All you want to do is stand there and breathe it in.
Moments later, McCanny emerges from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, and she laughs at my reaction. It’s not unusual, she says. Visitors do it all the time. In fact, it was exactly how she felt when she had her own first experience with fine, fresh chocolate. “I was tripping around New York City and I literally fell into Michel Cluizel’s shop in Manhattan. I thought I’d fallen into heaven. Once you try this stuff, it’s like nothing else on Earth.”
There and then, McCanny knew what she wanted to do. She gave up her job in sales and marketing, trained with renowned Spanish chocolatier Ramon Morató and, in May 2008, opened her own chocolate shop in Belfast. Along the way she turned down a job offer from Lehman Brothers, the ill-fated investment bank.
“The whole thing was insane,” she says. “I’d never worked with chocolate before, I’d never run my own business, and it was at the start of the recession. But I knew in my gut it was going to work. And look: six years later, we’re still going and Lehman is no more.”
Finding her way in the “small and incredibly snobby” chocolate world was itself a challenge. McCanny was seen as a young upstart from a provincial backwater. “They looked at me and they said, ‘You’re actually doing this in Belfast?’ They just didn’t get me,” she laughs. She was determined to make a name for herself. “I wanted to work with three big houses – Valrhona, Cluizel and Amedei – and use their chocolate to create Co Couture’s own signature blend.”
She did, and before long the awards started coming. The latest, a silver medal from the prestigious International Chocolate Awards, was presented in May in Florence, and Co Couture is now recognised as one of the top 80 of the world’s fine chocolate producers. “We’re up among the really big guys now, the ones who’ve been in the industry for years,” says McCanny.
Much of her success is down to her instinctive knowledge of the nature of fine chocolate, a notoriously temperamental substance.
“Chocolate is like wine: where it is grown influences its flavour,” she says. “Ninety-five per cent of chocolate is from west Africa, and it has a flatter, earthier profile. I prefer single-origin chocolate from Madagascar: it’s fruity, light, soft. Like strawberries and citrus and orange. So it turns out my palate is that of a total snob?”
Chocolate is a diva
She talks about chocolate almost as though it’s a living thing. “Well, it really has its own personality,” she says. “It is a bit of a diva. You do need to show it some attention. If your energy is bad, it won’t work for you. And it doesn’t like chaos; it likes calm.”
In fact, the chaos of the Union flag protests outside City Hall in December 2012 and January 2013 nearly finished Co Couture off. It was estimated that city centre business owners lost £15 million over that period, and McCanny’s shop was on the front line.
“December is our busiest time of year,” she says, “and when the protests started, people were stopped from coming in to the shop. You had the police in riot gear outside. There was no management, no leadership.” Then, to cap it all, she received a summons for partially unpaid rates. It was too much.
“I really considered if I could keep on living in Northern Ireland,” she says. “It seems like a basket case at times. But it’s also one of the most amazing places. I’ve travelled all over the world, and the people here are beyond amazing: the honesty, the openness, the friendliness.” Catering to the particular tastes of her loyal customers keeps McCanny going. “When people get it, they always come back.”
It’s not hard to see why. McCanny is an alchemist, and her chocolates are almost indecently good. But she is always looking for ways to make them even better, constantly experimenting in the laboratory behind the shop. Her working day begins at 4am, with a square of chocolate. No doubt about it, it’s a labour of love.