On the trail of New England’s newest batch of premium-chocolate makers, plus four gourmet chocolate recipes.
By Krissy O'Shea
Jan 02 2018
Bean to Bar | On the trail of New England’s premium-chocolate makers.Photo Credit : Krissy O'Shea
There’s a sweet, hoppy scent wafting through the halls of 14 Tyler Street today. The former headquarters of the Ames Safety Envelope Company, this massive space in Somerville, Massachusetts, has been converted into a multiuse complex anchored by Aeronaut Brewing, maker of IPAs, pilsners, and ales and producer of hoppy aromas. But the alluring sweetness in the air can be traced to a much smaller operation: a commercial kitchen in the back of the building, where Eric Parkes is moving deftly between a pair of conching machines (in layman’s terms, chocolate mixers). They look like supersized potter’s wheels, and their spinning action blends and emulsifies chocolate liquor and cocoa butter together with sugar to produce the Somerville Chocolate bars that Parkes makes in small batches, beginning with beans sourced from equatorial regions such as Ghana, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Haiti.
Parkes turns to an array of metal racks and, bending down to the lower shelves, pulls out a few carefully wrapped bags of not-quite-perfect bars that won’t make it to market. “Here,” he says, breaking off a corner of a dark bar. “What do you taste?”
The flavor is completely unexpected. There’s not a trace of the waxy, saccharine Halloween chocolate of childhood. Instead, there are exuberant tannins and rich sun-dried-fruit flavors. Parkes brings out more samples: one earthy and nearly austere; another lush and velvety, heavy with flavors of honey and tropical flowers (the beans were grown in Hawaii). With each new sample, Parkes expounds on how cacao varies in flavor depending on where it’s grown and how this flavor can be manipulated at every stage of the process: roasting, winnowing, grinding, conching, tempering, and molding.
Parkes is one of New England’s growing number of so-called “bean to bar” chocolate producers. While most confectioners buy premade chocolate and turn it into truffles, bonbons, and other sweets, bean-to-bar makers begin with raw ingredients and produce, as the name implies, mostly bar chocolate. And they approach their craft with the kind of fastidiousness and knowledge of varietals and provenance that one would expect from the head vintner at a grand cru winery.
In this group you’ll find Katherine Reed and Josiah Mayo, who turn out silky bars sprinkled with sea salt or studded with ginger and dried blueberries at Chequessett Chocolate on Cape Cod. There’s also the granddaddy of New England bean-to-bar makers, Somerville’s Taza Chocolate, with its line of Mexican-inspired stone-ground chocolates, and Rogue Chocolatier in central Massachusetts, maker of one of the country’s top chocolate bars in any category.
These producers are rooted in New England, but their beans most definitely aren’t. Theobroma cacao, the cacao tree, is native to the deep tropical regions of Central and South America, and the best makers develop long-term, fair-trade relationships with individual farms there to ensure a steady supply of quality beans. Tom and Monica Rogan of Goodnow Farms, who make chocolate in their smartly converted 225-year-old barn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, travel frequently to farms in Mexico, Central America, and South America. “Our connection to the farmers is very important,” says Tom. “We work with them to select the most flavorful beans and to ensure that our relationship is equitable.”
This hands-on approach recalls the work of New England’s first chocolate producers, who were importing beans as far back as the mid-17th century. In 1670, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard were granted a license to open a public house in Boston serving coffee and chocolate—the earliest such permit on record. Back then, chocolate was consumed as a beverage: Roasted crushed beans (called cacao nibs) were ground by hand on warm stones to melt them, then blended with sugar and spices and whisked with hot water in special chocolate pots. You can learn about colonial chocolate at Boston’s Old North Church campus, where Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop—named after an 18th-century chocolate merchant who attended the church—occupies a permanent exhibit space in the Clough House. There, costumed interpreters walk visitors through the process and offer samples of drinking chocolate based on a historic recipe.
Yet even if the current bean-to-bar generation is reviving an old craft, they’re doing it in a more interconnected world. Whereas Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard likely never visited the Jamaican cacao farms supplying their operation, Tom and Monica Rogan are representative of today’s highly mobile, socially conscious producers. When farmers in the village of San Juan Chivite, Guatemala, needed a new fermentation and drying area, the Rogans funded its construction. After all, they know that their customers want more than the chocolate itself: They want the story behind the goods. It’s a sweet extension of the farm-to-table movement—albeit more global than local—and Monica Rogan sees it as a valuable teaching opportunity. “Chocolate has the ability to make a meaningful difference,” she says. “It can raise our awareness of where our food comes from, who grows it, and how to produce it sustainably.”
This subsidiary of Burlington, Vermont’s Lake Champlain Chocolates produces meticulously sourced and crafted single-origin dark chocolate bars developed by Eric Lampman, son of Lake Champlain founder Jim Lampman. recommended: Madagascar 82% Wild Pepper bar. lakechamplainchocolates.com
This café-workshop in North Truro on Cape Cod makes delicious chocolates, mostly dark, with some milk chocolate and single-origin bars in the mix, as well as confections like barks, brittles, and toffees. recommended: Wellfleet Sea Salt bar. chequessettchocolate.com
Enna Grazier produces exquisite single-origin chocolates out of her small “factory” in Epping, New Hampshire, and her tasting notes (“toasted sweet biscuits, tobacco, milk, and a tantalizingly subtle tannin”) read like a chocophile’s dream. recommended: Madagascar 70% bar. ennachocolate.com
Goodnow Farms Chocolates
At their headquarters in Sudbury, Massachusetts, Tom and Monica Rogan make dark chocolate bars, some blended with local maple syrup or ground almonds, as well as hot cocoa mixes, from beans sourced from individual fair-trade farms. recommended: Asochivite bar with maple syrup. goodnowfarms.com
Located in Three Rivers, Massachusetts, 10-year-old Rogue remains a tiny operation, but founder Colin Gasko has earned enough national attention for the intensity of his single-origin bars that customers now preorder each batch. It’s worth the trouble. recommended: Whatever you can get your hands on. roguechocolatier.com
In addition to selling his small-batch bars to the general public, owner Eric Parkes runs a chocolate CSA, whose members pay in advance for a delivery of multiple bars, mostly dark but also some tasty blends, such as white chocolate with chilies and chai-spiced cacao nibs. recommended: Dark chocolate bar with orange peel and cardamom. somervillechocolate.com
Known for its gritty stone-ground style, Taza produces a vast line of bars, Mexican-style hot chocolate disks, barks, and chocolate-covered nuts at its Somerville, Massachusetts, factory. recommended: Chocolate-covered hazelnuts. tazachocolate.com
Founded in Peterborough, New Hampshire, by Neely Cohen, winner of the Food Network’s Sweet Genius baking competition, Vicuña makes richly flavored organic bars under the guidance of Cohen’s successors, Nate Morison and Casey Goodrich. recommended: Bolivia bar. vicunachocolate.com
Bob and Paige Leavitt began their first chocolate company in 1984, then returned to the business 10 years ago to produce both exotic blends (Chili Crunch, English Garden) and bean-to-bar, single-origin dark chocolate at their Boston facility. recommended: Dominican Republic Oko Caribe bar. vivrachocolate.com
*Yankee Editors’ Choice Food Award winner
The following are recipes both sweet and savory that showcase chocolate in all its glory.