Sweet dream: Chocolate museum rounds into shape

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Sweet dream: Chocolate museum rounds into shape

JEJU - What does Korea's southernmost island, Marado, have to do with chocolate? That's where you have to go if you want to see the quaint house that is the promotional office for the nation's only chocolate museum. The museum itself, which will open May 1, is on Jeju Island. Why would the founder of the museum put the promotional office on a remote, unspectacular island where very few tourists go? For that answer, you'll have to go meet her yourself.

After hearing about the new chocolate museum, I journeyed down to Jeju to see it and meet the founder, Han Ye-seok, 54. "I decided to do this because I thought it would make a good pastime after I retire," she said. But I could tell that her project was much more than a pastime. It was a grand dream that had been gestating for more than 20 years.

She showed me two business cards: One was beige and inscribed with the title "President of the Chocolate Museum;" the other was white and said "Citibank, Vice President, Global Cash and Trade." She explained that she was the manager of Citibank's corporate finance division, and had been with the bank since 1970, after graduating from Ewha Womans University with a degree in education. She added that nobody had worked longer for Citibank Korea than she.

She led me to a nearby harbor and we hopped into her speedboat. After a smooth, 30-minute trip across the South Sea, we reached Marado, which resembles a battleship from afar. Soon enough we'd docked and made our way to the promotional office, which was modeled after the house from the "Anne of Green Gables" story. It seemed like something out of an old painting, with its red roof and white panels against the stark island backdrop. Surrounded by fields of indigenous flowers, the house has become the island's most popular picture site.

Ms. Han explained how the chocolate museum idea took off: "It was about 1979, when my husband's business became established, when I decided to do something meaningful. At that time I visited a friend in France who was running a small chocolate factory there. It was love at first sight. I decided to establish a place here that seemed like it was out of a fairy tale."

From then on, her overseas vacations had agendas: to collect as much information about chocolate as possible. She went to the capitals of chocolate, such as Belgium, Switzerland, France and Germany. She even visited African countries that export chocolate's main ingredient, cacao. She met with industry professionals and took dessert-making courses taught by big chocolate companies.

Her dream began to take shape in 1997. The financial crisis that hit then dragged real estate prices down, making her project affordable. "After '97, I started looking for places for the museum," she said. "Mount Seorak was my first choice because it gets a lot of visitors. I wasn't even thinking about Jeju because the real estate was so expensive, but then I heard about a bargain."

The building she bought was in Jeju city, and had been a traditional garment factory. The 2,640 square meter edifice is on a 6,600 square meter plot of land. The dull-red structure oddly resembles the old hats that scholars and civil servants from the Joseon period wore. After "much soul searching and prayer," Ms. Han and her husband withdrew a huge chunk of their savings and bought it.

At the museum, visitors will be greeted by opulent sites: a tall suit of armor, a magnificent chandelier, a mural of angels playing among cacao trees. But the highlight of the trip will be the chocolate sampling, and Ms. Han plans to generously provide plenty of treats made at her factory.

Ms. Han is keen to develop diverse products under her brand name, Marado Chogoraeto. "A couple years ago I made ginseng chocolate and green tea chocolate, which I now distribute at selected stores," she said. "We're also using Jeju products such as tangerines, mangos, kiwis, pumpkinseeds and peanuts.

On May 1, which is Korea's Children's Day holiday, the museum's doors will open to the public and Ms. Han will start to really share her chocolate dream.

by Jung Hyung-mo

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