While others were indulging in traditional desserts last Thursday, at my table an Aegean pistachio chocolate tart and upside-down three-chocolate brownie pie won the day. They were the creations I fashioned from goodies acquired at Zoe’s Chocolate, in Frederick and Waynesboro, Pa., and Spagnvola Chocolatier in Gaithersburg.
Cacao beans obviously are not indigenous to this region — they grow within 20 degrees north or south of the equator — so chocolate gets a pass where the strict definition of “locally produced” is concerned.
By virtue of three generations of knowledge and craftsmanship dating to the beginning of the 20th century, Zoe’s, run by Greek-born George Tsoukatis, 62, and his three children, Pantelis, 32, Zoe, 30, and Petros, 22, turns out a line of delicious, beautifully made chocolates. (Their handmade candy canes are awesome as well.)
Especially noteworthy is a signature collection of Mediterranean-inspired chocolates that pays homage to the family’s roots, such as ones filled with honey, ground roasted walnuts, baklava spices and salt, dipped in 74 percent cacao couverture and then rolled in chopped walnuts and vibrantly green Sicilian pistachios. Couverture is chocolate that contains a higher percentage of cocoa butter than regular chocolate.
After working with his wife’s brother as a self-taught chocolatier for more than 30 years, George decided to strike out on his own, going into business with his children in 2007 and opening a chocolate factory and retail boutique on Waynesboro’s Main Street.
“It was a new beginning, so we named it after Zoe, which means ‘life’ in Greek,” says Pantelis, who left a marketing career to join the concern and now handles the business finances. Zoe, who was a government consultant, oversees marketing and day-to-day operations. Petros, having learned candymaking from his father and at Chicago’s French Pastry School, is a chocolatier alongside George.
The business’s slogan is, “Where time-honored tradition meets modern sophistication.”
“We take things passed down to us for generations and tweak them for today’s palate, especially using ingredients from our heritage, like honey, sesame and pomegranate,” Zoe says. They also have wholeheartedly embraced the current trend of pairing the chocolates with esoteric salts, especially fleur de sel and Himalayan.
Standouts include a square of tahini, milk chocolate and sesame brittle covered with dark chocolate; the Black Daphne, composed of ganache (chocolate blended with cream) imbued with portlike Mavrodaphne wine; a liquid caramel sprinkled with pinot noir salt; and a line of textured bars.
Zoe’s sources as many ingredients locally as it can: honey from the company’s own hives, cream from Harrisburg Dairies, herbs from Willow Pond Farm in nearby Fairfield. Jams that they don’t make themselves, from fruit and berries grown in the Blue Ridge Mountains around Waynesboro, they buy from McCutcheon’s Apple Products in Frederick, where they have a second shop.
They obtain their high-quality couverture, made from a blend of South American and African beans, from Albert Uster Imports in Gaithersburg.
A word on the difference between being a chocolate maker and a chocolatier. Bean-to-bar is a popular term among the chocnoscenti that refers to operations that buy beans from a distributor, farm or cooperative and turn them into chocolate. A chocolatier works with chocolate.
The Tsoukatises are chocolatiers; Eric and Crisoire Reid, the married owners of Spagnvola Chocolatier, are chocolatiers and chocolate makers. More than simply bean-to-bar producers, the couple, both in their early 40s, are farm-to-bar producers. They cultivate, harvest, ferment and dry six to 10 tons of cacao beans annually on their 350-acre farm in the Dominican Republic, shipping them to their Gaithersburg shop and factory.
There, the Reids make chocolate. They roast the beans, separate the nibs from the husks and grind the nibs into a pourable mixture of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. This chocolate liquor, which resembles what we recognize as melted chocolate, continues to be ground and refined for at least eight hours, at which time sugar, Tahitian vanilla and extra cocoa butter are added. The chocolate is then aged for 15 to 20 days to allow its full flavor to develop.
Once Spagnvola’s chocolate is ready, Crisoire, the head chocolatier, and her assistants use it to make a line of bars ranging from 54 percent to 80 percent cacao. They cover their ganache-based flavored truffles and bonbons with 70 percent cacao. Percent cacao is the percent of cocoa solids (powder) plus the percent of total cocoa butter, so equal percentages do not necessarily mean equal amounts of cocoa.
The Reids’ chocolate is what’s known as single-origin, meaning that it is fabricated with beans from only one region: in this case, their farm. Some chocolate aficionados say that’s a plus, exhaustively debating the virtues of one region’s beans over another; others claim that blending for optimal flavor is what distinguishes great chocolatiers.
“At Spagnvola, we oversee 100 percent of the chocolate making process, employ fair-trade practices start to finish and make everything by hand,” says Eric. The name Spagnvola (pronounced span-vola), he explains, derives from a 16th-century Spanish word for Hispaniola, the island occupied by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
As eager as the Reids are, they are new to the chocolate game. Eric is an information technology data security engineer whose income feeds his ambitious entrepreneurial spirit. When he married his Dominican-born wife in 1997, the plan was to invest in the Dominican Republic and eventually retire there. They bought a farm and backed ill-fated ventures such as farming pigs, raising cattle and growing fruit before turning to cacao as a cash crop. They had intended to sell the beans to manufacturers, but they hit a snag.
“Large chocolate companies had pre-set deals already, and small ones only needed one or two [155-pound] bags at a time. We had a premium commodity that no one wanted,” Reid says.
So in 2007, they set out to make chocolate themselves. They consulted experts, did research online, experimented in their Montgomery Village home and attended classes at the Barry Callebaut Chocolate Academy in Chicago. Crisoire wanted to sell her bonbons and truffles, so they bought equipment and set up shop in Kentlands, opening last spring.
Their boutique and production room are sumptuously outfitted, and their chocolate bars are, in my decidedly layman’s opinion, well crafted. They have a nice snap, a smooth texture and no hint of graininess or waxiness. If I have a quibble about them, it is that they play one note, whereas the Zoe’s bars possess a symphonic complexity.
That’s not necessarily a shortcoming. Spagnvola’s 80 percent bar and 54 percent milk chocolate bar (made by adding nonfat powdered milk and organic Dominican cane sugar to the company’s 70 percent blend) inspired me to create the brownie pie. The 80 percent’s coffee notes enhanced the filling, while the milk chocolate’s chestnut color and molasses flavor note conspired to form a luxurious ganache coating.
Alas, Spagnvola’s bonbons and truffles, many with visible air bubbles and uninspired flavors (an olive oil-rosemary experiment I sampled signals hope), reveal the missing vital ingredient: experience. I did enjoy the Reids’ blueberry bonbons and used them to add oomph to blueberry scones I adapted from a Marion Cunningham recipe.
Zoe’s Chocolates are exceptional in every way: look, mouth-feel, flavor. I melted down a Harvest Bar (with caramelized sunflower, pumpkin seeds, sea salt), then coated toffee popcorn with it. For a decadent, elegant chocolate tart filling, I stirred 32 dark chocolate and pistachio bonbons into hot cream, melting them only halfway so silken white chunks were visible in each slice.
At my table, nobody missed the holiday’s pumpkin pie.
Zoe’s Chocolate Co.: 34 E. Main St., Waynesboro, Pa., 717-387- 5882; and 121A N. Market St. Frederick, 301-694-5882. www.zoeschocolate.
com. Spagnvola: 360 Main St., Gaithersburg; 240-654-6972. www.spagnvola.com.