From Mayo with love: making chocolates for the Dutch on Valentine’s Day
Posted in Connect on February 15, 2019.
Chocolate maker Deborah Kilroy co-owns Van Velze’s chocolaterie and patisserie in Amsterdam
When did you leave Ireland?
I studied Hotel Catering and Management in DIT Cathal Brugha Street with the intention of one day having my own business. I left in 2002, to travel to Australia as I wanted to see and do something different. I had been working hard since leaving college and I just felt that I wanted to be young and free. It was such an amazing experience working my away around the outback. I loved being a jillaroo on a cattle farm in western Australia. I eventually found myself in Darwin, which is where I met Rob and it changed the course of my life. We moved back to Ireland for a year after that, but left for Amsterdam in 2004.
Tell us about your work in Amsterdam.
When I first moved over I had several jobs while I settled in, ranging from customer service to finance and back to hotels. It was a big culture shock at first, so while every job helped me to gain valuable experience the intention was always to start our own business. There were many challenges (and tears) along the way and it took a little longer than we anticipated, but we finally took the plunge and opened our doors in 2005.
The Dutch love chocolate but their palate is different and perhaps a little more sophisticated around it
What does your day-to-day work involve?
Our day begins with tempering the chocolate. The process can take an hour but it is essential to get it right as we will use it throughout the day producing all out delicious chocolates, which involves piping, dipping, moulding and dusting. We make all our chocolates and fillings by hand, so we experiment with new flavours and styles. Chocolate trends change throughout the year and we happily adapt to what our customers want in the kitchen. For example, for Valentine’s Day we create beautiful chocolate hearts which can be personalised with a special message for your loved one. We also have our store at the front of our chocolate atelier, where we love to chat and serve customers and prepare our online orders for collection. During busy periods, we can be working in the kitchen for up to 16 hours a day to keep up with demand.
Do the Dutch like chocolate?
The Dutch love chocolate but their palate is different and perhaps a little more sophisticated around it. They appreciate the work that goes into handmade chocolates and where the ingredients come from. Our customers prefer to buy a selection of our chocolates rather than buy a bar of chocolate from the supermarket.
Over the past 10 years we have noticed that Valentine’s has become more popular in the Netherlands
When do the Dutch tend to buy chocolates?
They celebrate with chocolate on the usual occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, St Valentine’s, Easter, Christmas. However, they also use chocolate to celebrate their own unique occasion on December 5th, Sinterklaas (St Nicolas’s birthday). Sinterkaluss is the Dutch version of Santa Claus and each year he leaves a chocolate letter of their first initial – it’s like the Dutch version of the selection box.
With more then 15 chocolate boutiques in Amsterdam, multiple festivals/tastings and workshop all year around I would call chocolate big business. I think consumers are much more aware of ethically sourced ingredients and our customers love the fact that we are in direct contact with our cocoa farmer. Traceability and fair trade is very important to us and it’s important to them too.
It is Valentine’s Day today. Will the Dutch buy a box of chocolates for their loved one?
I hope so! Over the past 10 years we have noticed that Valentine’s has become more popular in the Netherlands and people like to give the gift of chocolate for that.
We actually sell chocolate hearts all year long. I love it when someone asks for a special gift and they come to our shop to impress them with a personalised gift. This year we featured on the Dutch version of the show “The farmer wants a wife” as were asked to make a huge customised heart to help try sway the farmer’s decision. Unfortunately, it didn’t prove to be the food of love on that occasion, but it was fantastic exposure for us and it was a pleasure to be involved.
Where do you get your ingredients from?
We source all our chocolate from Costa Rica and we have travelled to the farm to see for ourselves where the cocoa is grown. We pick our own elderberries and have also sourced dillisk from Sligo for our dilisk chocolates.
You make artisan chocolates… what does that mean?
For us artisan chocolates mean hand-crafted chocolates made with love and care in smaller batches that guarantees that the chocolates are fresh and taste sensational.
Would you ever open a shop in Ireland?
It is definitely part of our future plans. We frequently send chocolates home, so I do not see it as a problem to do it from Ireland sometime in the future.
What is it like living in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is a great city. There is so much to see and do. I love that I can cycle around beautiful canals on my way to work every day. Everything is within a 10-minute cycle. When a friend comes to visit, there’s nothing quite like the truly Dutch experience of getting a lift on the back of the bike as you show them the sights.
We bought our apartment in 2005 and I have not had to worry about the whole accommodation scene here. I think compared to home the public transport system is brilliant I rarely use it, though, as I have my trusted bicycle. There is a great Friday night buzz in the city. I love Sunday Mornings in Amsterdam. It is actually so quiet between 8 and 10.30 am.
Do the Irish fit in well?
The Irish fit in well everywhere. I would say there are quite a lot of Irish in Amsterdam, and over the years I have met many Irish expats living here who come into our shop. I regularly hear The Fields of Athenry on a Friday night from the weekend tourists.
Over the years, I have met numerous customers who became good friends. Also, being part of a local business association we have met lots of Irish professionals who have been very supportive, and whom we are happy to support equally. Last year we were delighted to work with the St. Patrick’s Festival Amsterdam where we showcased our limited edition Dillisk (Irish organic seaweed) chocolates.
Do you think working and living abroad has given you greater opportunities?
Definitely. Through living in a different culture, it has given me a different perspective on what’s important and I am not afraid to go for the road less travelled. If I hadn’t gone to Australia, I wouldn’t have met Rob or moved to Amsterdam and had these opportunities.
What advice would you give to someone interested in working abroad?
Do a bit of research on the culture before you go. Take into consideration the importance of language even if it’s not far away from Ireland, do it anyway. If you can dream it you can do it. Be prepared for the unexpected.
Is there anything that you miss about Ireland?
The friendliness of the people. I still love it when I arrive at Dublin Airport and I know it sounds silly but just simply saying hello to someone. More recently I flew via Luton to Knock airport and it is lovely to fly straight home to Mayo. I have met many people who tell me how friendly the Irish people are. You appreciate it more once you leave I think. My little niece said at Christmas that auntie Deborah lives in the phone. Its great thought to be able to see and chat to home family and friends often these days. Meanwhile, Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone in Ireland from Van Velze’s Amsterdam.
By Anthea McTeirnan, The Irish TImes, 14th February 2019