Chocolate confectioners are popping up all over the place these days, much as boutique wineries did in the '90s. As with their winemaking brethren, the emphasis of this new wave of chocolatiers is on limited quantities made with high quality ingredients and a great deal of creativity.
And like the many boutique winery owners whose previous careers ranged from car racing to medicine, many of these confectioners weren't born into the trade. John Doyle studied Italian literature and art history as a prelude to starting Jubilee Chocolates with his wife, Kira. Pete Slosberg was the man behind Pete's Wicked Ale microbrew before he became Cocoa Pete.
These and more chocolatiers are feeding America's increasing appetite for fine chocolate. "Chocolate has undergone a tremendous uptick in quality," says Ron Tanner, vice president of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which sponsors the annual Fancy Food Shows. "As in a lot of categories like wine and cheese, people are not eating as much but they're eating better quality," Tanner says. "Instead of Hershey's Kisses at $3 a pound, they'll pay $30 a pound for lavender chocolate." In fact, retail prices for some of the confections I've been tasting cost $60 a pound and beyond.
While artisanal chocolate candy-making has definitely grown, no one seems to know how much, according to Joan Steuer of Chocolate Marketing, a Beverly Hills, Calif., food consulting company specializing in chocolate. "There has been a renaissance in the last five years, but so many [confectioners] are under the radar screen," Steuer says. "Many sell out of their shops, on the Web, even at farmer's markets."
The SweetBliss line of chocolates was my favorite among those from several producers, though there were individual standouts aplenty. Ilene Shane created SweetBliss after she got tired of jetting with fashion magnate Ralph Lauren to his numerous residences as his personal chef. Lauren encouraged Shane to pursue confections after she whipped up some butter-crunch candy that floored him.
Shane began with the chocolates she and many of us loved as kids. Then she elevated them to heights we couldn't fathom when we popped them into our mouths during Saturday matinees. For flavor combinations, Shane says, "I researched back into my past." But for raw materials, quality is her only concern: "Every ingredient I use is prime." For her black and white -- basically s'mores dressed up for a ball -- she creates her own marshmallows, caramel and graham crackers. Instead of enrobing them in cheap milk chocolate, she uses 60 percent cocoa chocolate from Belgium. The result is camp food for adults.
Her clusters are the size of golf balls, with centers that remind me of Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavors: cherry coconut, strawberry shortcake and, best of all, biscotti. Potato sticks are the familiar potato matchsticks made into clusters with a chocolate coating -- a couch potato's dream. The almond butter crunch and pistachio butter crunch, however, are the standouts. Both are nutty, creamy and chocolaty all at once. The pistachio has a special snap and an almost spicelike quality.
John Doyle's chocolates were inspired by the confections of master chocolatier Larry Burdick in New Hampshire and by Judy Wicks, owner of the White Dog Café, who pioneered the melding of social consciousness and good food in Philadelphia. The result is chocolates with heart and soul. "Our goal is a progressive, socially innovative business," says Doyle, who has the mint for his chocolates grown by students at Drew Elementary School in West Philadelphia. The mint chocolates are ethereal. The mint flavor is clean, fresh and pure and floats across the palate in perfect harmony with the chocolate.
Raspberry chocolates are equally superb. The berries, which John and Kira help pick, come from Green Meadow Farms in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Because they are highly perishable, the berries are frozen as soon as they are picked, at their peak. "We could never get this kind of ripeness from California berries," Doyle says.
After Slosberg sold his beer company in 1998, he traveled extensively in Belgium, where he was impressed by the quality of chocolate. Before he knew it, he was at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., learning how to make chocolate candy. "I was trying to create a new chocolate category between Hershey's and Godiva," Slosberg says. "I wanted more intense chocolate flavor, even for milk chocolate, but not with any bitterness." Each of the four Cocoa Pete's chocolate bars consists of three molded mounds of filled chocolate stuck together. Of the four, I liked Berry Berry Dangerous best. Made from organic strawberries, it has a deep strawberry flavor and a long finish.
Jeff Shepherd thought that the best way to make great fruit- filled candies was to grow the fruit himself. At Lillie Belle Farms in Oregon's Rogue Valley, Shepherd raises organic red and gold raspberries, blueberries and marionberries. His chocolate molded in the shape of a butterfly has one of the most concentrated raspberry centers of any chocolate I've ever tasted. It even has the seeds. His scallop-shaped, blueberry-filled chocolate isn't far behind.
Food as fashion was abundantly evident when I visited Vosges Haut-Chocolat's shop in New York. The chic and austere SoHo showroom is done in white and shades of purple, with a marble eating table surrounded by stools covered in white leather. On the wall flashed a film that showcased the works of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí, whose flamboyant creations inspired Vosges' Gaudí collection for the month of August. "We market ourselves as fashion chocolate. So much goes into each chocolate. It's like a dress -- one of a kind," says store manager Natalie Markoff, whose sister Katrina created Vosges. Fashion doesn't come cheap, either. The 1-ounce Vosges Sophie bars cost $6.50.
One of the Gaudí items was a nicely balanced mix of white chocolate infused with saffron, then rolled in large, multicolored sugar crystals for crunch. The September Vincent Gallo Collection was named for the actor and director, a friend of Katrina's, and focuses on Italian ingredients. The intriguing truffle that bears his name mingles sweet and savory, with dark chocolate enveloping Italian Taleggio cheese and walnuts.
Though Katrina likes to use bold flavors, she employs them with a deft touch. For example, while the Red Fire bar has chile peppers and cinnamon, neither overwhelms the dark chocolate. Ditto for the Naga bar, made with curry and coconut, and the Black Pearl, made with ginger and wasabi. But just to show she hasn't lost her Midwestern roots, Katrina makes a dynamite toffee with all-American ingredients that include Indiana butter and Wisconsin cream.
The upgrading of America's chocolate palate hasn't gone unnoticed among European chocolate makers. Chantal Coady, author of several chocolate books, has made her Rococo chocolates in England since 1983, but they weren't available in the United States until recently. Coady, who uses chocolate blended from beans from Grenada, points out that some "innovative" ingredients actually go back centuries. "With our 'artisan' bars we are trying to find exciting flavor combinations which are also well-balanced," she says. "Many have a historic precedent. The use of herbs and spices with chocolate goes back to the Mayans and Aztecs."
I loved the Rococo sea salt artisan bar, an intriguing taste of chocolate and caramel mingled with a salty tang that seems to accentuate the other flavors. Fruit hits you first in the orange and geranium bar, but then the floral qualities of the geranium linger on the palate. Cardamom treads a delicate balance, remaining exotic without becoming heavy or overbearing.
Artisanal chocolate confectioners such as Coady and Markoff have pushed the chocolate envelope by infusing it with surprising flavors. That in itself might not be remarkable, but the use of high quality chocolate and dedication to taste rather than novelty is what sets these producers apart. Wasabi and chocolate? Who knew?
Cocoa Pete's Chocolate Adventures, Campbell, Calif., (866) 275-4738, www.cocoapetes.com
Jubilee Chocolates, Philadelphia, (800) 747-4808, www.jubileechocolates.com u Lillie Belle Farms, Jacksonville, Ore., (541) 899-9037, www.lilliebellefarms.com
Rococo Chocolates, London, www.rococochocolates.com (also available at selected Saks Fifth Avenue stores)
SweetBliss Chocolates, New York, www.sweetbliss.com; (also at Bergdorf Goodman in New York and other venues)
Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Chicago, (888) 301-9866, www.vosgeschocolate.com
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