Sarah Van Stiphout entered the world of chocolate-making through the side door. It wasn’t a love of candy that drew her in, but a love of wild foods.
“I grew up in northern Ontario and in the boreal forest: dead-end gravel roads, semi off-grid,” she explains. “My grandfather, he would take us out – all my cousins, a big group of us.
“I grew up picking baskets and baskets of blueberries all summer, and it was my favourite thing to do. Because we lived deep in the wilderness, when we were playing outside, we would eat things.”
For a time Van Stiphout lived in a cabin off the Ingraham Trail outside Yellowknife, where she spent time foraging. She tried different recipes with the foods she harvested, including cookies and trail mixes.
Yet she needed something more – something that could serve as a vehicle for her organic concoctions.
Enter: dark chocolate.
For more than two years, Van Stiphout has owned and operated Cabin Snacks and Chocolates (no relation to Cabin Radio). She spends her summers harvesting and gathering, then her winters crafting a litany of chocolate bars infused with flavours of the land.
Ingredients include spruce gum, spruce tips, rose petals, crowberries, cranberries and more.
“I go out with my dogs almost every day and if I have surplus, I give them to Elders or people who can’t go out and pick,” she says.
She sells her products at Yellowknife stores like the Co-op, Flowers North, and Down to Earth Gallery.
Since moving her operation into a kitchen above the Copperhouse restaurant last year, Van Stiphout’s venture has grown.
Recently added ingredients include candied blue cheese, dried lavender buds, wild mint chocolate leaves, and caribou lichen boiled with baking soda then dried and sweetened with organic cane sugar.
A boreal toffee made with spruce gum is so well-loved by customers that even other species are interested: Van Stiphout once battled a fox trying to steal toffee left outside to cool.
Despite her sugary innovation, Van Stiphout doesn’t have a sweet tooth.
“I lean toward savoury,” she confesses. “That’s probably why I make most of my chocolate 75-percent or darker.”
When asked what draws her to chocolate if not a fondness for sugar, Van Stiphout simply answers: “It’s called the food of the gods.”
Cabin Snacks’ cacao is fair trade and mostly certified organic.
Ensuring her products are ethically sourced is non-negotiable for Van Stiphout, though she concedes affordable fair-trade supplies can be difficult to source and ship to the North.
“The chocolate industry is brutal,” Van Stiphout says. “Really big chocolate companies, their practices are not ethical.”
Van Stiphout didn’t want to be part of the problem.
“I pay a really high price for my cacao and the farmers are able to support their families and their communities,” she says.
“It was really important to me that nobody along the line of my chocolate-making process was being hurt.”
This year, Van Stiphout has created a Valentine’s Day line featuring bars infused with berry-flavoured hearts, roasted almonds and wild blueberries.
She will soon experiment with milk chocolates after finding a Canadian whole milk supplier and hopes to export bars to other locations. She says stores in Ottawa, Toronto, and British Columbia are interested in carrying her products.
“What the pandemic has taught us is that without small, local businesses, the whole community really suffers,” Van Stiphout says.
“I’m not using any food colouring, it’s healthier. There’s so much nutritional value in wild food… and I just love it.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.