It was the weekend after Thanksgiving in downtown Asheville, N.C., and there was a line stretching down the sidewalk. Patient moms and dads were trying to keep antsy kids occupied as they waited outside a baby-blue-and-brown corner building. “Santa must be here,” I thought.
Turned out they were waiting for something better: chocolate. French Broad Chocolate Lounge serves the sweet stuff in all its forms: bars, cakes, truffles, cookies, ice cream, mousse, brownies, and — perhaps best of all — hot and melted. I took a place in line not suspecting that my opinion of chocolate was about to be altered forever.
Ten years ago, Chocolate Lounge owners Jael and Dan Rattigan fell in love with chocolate and each other. The duo dropped out of grad school, bought an abandoned cacao farm in Costa Rica and moved. There, they opened a restaurant called “Bread and Chocolate” and had their first son.
When they were ready to move back to the States, fellow expats recommended Asheville for its food scene, independent businesses and kid-friendly vibe. “Most people get stuck in a place. We were very fortunate to have a choice,” Jael said. They sold their Costa Rican restaurant to one of the cooks, moved to Asheville and started making chocolate at home.
“The first year or so was very challenging. We immediately found a following at farmers markets, but it wasn’t paying the bills. We were on Medicaid for a while there, barely scraping by as young parents,” Dan said.
Then it hit them. “Enjoyment of our chocolate is experiential,” Dan said. “That was the big idea behind the Chocolate Lounge. Against all odds, we got a local bank to support us with a small-business loan.”
The airy space, which serves approximately 130,000 customers a year, draws retired couples out for an afternoon snack, families cozying up with hot chocolate and ice cream, and hipsters working on laptops. In the back, a chocolate bar “library” showcases the work of fellow chocolate-makers across the country. “We believe that a high tide raises all boats,” Jael said.
The only hard part is choosing what you want to order. Cacao nibs add a satisfying crunch to cookies and coffee ice cream. Devil’s food cake layered with whipped chocolate ganache perches on the counter. Hot and cold drinking chocolates are a specialty.
At this point, I have a confession to make: I’ve never been obsessed with chocolate. Dark chocolate is often too bitter for my taste. But French Broad’s Liquid Truffle Drinking Chocolate made a believer out of me. The warm, silky melted chocolate that gets on your fingers when you’re eating a candy bar on a summer day? That’s what the Liquid Truffle is like — except you get a whole mug of it.
For their truffle, the Rattigans heat ganache and cream from the center until it’s in a drinkable state. The dessert is boosted by unique flavor combinations such as maple and smoked sea salt, cayenne and cinnamon, and Indian kulfi (rose, cardamom and pistachio). There’s even a vegan option made with coconut cream. It’s served in a petite mug with a little spoon. Don’t gulp it down — this stuff is for sippin’, folks.
After the lounge took off, Jael and Dan opened the French Broad Chocolate Factory nearby, where they make chocolate, give tours and offer tastings. Tours start with a slideshow that documents the process of growing, harvesting, fermenting and drying cacao. Jael doesn’t mince words. “Cacao is pretty weird,” she said.
Cacao beans (technically, seeds) grow inside a tropical fruit that provides the sugar needed for fermentation after harvesting. The cacao air-dries in the sun and develops the flavor characteristic of chocolate. Beans arrive at the factory in large sacks from Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Peru. On my tour, Jael reached into a sack and stirred up the cacao so that we could smell a hint of chocolate — earthy and sweet — in its earliest stage before the factory transforms it.
The cacao beans are hand-sorted, slow-roasted, separated from the husk and then ground for three days straight. By the third day, the mixture looks like the silky chocolate we know and love. A final step releases volatile flavor compounds and smoothes the texture with heat and agitation.
I sample a square of chocolate — it has just come off the line — that’s flavored with local coffee. It’s rich and fresh. Good chocolate produces a distinct “snap!” sound when you break it, the Rattigans explained. Aging the chocolate for two to three months further mellows the flavor. After the tour, visitors head to the front for a tasting of the entire chocolate bar collection.
Of the 18 tons of chocolate that the Rattigans and their 60 employees made in 2014, about 12 tons went to the lounge and the rest into 90,000 bars of chocolate.
“We have a really hungry chocolate monster,” Jael said. The bean-to-bar chocolate movement is evolving in similar ways as the craft beer and coffee movements, she said. “People are taking a closer look at what they’re consuming. They started caring about the source of the ingredients. It’s happening in chocolate.”
151 Haywood St.
Downtown hotel with a boutique feel. Rooms from $190.
Grove Park Inn
290 Macon Ave.
Mountaintop resort. Rooms from $219.
French Broad Chocolate Lounge
10 S. Pack Sq.
Liquid chocolate, ice cream and other desserts. Individual items
$4 to $6.
11 Biltmore Ave.
Tapas from chef Katie Button, who has worked at elBulli and Minibar. Small plates from $4 to $15.
400 Haywood Rd.
Upscale dishes and cocktails in an unassuming dive bar. Entrees start at $26.
French Broad Chocolate Factory
21 Buxton Ave.
See how chocolate is made, and taste-test. Self-guided tours 2-5:30 p.m. daily; guided tours 11 a.m. Saturdays. Free.
River Arts District
More than 20 art studios and galleries along the French Broad River. Hours vary by studio. Free.
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Maiellano is a freelance writer in Washington. Her Web site is www.sarahmaiellano.com.