On a corner of Brick Lane, lively Latin American and African beats emanate from the minimalist Dark Sugars chocolate boutique. The contagious spirit of dancing staff members mixes with the rich aroma of heady cocoa.
And the promise of a generously topped hot chocolate leaves you in no doubt that Dark Sugars is serious about what it does. Really. Good. Chocolate.
Owner, Fatou Mendy is passionate about the stuff and highly skilled in the art of chocolate making. She says the time she spent in Ghana was where she saw “what chocolate was”. “When I came to London, I never saw that same version of it in the West.”
Mendy then travelled to Belgium and Switzerland to learn the craft. But even there, she still couldn’t find the authentic chocolate she was looking for.
When she returned to London she started to produce luxury chocolate truffles, putting her advanced patisserie and chocolatier skills to use. “I started in Spitalfields Market with just two flavours: coffee and walnut, and stem ginger and honey. We got a write-up in the Guardian. That’s when I knew I was on the right track.” She was then invited to take up a spot in Borough Market, where she stayed for 11 years. Yet, her quest for the Ghanaian chocolate she loved was still incomplete.
During three-and-a-half years of travelling through South America and West Africa, Mendy cemented her plans to set up a shop of her own. “I visited farms and worked with the Ghana Cocoa Board to research plantations, harvesting cocoa and so on”, she says. “After that, we came back to London and opened our first shop on Brick Lane.” This is the boutique that opened in 2013 which marked the beginning of Dark Sugars as we know it today. It still exists alongside a new, larger Cocoa House store up the road. It is in this new location that she hopes to make her mark and fulfil her ambition.
Her passion for chocolate is clear. Much of our conversation winds back to her experiences with it, and her desire to repackage it as both indulgent and healthy. For Mendy, these characteristics are not mutually exclusive. “A lot of people think chocolate is unhealthy whereas actually, the higher the cocoa content, the more antioxidants it contains. So it is a very healthy commodity.”
She is excited about the possibilities of an expanding vegan market too. “I want to explore an avenue where you can have chocolate in a healthy form.” So far, her vegan range includes a chocolate-dipped orange slice, chocolate-covered mango slices and chocolate figs.
Brick Lane is known for its curry houses and bagels, but Mendy is placing chocolate firmly on the map. She is an east London native and resident, and is sure there is no place she would rather be. “There is so much creativity and talent here. More and more companies are coming to settle here. Places like the Truman Brewery are attracting a new type of customer. We are also tapping into Hackney’s Broadway market. It has always been a wonderful area, but people are only now seeing that”, she says.
She recognises that 10 years ago Brick Lane was more affordable than it is today, but still Mendy cannot help but take advantage of the business opportunities which regeneration has opened up.
Her vision is for Cocoa House to have a cocoa roaster, which will allow customers to witness the production process from bean to bar and customise their own chocolate. “Just like you can get your own butter churned, I want to offer that same opportunity but with chocolate”, she says.
Parents are also attracted to Mendy’s approach because of the healthy alternatives she offers and the relatively low-sugar content of her chocolate. During half-term holidays she is looking to host cocoa workshops to encourage children to experience chocolate in a different way and learn about its origins.
In the meantime, Mendy said that Valentine’s Day was a much more grown-up affair, spent indulging in “good chocolate, good wine, and good company”.
Dark Sugars is open 10am – 10pm, Monday to Sunday.
141 Brick Lane, E1 6SB www.darksugars.co.uk