St. Giles and the Chocolate Burren - Travel Stories From Ireland Pt. 2


All my many apologies for how long an absence I've taken, both from blogging in general and from sharing stories about Ireland. It's now approaching nine or ten months since our trip and we still haven't covered even a fraction of all the stories there are to tell. Still, with the weather taking an autumnal turn this week I'm full-up on nostalgia for Ireland and I decided to brush off, finish, and post this story of one of my favorite characters we encountered the whole trip. To read the first travel-stories post, click here!



Many know Ireland as a place of stark beauty, fanciful mystery, and ancient lore. And so it is. To be fair, it is also a place of complete oddities. On the one hand, you have places like Glendalough National Park, embedded like a gem in the crown of County Wicklow. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful piece of country. In November at the time of our visit the trees had turned rust and orange and ochre. Trembling, bright-gold leaves suspended on the very tips of wet black branches, spruce forests black as a witch’s cauldron.
The North coast, however, is different. Farms kneel clumsily by the sea, disarranged somehow from the usual order. Sheep and saltwater and cows and cliffs in a hapless, waterward tumble. A persistent wind hisses through wire-grass and presses you with its invisible palm backward down the hill as you try to walk up. All you wanted was a stroll, all you got was exhaustion. Ruins older than Christianity crown the brow of a hill, just a stone’s throw from a very modern coffee shop.
The juxtapositions also continue in the smaller details: Ireland can’t understand or make a proper pizza; they have magnificent seafood. They can’t do Chinese; they excel at cream cakes. Though there is espresso in abundance, you cannot find a cup of classic drip-coffee anywhere in the nation (I’m serious, we looked). And in the midst of all these idiosyncrasies sits perhaps the biggest of them all: The Burren.
Begin in Dublin and travel West through Ireland. Should you happen to fall asleep somewhere around green Kilkenny, you might understandably think you were dreaming when you awakened a couple hours later in the oddly bereaved-looking County Clare. Ireland’s classic verdure will have abruptly given way to bare mounds of rock, worn smooth by the wind. The land suddenly lumbers to a great height, untroubled by tree or bush or anything but tenacious wildflowers and lichen. This is The Burren, and it is almost primeval in its sparse and wild aspect.
On first glance it is distinctly ugly: gray and bald and drear. But don’t feel too bad for it - closer inspection reveals a wealthy ecosystem unique to this spot on the planet. A remote, king’s ransom of natural paradoxes somehow growing cheek-to-jowl on the same plot of ground.


Tucked into the foothills of this strange land is yet another of its weird and wonderful secrets. Hazel Mountain Chocolate, Ireland's only bean-to-bar chocolate factory, is hemmed in by tipsy wire gates and a few parsimonious goats. Drive too quickly and you’ll pass it without a thought: a low, square cottage painted white with pale red shutters, twin chimneys, and a tiny sign labeling its true identity. We pulled into the gravel parking lot, wrinkled our noses as we stepped out into the damp, crisp air and smelled livestock and woodsmoke. For Hazel Mountain Chocolate is, among other things, a farm.
The chocolate cafe is incredible, of course (as experienced through several slices of carrot cake, mugs of drinking chocolate, and plates of complimentary chocolate bars made on the premises). But it was not the cafe we were here for, nor the chocolate show-room with its shining steel equipment and wafts of fragrant, cocoa-scented air. Those were merely asides to the main attraction, the lord of this small chocolate empire: the inimitable Giles.


Two years prior, my brother and sister-in-law (with whom I was traveling) had happened upon Hazel Mountain Chocolate by accident on their way from Moher to Galway. And it was not the admittedly superior chocolate that they remembered long after coming home to D.C., but the man who loved chocolate: this self-same Giles. Of course there was no question in their minds that Giles would still be working at Hazel Mountain when they returned, two years later, intent upon introducing us to him. Giles is, after all, a definite: seemingly as imbedded and unflinching as The Burren itself. It would be incomprehensible that Giles would have gone anywhere - he was a fixture, wasn’t he? 


