Chocolate Chats: Mary Oliveira of Mary's Brigadeiro
by Dahlia Snaiderman
In November, I went to Toronto to visit family and we went for brunch in The Junction. Afterwards, we were craving something sweet and were drawn to the cute little shop across the street. We went in and were delighted to discover that we had stumbled upon a holiday pop-up shop where some truly amazing artisanal treats were being sold by two independent businesswomen. One was selling delicious homemade, filled-to-order cannoli, and the other was selling brigadeiros, Brazil's most famous sweet. I absolutely love brigadeiros, so I was really excited to eat one of these gorgeous little handmade chocolaty orbs.
I got a special caramel fleur de sel brigadeiro, and it was one of the best bites of dessert I've had in recent memory. I brought back a little box with milk and dark chocolate brigadeiros for my parents, and they were a complete hit. Mary makes 17+ different types of brigadeiros which you can drool over on her website.
I spoke to Mary on the phone a week ago and learned about her path to chocolate, all that goes into a perfect brigadeiro, and about the food back in Brazil. Warning: this interview may cause you to want to abandon whatever you're doing and become a chocolatier.
First off, what's your story? When did you come to Canada?
I used to work in Human Resources at a private company back in Brazil, and that's where I met my husband, who is Canadian. After 3 years, we decided to move to Canada, and we've been in Toronto for two years now.
Has Toronto started feeling like home?
Now, yes! At the beginning it was a little bit hard but now it feels like my second home. Selling the brigadeiros here has helped a lot!
What's in the brigadeiros? Do you do anything special to make yours extra-delicious?
The ingredients are similar to a truffle, but we put in condensed milk instead of cream. It's just condensed milk, butter, and chocolate. The original recipe is with chocolate powder like Nesquik, and it's really sweet (and Brazilians love sugar), but we use Callebaut chocolate to adjust for the Canadian taste. The trick with brigadeiros is to cook them at the exact correct temperature and for the right amount of time. If you cook them too much, they get very hard, and if it's not enough, it won't set up and they'll be too soft to hold a shape.
Who taught you everything you know about making brigadeiros?
The passion came from my mother. I grew up seeing my mother produce amazing artisanal pastries and chocolate at home, because in Brazil it's really common to prepare desserts or even savoury dishes in your home and sell them. It's not common here, it's even illegal, but in Brazil, it's just a community thing that everyone does.
I would always help my mother with the cooking and baking. She would always say that the secret was to put love and passion into whatever you make, and to choose the best ingredients- as natural and local as possible. Love and good ingredients is the secret. I've also picked up a lot of tips and tricks from my friends, many of whom are also chocolatiers.
How did you decide to start selling the brigadeiros?
Actually, I started in Brazil. When I quit my job, I decided to help my mother more in the kitchen. I was in a transitional point of my life; I didn't know what to do and wanted to find something that I love. That's when she started teaching me everything she knows about food, and that's when I discovered my passion for chocolate. When I started selling brigadeiros in Brazil, people would try them and be really impressed. When we decided to move to Canada, I discovered that there weren't really a lot of Brazilian foods here, and people didn't even know what brigadeiros were. I said "Why not! Let's try to introduce these to Canadians." I dedicated my time to learning more about chocolate-making and about the culture of my new Canadian surroundings, and then started selling the brigadeiros. People loved them.
Which brigadeiro is your favourite to make and eat?
I love making the Noir brigadeiros- the dark chocolate ones. We use 70% Belgian cocoa beans, so it's a different balance than the others because it's more chocolate than sugar. It's a more intricate one to cook, and the texture comes out really special.
I also developed a new flavour for Je t'aime en chocolat- it's made with 66% cacao infused with a brazil nut liqueur and with pieces of brazil nuts. It's nutty and sweet but still made with dark chocolate, so it's a really nice balance.
I know you use Callebaut chocolate- from personal experience, it really is the best-quality chocolate I've every tasted. My mom bought a bag of the crispy chocolate pearls once and I just ate them by the handful.
Yes, it's really the best! I learned the basics and the philosophy behind chocolate-making from my mother, but I also went to the Callebaut Chocolate Academy in São Paulo to learn everything else about working with chocolate. I also took a few courses at the Callebaut Chocolate Academy in Montreal, which is the only location in Canada.
One non-chocolate question: which foods from Brazil do you miss the most, and are there any of them that you can find in Toronto?
I miss my mother's cooking the most. It was always special. One thing that's very common in Brazil is rice and beans, served with meat or chicken, plus salad and fries. It's our combo that we eat almost every day, and each family makes it a little bit differently, with specific spices or flavours. I miss the way my mother cooks, and you can't really replicate that in a store or restaurant.
There's also one ingredient that I'm always looking for but have never found in Toronto- it's called Catupiry cheese. It's like a cheese spread but very mild and creamy, and it's used in tons of dishes or spread on toast or crackers. It's got a really specific flavour and it's used in almost everything!
Did you have any challenges with starting the business in Canada?
The biggest challenge was figuring out how to introduce a new product to a new culture. No one I knew had ever heard of brigadeiros, and I had to figure out a good way to fit them into the Canadian food world. I took some business classes and also spent a lot of time walking around different neighbourhoods trying to figure out what kind of treats people buy, how they like to spend their free time, and how we could fit in. I also wanted to make sure people would learn the word "brigadeiro"- they're not truffles, they're not caramels- it's a unique chocolate product that people have really enjoyed.
Mary's Brigadeiro is based in Toronto, and if you're anywhere in Canada, you can order some brigadeiros online at marysbsweets.com. If you're in Montreal, you can come see Mary and try the brigadeiros in person at the Je t'aime en chocolat festival this coming weekend! The event runs from February 10-12 at Marché Bonsecours in Old Port.