Food Feature: Somerville — Chocolate Capital of Massachusetts?
Somerville’s Union Square hosts four chocolate companies, in renovated warehouses.
By Linda J. Mazurek
Home to four chocolate companies who take various approaches to handicraft, from pioneering stone-ground Mexican chocolate bars (the original bean to bar) to high-end artisanal confections, Somerville could very well claim the title of chocolate capital of Massachusetts. The bustling Union Square neighborhood is, coincidentally, where they all do business, so it is the epicenter of the handcrafted chocolate industry in the state.
Somerville Chocolate Pioneers CSA
When I met Eric Parkes, owner of Somerville Chocolates, he was sorting a batch of newly arrived Colombian cacao beans by hand, getting ready to roast them, the first step in the chocolate-making process. It took a while to locate his operation, as it’s part of a warehouse renovation just north of Union Square in Somerville, and his space is tucked into the middle of what is now Aeronaut Brewery and some other small businesses.
“I’ve always had a thing for chocolate. We’re all candy freaks at heart,” he explains, as he finished up. He became serious about making chocolate during a trip to Costa Rica, where he took a tour of a small chocolate-making operation. “They show you all the steps, in this rustic environment, and at the end, they churn fairly crude chocolate out of a peanut grinder. At that point, I was smitten, to know you could do this kind of thing without a plantation at your disposal!”
He founded Somerville Chocolate in the spring of 2012 as a CSA, for several reasons: to do more experimenting with chocolate – “where you are in awe of what you can do and ignore the mistakes”; to build “a community of conspirators who were in it for the ride” with him; and to make the enterprise pay for itself. “At that time, people were breaking out of the traditional veggie CSA mold. There was a newly founded fish CSA, and people were getting creative, expanding the model.”
“My main thing with the CSA was to be able to experiment with different flavor profiles. Take one bean, give it a light, medium, and dark roast, for example, and it’s going to taste different,” he says. “Some might be more or less to your liking, but at the end, you’ll see what varying the heat can do to the flavor and translate that to other chocolate you might buy.”
The CSA has four seasons, beginning in January, and April sign-up, for new members, just wrapped up. The next two deliveries are scheduled for July and October; you’ll get your chocolate, three 2.5 ounce bars (70 grams), in the middle of the month. Cost for the year is $100; you can pick up your bars at one of three local locations or have it mailed to you, for an additional cost. Currently there are about 100 local members, with an additional 30 – 40 throughout the country.
April’s harvest will be a grab-bag of three different bars. The first is a Nicaraguan with a small amount of smoked Dominican chocolate, what Parkes calls the result of a “good accident,” the second will be a Colombian, and the third will be a white with candied citron. He wraps his chocolate bars in old maps of Somerville.
His retail space is an outgrowth of the CSA and came about two years later. Usually the bars he makes for the CSA are a one-time only appearance; he sells any extras in the retail space, for which he makes a separate line of about six bars, depending on the season. (You can buy the bars at his store any time he’s working, usually between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.)
His retail bars ($9), widely available in Massachusetts are mostly dark, and include Hawaii (70% dark), Peruvian Chuncho (75%), Apple Smoked Dominican (65%), and two whites, one infused with hops, the other with cocoa nibs. His Hops-infused Dark Milk is one of his most popular and is hard to keep stocked in stores. “The hops has a cult following, and people tend to be secretive about it,” he insists. Why hops? Well, he shares space with a brewery, and cooperation is in the spirit of the building; Aeronaut uses some of his nibs in one of their winter brews. “I’d be sitting here, and there are these aromatic hops smells what would come wafting down, a nice, warm, interesting smell. “ So, his inventor side kicked in, once again, and he began experimenting with putting hops into his chocolate. “Hops tend to be bitter, but they also have a nice floral flavor. I use Mosaic, which has a pineapple/evergreen/floral aroma. I made one for the CSA, and it was a success, so now it’s one of my standard bars.” It takes between three to four weeks to infuse the cocoa butter with the hops.
What keeps his passion alive, after almost seven years? “The mystery of what I might make next. The CSA keeps that drive alive. Without that, I’d just be a production tool, making the same thing every day. Also, the people who come in, is always kind of a thrill to think they are learning something new. They’ve usually never experienced chocolate at this level.”
EH Chocolate Wins Major Award
A few blocks south of Somerville Chocolate, on the west side of Union Square, you’ll find EH Chocolatier, what one thinks of when one usually thinks of a high-end chocolate company: a wide range of individually made chocolates in traditional flavors like pecan clusters, caramelized peanut butter cups, toffee crunch, caramels, and barks. Some of their more unusual products include an ancho bar, maple pecan bites, tart cherry bites, and blood orange with almond chew. Individual prices range from $2.25 to $4.50. Or you can customize a box, starting with six pieces (for $14.95) up to 36 ($84.95). Like Somerville Chocolate, you can shop at the company’s production facility, generally Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; production usually ends around 2 p.m. If you can’t make it to Somerville, you can also purchase EHChocolatier’s chocolates at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge and the South End, Bacco’s Wine + Cheese in Back Bay, and Stock Culinary Goods in Providence, RI.
EH Chocolatier’s mission is “to create bonbons and confections that are the very best they can be. When you bite into our chocolate, we want to put a smile on your face!” According to owners Elaine Hsieh and Catharine Sweeney, freshness and flavor is what makes their chocolates stand out. That is why they make all of their confections by hand and in small batches. The two friends founded their company in a renovated warehouse in 2010, and their confections have garnered many awards and much national recognition ever since.