When we ducked through the doorway into the small retail shop, a fifty-ish gentleman turned to greet us. Without being told, I knew this was Giles. He wore a green-checked shirt, a formal expression, and a small, neat apron. A small silver charger full of broken chocolate rested in his palm like an artist’s palette.
“Hello, welcome to Hazel Mountain Chocolate,” he quietly called to us, then returned to his job of intensely plying the other customers with information and samples and advice on which bars to purchase. When he’d seen them out the door, Giles approached.
He was ruddy, slight, and twinkly: his whole self a sort of wordless apology for having taken so long with the other customers.
After a brief introduction wherein my shameless brother confessed that he’d brought us halfway around the world just to see him, Giles began a lecture on Hazel Mountain’s chocolate-creating process. He speaks with the avid precision of a professor (which, he informed us, he used to be) and an efficient accent rather than the quaint Irish we’d expected - courtesy of growing up on the “spooky, spooky moors” of Southwest England.
“Here, taste this chocolate. I accidentally aged it seven months. Seven months! To my knowledge that’s never been done before, aging chocolate. Taste it! Taste it - there are whole new layers of flavor that have developed, almost like a cheese.” He dropped small fragments of heavy, nearly black chocolate into our palms.
“Don’t bite it - let it melt on the tongue,” he soothed.
We did as he said, placing the fragments on our tongues and resisting the impulse to chew. As the heat of our mouths began to melt the chocolate bar, a totally unique flavor profile emerged. I’d never tasted chocolate like this: deeply fruity and almost plum-like with a smokiness I guessed came from aging.
“You see how it the flavor has changed...I love it. They owners tell me it’s all in my imagination, the flavor difference. They say it must’ve been an especially good batch of cacao beans, not the aging that makes a difference.” Giles’s eyes snap angrily and he is clearly insulted by the accusation. “But I know it’s the aging. I want to run a test in a more controlled environment to show them. But I know.” 
Naturally, we believed him. Giles loves this chocolate the way a father loves his children. He knows their individual characteristics and he takes offense at anyone who would presume to know them better than he. Owners be hanged - it’s Giles who intimately knows the personalities and profiles of Hazel Mountain’s chocolate, and he will spread it like the Gospel to anyone who listens.
Closing time was approaching, but Giles still lovingly instructed us around the chocolate shop handing around samples. The longer he spoke, the more he seemed like the Irish compilation of Willie Wonka and the Keebler Elf, if they had left all civilisation behind and set up shop in the Burren.
All and once and without preamble, we had finished talking about chocolate. Giles went on and on about Dartmoor and getting lost in the environs of the Grimpen Mire of Sherlock fame. No longer the reserved academic lecturing on fair-trade cocoa, Giles was now an avid storyteller with chilling tales of hikers stranded for days in the thick fog of Dartmoor, unable to take a single step to either side for fear of plunging into the bogs. 
“If you know your way around there is a way because of standing stones. Because standing stones can only be set on solid ground. So the standing stones are set as markers so you’re reasonably okay unless a fog comes down.”
It was definitely closing time or later. One of Giles’s coworkers popped her head into the shop with a confused look at Giles, leaning against the class case. He seemed unbothered by the fact that it was fully twilight and the shop ought to have closed twenty minutes before.
“These are the days before mobile phones so you go out there...you’re on your own. I said to these hill-walkers, ‘if a fog comes down you stay where you are. You don’t bloody move.’ They could go over a cliff because the moor has cliffs in it as well as bogs. And the next day the fog was down and it did not leave the moors for three days.”
Giles’ face was serious and although we were in no danger ourselves, standing in the pale blue-painted room of Hazel Mountain Chocolate, a chill runs down my spine. Then Giles smiled again and warmth spread over us like a peat fire.
“I later got a thank you card from these hikers...they’d overnighted in the fog without moving, just as I said, and the next day it lifted just enough that they were able (using the map and compass I’d insisted they buy) to navigate to the only village on the moor.”
Suddenly brisk again, Giles motioned us toward the doorway with our purchases. “Now you don’t get fogs like that over here. We’re too near the coast. There’s always a breeze. Very nice to meet you all.”
Unceremoniously the enchantment shattered. We were in a raw-cold, muddy parking lot that smelled of cattle, clutching paper bags full of Burren chocolate. Our rented car was the last one in the lot and heavy wooden gates locked over the tiny factory courtyard behind us. Giles and Co. had put Hazel Mountain to sleep for the night, and the Burren rose steeply around it like a fell dream. We were bound for Galway ourselves. Galway, a world different than this peculiar little elbow of the Wild Atlantic Way. We shook the sleepiness off our shoulders as we climbed back into the car. It was nice like this, to leave the Burren and the chocolate factory and Giles all intact, just as they’d been two years before when my brother visited; just as they must be years from now. It’s Giles. Anyone who’d met him would understand.

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