North Carolina’s Love Affair with Chocolate

When it comes to foods we love, chocolate tops the list.

By Leah Chester-Davis

North Carolina’s Love Affair with Chocolate
Vern Ryalls, of Black Mountain Chocolate, showcases a delectable box of chocolates. (photo by Leah Chester-Davis)

When it comes to foods we love, chocolate tops the list. Its value extends back centuries to nearly 1,900 years ago, and it continues to delight and surprise. And good news: When the cocoa content is 70 percent or greater, chocolate has tremendous health benefits. Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants, flavonoids and flavanols that contribute to heart health, according to the Cleveland Clinic. No wonder it’s the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day.

With a number of North Carolina “bean to bar” chocolate makers garnering prestigious accolades, pleasant discoveries are in store for chocolate lovers statewide.

Take it from one of the state’s chocolate makers, Rom Still of Brasstown Chocolates, who hears from customers on why they think chocolate makes the perfect gift.

“The first is the indulgent, decadent flavor. Price is another. It’s not that expensive,” he says. “It is very personal and is not gender or age specific. It is a good value and most people like it.”

Danielle Centeno, of Escazú Chocolates in Raleigh, which was part of the first wave of craft chocolate makers in the Southeast, gets to the heart of chocolate’s popularity. “Chocolate makes everyone happy,” she says.

With Valentine’s Day sending chocolate sales into orbit to the tune of nearly $400 million, buying from one of North Carolina’s artisan chocolatiers helps keep some of that money in our local communities. Several have won top honors in national and international competitions. Some offer factory tours, which make for a fun outing. It’s the perfect chance to learn more about this popular confection and to sample artisan creations close to home.

In Raleigh, Escazú Artisan Chocolates (936 N. Blount Street), got its start when head chocolate maker Hallot Parson was inspired by a 2005 trip to Costa Rica. Parson visited an organic cacao farm and was inspired to learn more. He began a trial and error process, making small batches in Beaufort. In 2007, Escazu moved to Raleigh, adding partners and a retail shop. Parson serves as head chocolate maker, which means he takes the raw beans and makes chocolate. Danielle Centeno is the head chocolatier who takes the chocolate and adds the artistic touch to make truffles and other confections.

Escazú sources cacao from Costa Rica, Venezuela and Peru, and they visit each regularly. Parson notes that meeting cacao growers, developing relationships and tending to those relationships helps ensure the quality is good. Their Peruvian beans resulted in chocolate that garnered a Good Food Award last year. Both Parson and Centeno have worked as chefs and draw on that expertise.

“We are constantly innovating new flavors,” Parson says. “You could come in week after week and there will always be something a little bit different.”

Escazú artisan and handcrafted award-winning chocolate can be purchased in the Raleigh shop or the online store. escazuchocolates.com

Videri Chocolate Factory (327 W. Davie Street, “Sweet” 100) is located in the historic Raleigh Depot building in Raleigh. Founded by husband-wife team, Sam Ratto and Starr Sink Ratto, and friend Chris Heavener, Videri also starts with the bean from cacao plantations in Central and South America, seeking out fair-trade and organic when possible. Videri also offers chocolate tours, a fun outing for a couple or family. Ask for a taste of their best-seller, the 70 percent Classic Dark chocolate bar, and try some of the other flavors such as Sea Salt and Pink Peppercorn. If you want to bake your own chocolate creations for a sweetheart, Videri sells Baker’s Chocolate in bulk by the pound. A box of chocolates is always welcome, but Videri and some of the other shops help you go over the top with six- and 12-month chocolate subscriptions. viderichocolatefactory.com

Rom Still of Brasstown Chocolate

Rom Still of Brasstown Fine Artisan Chocolate (photo by Leah Chester-Davis)

 

Brasstown Fine Artisan Chocolate (1151 Canal Drive) in Winston-Salem is a small shop that is reaping big honors these days in International Chocolate Awards (seven awards in 2016) and Good Food Awards competitions. Located in an old mill known as West End Mill Works, a selection of chocolate is available.

Owners Rom Still and Barbara Price purchase beans from a supplier that buys from farmers. Still attributes his award-winning chocolate to two factors: good quality beans and the roasting process. He depends on a supplier who buys beans directly from farmers to properly dry and ferment the beans. The rest is up to him, and it starts with the roasting process, which he says is a trade secret.

“Roasting — the temperature and how long — is something I’ve spent tons of time on,” he says. “Our roasting techniques bring out the full flavor of the beans. We experiment frequently to achieve unique flavor experiences for our audience.” brasstownchocolate.com

Tour Black Mountain Chocolate Factory

Part of the tour at Black Mountain Chocolate Factory

 

Nearby is Black Mountain Chocolate (732 North Trade Street), in the renovated Big Winston Tobacco Warehouse, which offers tours of its chocolate factory for a behind-the-scenes peek at how they take the beans and turn them into delectable bars and other confections. Visitors get to see the large pods that hold the cacao beans along with learning a little history about chocolate. After the beans are roasted, visitors get a chance to rub the outside husk from a bean and taste the roasted chocolate inside. At this stage in the process, the beans are broken into nibs. They are placed in a machine along with sugar that grinds and breaks down the beans down further, turning the chocolate into liquid rivers of scrumptious flavor. The chocolate is poured into molds to shape the bars. blackmountainchocolate.com

French Broad Chocolates is a favored name in Asheville and has been a destination for locals and visitors alike since its opening in 2008. Its French Broad Chocolate Lounge (10 S. Pack Square) is a delectable stop on Valentine’s or any other day. 

“Chocolate has traditionally held a special place in our society as a way to share love,” says co-founder Dan Rattigan.

Many chocolate and other confection options abound along with a selection of wines, local beers, tea, coffee and espresso. Dan and his wife Jael have also opened Chocolate + Milk, a chocolate boutique, and French Broad Chocolate Factory and Tasting Room.

The two honed their knowledge of all things chocolate after buying and living on an abandoned cacao farm in Costa Rica a couple of years before moving to Asheville. They source from small producers and cooperatives in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Peru and Guatemala. frenchbroadchocolates.com

With several other local chocolate shops around the state, you’re sure to find the perfect treat for your Valentine without traveling too far.

Other popular chocolate shops

About the Author

Leah Chester-Davis loves to explore North Carolina. Her business, Chester-Davis Communications (chester-davis.com), specializes in food, farm, gardening and lifestyle brands and organizations.

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