Their latest prize is the Six Star Award: Grand Master Chocolatier in the Best of Chocolatiers and Confectioners in America Awards, presented by the International Chocolate Salon. The International Chocolate Salon is one of the premier international bodies honoring artisan and premium chocolates and confections. The award, which recognizes that they were one of the top U.S. chocolatiers after tallying all of the categories they won in 2016, is announced in early April.
One of their winning creations is their Lemon Tart Bonbon ($16.95 for a five-piece box), which they make every year for Mother’s Day; it’s available from April 23 through the holiday. They place some of their own lemon curd on a small round of buttery pâte sucrée, then cover the confection with white chocolate. The tart won gold in the Best Taste and Most Unique categories for Best White Chocolate. The company also won several awards for its Brown Butter Toffee Almond, made with deeply browned butter and sliced almonds, covered in both dark and milk chocolate, sliced almonds, and fleur de sel.
Hsieh’s and Sweeny’s culinary journey began by baking a cake for a friend’s wedding, despite the fact that they weren’t bakers. So how did they segue into chocolate? “As it turns out, that wedding cake had edible seashells that we created by making our own molds from real seashells and then used white chocolate, decorated with luster dust. That was both a challenge at the time and the most fun we had while making the cake,” says Hsieh. “I think the challenge of working with chocolate, understanding the chemistry while bringing the craft and artistry to create something beautiful and delicious, is what draws us to it.”
But after more than seven years, what keeps their passion — and creativity — going, in such a cut-throat industry? “We actually don’t think of it being a cut-throat industry! Every chocolatier brings their own vision to their business, that’s the beauty of chocolate. We just focus on making what we love,” explains Hsieh. “For us to have lasted this long and still love what we do can be attributed to having each other as solid business partners and good friends, our very supportive customers, and our goal to deliver the best quality product we can.”
And finally, how has it been headquartered and doing business in Somerville? “It’s been great! Somerville is incredibly open and supportive of small food-makers like ourselves. It’s a wonderful community!”
Taza Offers Classes, Hosts Block Party
Taza Chocolate, which coincidentally has a large production and retail operation in the same building as EH Chocolatier, is arguably the best known – and oldest – of the local chocolate companies. Founded in 2005 by Alex Whitmore, Taza specializes in the least-refined of all chocolates: stone-ground organic chocolate, a minimally processed chocolate with bold flavor and texture. They were one of the first to make this type of chocolate, which is grittier and more bitter than most of us are used to, as there isn’t much sugar involved. The company was the first chocolate maker in the country to establish a third-party certified Direct Trade Cacao Certification program; it maintains direct relationships with all its cacao farmers and pays a premium above the Fair Trade price for their beans.
Taza also has one of the largest spaces at the Boston Public Market, right inside one of the main doors. This “chocolate bar” offers the range of products the company makes, plus chocolate drinks, both hot and cold, and, new in 2018, chocolate protein shakes. Taza will be presenting two exciting events at the Market this month, organized by The Trustees of Reservations. The first, in honor of Earth Day, is called Taza Earth Day Chocolate Dirt Pudding and was scheduled for April 22. Participants will learn how to make chocolate pudding from Taza Chocolate; toppings, like gummy worms and chocolate “dirt” will be provided. There are two sessions, and tickets cost $15 or $25.
The second is a series for adults, a truffle-making demonstration, accompanied by wine. Participants will learn how to make truffles, beginning with a dark ganache using stone-ground chocolate and farm-fresh cream, and ending with dipping them in a variety of toppings. In between, the staff at the Massachusetts Wine Shop will lead a mini-wine and chocolate tasting, pairing four different wines with four Taza chocolate flavors. Tickets begin at $52. The next two sessions are scheduled for Saturday, April 28, from 5:30-7:00 pm, and Saturday, May 5, from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. The series runs through mid-June.
And on Saturday, May 5, from 12:00 to 5:00 p.m., Taza will close down Windsor Street for a spring block party! Promising a “rocking good time, with food, music, fun, and art for all ages,” the event will have a DJ and local food and drink from Slumbrew, Bantam Cider, North East of the Border, Bartleby’s Seitan Stand, Bon Me Foods, Sheherazad Truck, and Honeycomb Creamery. Of course, the company will be handing out samples as well and is hinting at some seasonal surprises. Reserve your spot here.
Gâté comme des filles Moving to New Market
Coming full circle, and back to the traditional line of chocolates, is Somerville’s newest chocolate company, Gâté comme des filles, founded by Alexandra Whisnant in Paris in 2012. She currently shares space with Somerville Chocolate, but will be moving to the new Bow Market, closer to Union Square, when it opens. Her company specializes in the two most traditional French bonbon fillings: ganache and praliné. Ganache, which is made by emulsifying chocolate with a liquid, usually cream, produces a rich, creamy center. Praliné, made by roasting nuts and grinding them with a dark caramel, incorporates the mix into melted chocolate. Her chocolates are available at the Somerville Chocolate retail space on most weekend nights (Thursday through Saturday) and on Sunday afternoons – and she sometimes offers brownies and mousse cones as well. They’re also available at some local special events and pop-ups.
Linda J. Mazurek is an award-winning communications professional, with more than 25 years of writing and editing experience. Blending this with her passion for food, she has written more than 90 articles since late 2006, published both online and in print, including nine in The Boston Globe’s food section.