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February 7, 2019

Deep in the Woods, with the Chocolate Harlot

By Michelle Annette Tremblay

Wouldn’t it be nice to run away from the din of the city, to live a simple life in the forest, and spend your time wrapped in delicious chocolate? Tara McMurtry thought so, and that’s just what she did.

After spending a quarter century in community development, non-profit management and grant-making in various urban centres including Montreal and Toronto, the urban professional yearned for a new lifestyle that brought her joy, passion, and simplicity.

“It was the house that brought me here,” Tara reveals. “I’d been wanting to leave the city for a while and had been looking in the Killaloe area, but then this place came on the market. I fell in love with the little house in the forest. I love the cookstove and the natural light,” Tara states as she shows off her Stanley Waterford cookstove. “It just felt like home.”

Tara prepares her artisan bonbons from her cozy home just on the outskirts of Bancroft, in Ontario’s Hastings County. The area has become a magnet over the past dozen years or so for entrepreneurs, artists, and creative eccentrics that no longer feel at home in the city. With some of the most affordable real estate in the province, and a smattering of post-card worthy small towns, Hastings County offers the chance at a new lifestyle for people ready to make their own paths, which is exactly what Tara has been doing.

“The chocolate found me. But really, I guess it’s in my blood because my grandfather was also a chocolatier,” explains Tara. “It’s funny, I had actually forgotten and only remembered once I started making chocolate myself.”

Shortly after purchasing her house in the winter of 2014, the transplant quickly started meeting new people and making new friends. The local artists’ co-op in Bancroft, aptly named A Place for the Arts, provided a venue to meet with other creative and entrepreneurial-minded people. After a few years of contract work that she did via the internet, Tara still wasn’t sure what she was going to do with herself in her new community, but then she met Shaun Sellers.

Shaun had also moved to Hastings County and started Maple Leaf Chocolate, to the delight of locals and tourists alike. She sold her fair-trade, organic and hand-made chocolate at various venues, festivals and farmers markets, but eventually decided to accept an opportunity abroad. She was looking to apprentice a new chocolatier, and sell her business.

“It was perfect,” says Tara, who bought all of Shaun’s equipment, trained with her, and then reinvented the business as her own under the name The Chocolate Harlot.

“Your love of chocolate is my passion,” laughs Tara. “I really love adding some richness to people’s lives.”

Since establishing in 2017, The Chocolate Harlot has experimented with various ingredients and flavours. Some of the most popular chocolate creations include black garlic, candied lemon and tomato chocolate rounds, green tea and sesame caramelized turtles, spruce-infused truffles, campfire caramels and caramelized golden-birch logs.

“As an artisan chocolatier, I explore the boundaries of the cacao bean in flavour, form, and visual presentation,” Tara explains. “I purposely only do a limited number of curated local and regional markets.”

The chocolatier says she’s committed to the small-batch exploration of flavour, and the creation of compelling visuals. To that end, she has begun creating her own unique chocolate moulds, resulting in a chocolate that is not just organic, fair-trade and delicious, but also beautiful. Recent mould examples include sand dollars, art deco bars and antique hand-painted fishing lures.

“I have to confess to never thinking of chocolate as an art form before The Chocolate Harlot opened my eyes to that,” says chocolate lover and turtle advocate, Kelly Wallace. “I love that Tara mixes vintage and contemporary designs with inventive flavours and keeps us guessing as to what delightful chocolate creation she will next spring on us.”

“It really is an art form that I’ve just begun to explore,” agrees Tara. In fact, last summer The Chocolate Harlot was featured as a guest at The Bancroft & Area Studio Tour, with the painter Philo Smith whose work can now be seen hanging at the Muse Cafe in town.

“Chocolate is a wonderful creative outlet. And the community has been very receptive. I hope to be a guest on a studio tour again in 2019, but if not, I’ll be able to enjoy the tour. We have so many talented artists in North Hastings,” says Tara, who is currently testing out a new chocolate delivery system.

“The Harlots’ Club is brand new,” she says. “I’m always trying new recipes and flavour combinations, so I figured I’d open my process up to some of the true chocolate lovers who’ve found me.”

The Harlots’ Club is a short-term (three- to six-month) subscription-based membership, in which members receive a sample of luxurious, freshly-made artisan chocolate, as well as a bonus treat each month.

“The Chocolate Harlots’ Club is a great way for me to test my new chocolates out, and the members love it so far. This month’s package features lemon-rosemary caramels and burnt-ginger caramels. Membership makes a great gift – especially with Valentine’s Day coming up!”

Other new ventures are on the way, too, with February being the first time The Chocolate Harlot is offering a public workshop. Hosted by North Hastings Community Integration, it will be held on February 2nd, and participants will go home with chocolate. Harlot club members will receive a 10% discount off the already subsidized workshop cost.

Tara says she loves living and running her business in Hastings County, and that more people should consider the leap. Even though she’s living far, far from the city, and far, far from her old life, Tara still manages to contribute to non-profits somewhat like she did when she worked in community economic development. But now instead of writing reports and reviewing proposals, she supports organizations that strengthen communities through her passion for fair-trade and organic chocolate: 10% of her proceeds are donated to local charities, including North Hastings Community Trust.

“All of this, it was a leap,” admits Tara, who like most people had a few reservations about country life. “But what I really love about my life now is that I have time to play. If I wasn’t enjoying myself, I wouldn’t be doing it. This is where I want to be.”

Learn more about The Chocolate Harlot at www.TheChocolateHarlot.com.

If you’re dreaming of starting your own business in rural Ontario and building a better life, be sure to check out more stories of people just like you, who came to Hastings County to really live.