February 10, 2012 9:55 pm

Expat lives: Milking it down under

Belgian Igor Van Gerwen found Tasmania an unlikely market but an excellent source of ingredients for his chocolate house

At the House of Anvers – a chocolate house in Latrobe, Tasmania – Igor Van Gerwen makes dark chocolates shaped like cut gems. Visitors peer through a window as apron-clad chocolatiers dust truffles with coconut flakes. In this small northern town, tourists were once more likely to spot a couple of boxing kangaroos than they were a Belgian chocolate factory.

“When I first moved here, I had a difficult time finding quality chocolate,” says the 46-year-old Belgian who moved to Australia in 1986. “It was a challenge to find anything other than low-grade candy bars, a big change coming from Belgium.”

It’s hard to imagine a more ideal place for a chocolatier than Belgium, a leader in the chocolate industry ever since Jean Neuhaus created the praline – a chocolate shell filled with a soft fondant centre – a century ago. From Antwerp in the north to Namur in the south, more than 2,000 chocolate houses dot the country and in Brussels, even breakfast comes drizzled in dark chocolate.

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For Van Gerwen, however, the prospect of building his business in the world’s chocolate capital seemed unfeasible. “In Belgium I knew it would be very difficult to start competing against third and fourth generation chocolate houses,” he says. “In Australia the idea of an artisan chocolaterie was still new and I looked upon the move as an adventure.”

In Tasmania, an island almost twice the size of Switzerland, there are only a handful of chocolate houses aside from a Cadbury visitor centre 15km north of the capital Hobart. Van Gerwen opened the House of Anvers in 2002 with the goal of introducing people to his country’s traditional truffles and pralines.

Van Gerwen grew up in Wilrijk, a town 10km outside Antwerp. As a schoolboy he washed dishes in a local bakery, where he developed an interest in making pastries and ice-cream. Eventually he moved to Antwerp to study at the Provincial Food Institute, where he met Roger Geerts, a master chocolatier who inspired him to join the industry.

After finishing his patissier’s training in 1984, Van Gerwen travelled to Australia with his sister. When the time came to return to Europe, however, his sister announced that she was staying in Australia. Van Gerwen eventually decided to join her and settled in Devonport, a coastal city in the north of Tasmania where ferries shuttle people to and from Melbourne.

Van Gerwen first took a job in a patisserie and spent nights in his apartment making chocolates for local restaurants. Although he struggled to adjust to a chocolate culture offering little more than Crunchies and Kit Kats, he soon discovered there was an advantage to being a chocolatier in Tasmania after all: the rich milk products.

In Tasmania there are more than 400 dairy farms, which provide around seven per cent of the country’s milk. Most cows are grass-fed year round, producing milk that is especially creamy and ideal for making truffles and fudge. “The cream and butter in Tasmania are the richest I’ve ever come across,” says Van Gerwen. “The milk products give the chocolates a really strong flavour.”

The rising demand for Van Gerwen’s chocolates soon required both complete commitment to the business and a bigger kitchen. In Railton, a town set in the hills 25km south of Devonport, Van Gerwen bought a simple brick house with the idea of converting the garage into a commercial kitchen.

“The house was inexpensive and very basic with 1960s decor, speckled kitchen benches and the walls were painted green, red, brown, yellow and orange,” he says. “There was fake wood panelling throughout the house and a wood heater that seemed to have only two settings: ‘off’ and ‘fry’.”

It wasn’t until Van Gerwen met his Australian wife Jocelyn in 1990 that he decided to update his home’s aesthetic. “Under the 1960s-style carpets we found beautiful wood floors and kitchen and bathroom cabinets made from Tasmanian Oak,” he says. “We brought in antique furniture from Belgium, including a Leuvense stoof – an antique coal heater.”

Today the couple share the three-bedroom home with their two young daughters, Kate and Emma. Each morning the family is greeted by cows peering through the kitchen windows. On weekends, Van Gerwen takes the kids on the Mersey River in his tinny – a small aluminium boat – to fish for trout, crayfish, abalone and scallops.

“Sometimes I think I’d have an easier time if I moved the business to Melbourne, but it wouldn’t provide the rural lifestyle that we have here,” says Van Gerwen. “Tasmania has everything in close proximity: deserted beaches on the east coast, agricultural and dairy land in the north, the rugged west coast and the central mountain district.”

Aside from managing the House of Anvers, Van Gerwen helps run Port D’Anvers, a chocolate café in Sydney’s Chinatown, which specialises in avant-garde flavours inspired by Chinese and Singaporean cuisines.

His personal taste in chocolate, however, still tends toward the classic, though he’s hard-pressed to name his favourite. “That’s like asking someone if they have a favourite wine,” he says. “If you’re having a big lunch on a hot day, you’re not going to want a heavy Shiraz. It is the same with chocolate. At night with a glass of cognac, you might like a heavier, dark roast chocolate with higher acidity, while on a hot day you’d probably prefer a Swiss-style milk chocolate with berries.”

“But I never get sick of chocolate. Every night after we put the kids to bed, Jocelyn and I often sit with a cup of coffee and, of course, a piece of chocolate.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● People still make time for each other, for their families and for recreational activities

● Tasmania is still not saturated with business activities so there are plenty of opportunities to take imported goods into the market

● The lifestyle is ideal for raising a family

Cons

● Tasmania is far away from Europe

● A fresh Trappist Westmalle (Belgian beer) is not available in Tasmania

What you can buy for ...

A$100,000 A plot of land in Mornington in south Tasmania

A$1m A four-bedroom house in Sandy Bay in south Tasmania

Contact

● Knight Frank, www.knightfrank.com.au

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