Champions of Chocolate

First it was bread, then cheese. Now artisanal chocolate has come to the Valley. Meet two local chocolatiers who elevate our favorite guilty pleasure to a fine art.



Champions of Chocolate

 

Is your Valentine ready for a $10 chocolate bar?

 

 

Oliver Kita and Rae Stang think so. Both recently traded in careers as chef-restaurateurs to open small shops in the Hudson Valley dedicated to the proposition that great chocolate doesn’t come cheap — but is well worth every crinkly dollar bill. Although they’ve never met, at one point the two aspiring chocolatiers even looked at the same potential retail space. Kita settled on a glass-walled storefront along the shopping strip between Rhinebeck and Red Hook in Dutchess County, while Stang rented a former concrete-block gas station on the road between Saugerties and Woodstock in Ulster. Both, as it happens, painted the walls of their shops in shades of red, and both are masters of display and signage — Stang’s approach is playful and witty, while Kita’s is classic elegance. Both have infused their chocolates with wild ingredients and flavors.  (Pink Hawaiian sea salt, anyone?)

 

 

And both had the insight to realize that small, handmade artisanal chocolates are one big business.

Once upon a time, Godiva (a Belgian import) and a few other brands ruled the gourmet chocolate world. But for the past several years, small artisanal chocolate makers — who generally use the world’s best cocoa and often intricately design each piece by hand — have been attracting a growing number of dedicated connoisseurs. Clay Gordon, a Larchmont (Westchester) resident and publisher of the on-line newsletter Chocophile.com, reports that the market for artisanal chocolate is now growing 10 to 20 percent annually, compared with the two- to three-percent growth of mass market sweets made by companies like Hershey.

 

 

Gordon says his readers are “adventurous eaters — boomer consumers who’ve educated themselves about olive oil and wine, and now they’re looking around for other things.” After tasting their way  through artisanal bread, cheese, coffee, balsamic vinegar and mesclun, America’s foodies are focusing on the almighty cocoa bean: where it was grown, who picked it, how it was “conched” (the process by which cocoa butter and solids are extracted from the bean), and in what blend and percentage these two ingredients got put back together.

While there is no official definition of artisanal chocolate, it tends to be made in small batches, have no additives or preservatives, and often has a cacao content of 60 to 70 percent. This last factor accounts for the chocolate’s intense flavor; by comparison, average fine milk chocolates are only about 40 percent cacao, and mass-produced candies about 20 percent.

 

 

Kita, who still owns an upscale catering business, studied the high art of chocolate in Paris and Montreal and understands that educating new customers is a major part of his job. Some people walk in, see the prices ($2.50 per piece, a bargain by Manhattan or Parisian standards), and walk out. Other newcomers linger, sniffing, looking. Kita offers up a taste, and the flavor does the rest. “They can tell immediately there’s something different about these chocolates,” he says.  “My chocolates melt superbly in the mouth and the nuancing of the flavors is very pleasant and distinctive. The first word that comes out of people’s mouths is usually ‘remarkable.’ ”

 

 

Large photographs behind the counter show the chocolate maker at work in surgical gloves and white coat — a scientist in pursuit of pleasure. He uses only four blends of chocolate from the French manufacturer Valrhona: Manjari, Guanaja, Equatoriale Noire, and Extra Bitter. The chocolate comes ready-made in “pistoles,” coin-like pieces about the size of a silver dollar. A computerized machine then melts or “tempers” the pistoles to the exact liquidity needed for molding. Once they have been poured into molds and cooled, he begins the often elaborate decorating process. Done in groups of 48, each chocolate takes about a minute to make, although some, such as the Palet d’Opium, may take three days from start to finish because the aromas need time to infuse the chocolate.

 

 

For flavoring, Kita leans toward ingredients that are complex and fruity ginger, candied orange peel, black currant and red currant purée, blood orange, coconut. He also uses teas (lapsang, green, passion fruit) and liqueurs (cognac). Somewhat to his surprise, his most popular chocolates so far have fairly esoteric pedigrees: pistachio almond marzipan, cherry chile, passion fruit with lichee, and citrus lavender.

 

 

Rae Stang, owner and chef at Lucky Chocolates, sold her half of the Blue Bird Café in Shokan, Ulster County, to go into the artisanal chocolate business. “I got burned out on the restaurants,” she says. “I thought chocolate would be simple. But actually it’s not. It’s really a science, like physics. I’ve learned a lot by trial and error.”

Stang’s willingness to experiment is evident everywhere (even on her head — she sports bright pink hair). Innovative ingredients, such as cardamom, sour cherries or lemon, go into her creations with varying degrees of success. She’s partial to Chimayo chili and other ingredients she first encountered as a chef on a cattle ranch out west. However, she doesn’t take chances with her base ingredient: shes uses only organically grown beans from a Fair Trade cooperative in the Dominican Republic. An Italian manufacturer turns the beans into chocolate pistoles containing 70 percent cocoa solids.

 

Her customers, Stang says, are a mix of city folk and locals. “There are a lot of different tastes. I get a lot of weekenders, but some people who grew up around here really like dark chocolate, too.” The assortment under the counter changes daily, subject to whim and availability. Stang says she waits until her helpers have left for the day — then starts inventing. Will it be “orange almond” ganache? Creme de Cassis? Pistachio-almond? Or some new high-wire combination never before attempted?

The shop’s brilliant  décor adds to its edible charms. A multicolored chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and empty gilt frames decorate red walls patterned with gold paisley swirls — the look is part fin de siecle Paris, part ’60s psychedelic.

 

 

Stang is selling chocolates as attitude: a carefree, rebellious stance toward life. The attitude at Oliver Kita Fine Confections — whose trademarked slogan is “Mind, Body, Chocolate Every Day” — has more to do with the pursuit of excellence, though flights of fancy are never discounted. “This one is like sitting on a swing eating a peach in the summer,” the chocolatier was overheard telling a first-time customer one wintry afternoon as he offered an orange-swirled morsel.

In other words, priceless.

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