The Art of Fine Chocolate
This Valentine's Day, ditch the usual heart box and treat your sweetie to some local, handcrafted and delicious chocolate confections
I don’t think I ever met a chocolatier that was not over-the-moon passionate about their product and the process.
It’s just heady stuff — the Mesoamerican history, the cacao farmers in equatorial regions, the distinctive aromas and the variations of subtle flavors. As with wine and coffee, all those wonderful nuances of tropical fruit, berries or smoke are influenced by the terroir — the earth and climate where the cacoa plant grows. There is so much to explore.
Samantha Brown has made the journey from chocolate infatuation as a schoolgirl to working at chocolate shops to co-owing the award-winning chocolate shop La Cascade du Chocolat in Exeter. Now, she’s lucky enough to be up to her elbows in silky smooth milk chocolate. Her husband Andy works on marketing and occasionally dons an apron, while friend and co-owner Tom Nash works alongside Samantha hefting bags of chocolate couverture (pieces of untempered chocolate), and honing his skills in the science and art of fine chocolates.
The science of chocolate starts with the tempering. A good temper is the secret of a smooth and shiny chocolate with a satisfying snap. Tempering is also a temperamental process. Brown says sometimes the chocolate is just “cranky.” Basically, the chocolate pieces are heated in a microwave to break the bonds of the fat crystals, then the temperature is quickly lowered while it is “agitated” on a cool slab of marble or granite to encourage new crystalline bonds to form. A quick test of a successful temper is a drizzle of chocolate on the slab to see if the chocolate will set up well when poured into molds. A chocolate thermometer, with more calibrations than a candy thermometer, is essential as a few degrees too hot can spoil the batch. It’s like a science project, but according to Brown, there are several other factors that can foul up the process, such as room humidity and temperature. Fortunately, failed chocolate can be recycled.
Nash works with Brown as they gear up for holiday production. Molds for solid chocolates are hand-painted with edible lusters, and the tempered chocolate is “shot” into the mold with a large syringe, then lightly tapped to remove air bubbles and to settle the chocolate. Their basic mold is just for a traditional bar, but each bar has its own personality, and is finished with spices, nuts or a variety of lusters. The finished selection of 12 or so bars are nestled front and center in their antique case.
Tempering quality chocolate and pouring it into molds is one thing, but the glistening case of chocolate jewels offers delightful bonbons as well. Here is the real chocolatier art. Brown makes delicious infusions with local strawberries or pear using no extracts — just purées of fresh fruits. One highly popular bonbon was a local cherry soaked in Flag Hill brandy covered with a handmade fondant. Brown says it was the size of a golf ball. And no, you could not just take a bite. The whole thing had to go in at once. They flew out the door. The good news is she saved a jar of preserved cherries and they may be available again in February.
Making good chocolate bars is not an easy job, and good technique is just part of the mix. Brown relates a story of a young girl who came in with a cake. The cake was OK, but Brown suggested she use the same recipe, but this time only use the best ingredients, including local milk and eggs along with great chocolate. The difference was amazing, and was a simple demonstration of the power of using the best. It’s Brown’s mantra for everything in her shop, including her top-notch single origin and blended chocolate couverture from Valrhona (a French premium chocolate manufacturer) and other chocolate sources.
Rattling off a list of local purveyors, Brown is proud to use local milk from Contoocook Creamery, Applecrest Farm produce, and local eggs and honey. Though not local, she has a source to fly in the freshest macadamia nuts.
When asked if dark or milk chocolate is better, Brown says that “good” chocolate is the best: “When people think that dark chocolate is better, it just makes me sad.” Indeed, one of her personal favorites is a milk chocolate made with Madagascar beans. A quick sample revealed that she’s right. It was fruity with a hint of caramel, and very smooth. I found the beauty of their products was in the cautious use of sweetening. It’s all about balance.
La Cascade du Chocolat is more than a chocolate shop — it’s a café too, offering chocolate drinks (maybe even a flight of flavors), chocolate chip cookies, brownies and croissants. In summer, when chocolate in hand can be a messy affair, Brown whips up small batches of ice cream — chocolate-based, of course. With a master’s degree in education and a love of all things chocolate, Brown also shares her skills in chocolate-making classes for all age levels.
Brown earned her master chocolatier certificate through an online chocolatier course with École Chocolat, which is based in Canada. Her training also included a few weeks in France working with master chocolatiers, plus additional courses back in the States.
At the 2017 International Chocolate Salon Awards, La Cascade du Chocolat’s Moroccan spice white chocolate won gold, plus best taste, best texture, best combination and most unique. With all the points they earned for this and other entries, they also won a 2018 best chocolatiers and confectioners award — five stars for Master Chocolatier.
Brown earned these awards not long after graduating from student to a master chocolatier, making the wins all the more notable.