Saturday, August 21, 2010

Midwest Chocolate Part 2: Best in Madison

I started collecting recommendations for chocolate in Madison (home of the country's largest farmers' market and a capital building that was taller than the nation's until builders shaved off the very top) when I first arrived six weeks ago. But I find myself only turning back to my blog in the hour before I head to the airport and fly back to the east. In eight weeks in Wisconsin, I've learned about as many local chocolatiers. I'll focus on three here.

Gail Ambrosius: Ambrosius was kind enough to lead a tasting of Hawaiian, Columbian, and Madagascan chocolate at the event where I read about chocolate's cultural and primordial origins in Guatemala last week, arriving in between filming a segment for the Food Network and appearing in person again (to talk about pairing chocolate with beer) at the mayhem of the Taste of the Midwest festival. Though she uses some more subtly-flavored blended chocolates for the outside coating of her bon bons (she prefers family-run Guittard to big-business Callebaut), Ambrosius primarily focuses on the flavors of single-origin chocolates, matching the inherent coffee notes, grapey hints, or even exotic floral flavors with complimentary tastes in pureed raspberries, dried and diced figs, and carefully measured cointreau. "I come from a farming family," Gail told me when I visited the kitchen of her shop next door to the Barrymore Theatre on the east side of Madison, which she often leaves behind for research trips to cacao-producing regions. "I know how hard farming is. I know that the people are generally poor. For me, it's very important to go to the farms and see how they work."

David Bacco: Rumor has to that the flashy chocolatier Bacco, whose confections are as likely to be spray-painted in edible enchanted-forest-green and dabbed with gold dust as they are to advertise their traditional cashew-and-caramel fillings, has fled town to pursing a nostalgic dream of being a bike messenger in New York. Since I arrived in Madison, Bacco sold out of the business, which has slowly shed his name and updated signs and labels to read “DB Infusions.” “That infusion of flavor really represents where we’re going with the business right now,” said a UW English major named Dakota who was working at the counter when I stopped in yesterday. The namesake may have been gone, but behind a stainless steel counter in the kitchen, which you can see through a window in the shop, chocolatier Megan Belle was had at work.

Markus Candinas “What’s the deal with the flavors and stuff?” I heard a wholesome customer ask just as I walked into the downtown Candinas shop a couple of weekends ago. Markus Candinas recently opened this branch of the candy business he started well over a decade ago in what used to be a cornfield in Verona, WI, to be more visible to Madison’s increasingly discerning chocolate customers. I looked at the collage of antique chocolate ads and other pop-culture memorabilia made by one of the owner’s friends while the owner (staffing the shop himself, working weekends) answered the question. “Everything is very smooth, very creamy,” Said Candinas, whose creative influences are Norman Love, Andrew Shotts, and Michael Recchiuti. “Nothing really out of the ordinary. The emphasis is always on the chocolate.” Of the fifteen couvertures that Candinas blends in different proportions for different bon bons, twelve are Swiss chocolates (like Felchlin and Lindt) that are famously conched and refined for hours. The truffles I sampled when I visited—two of the most popular—were champagne and hazelnut. Very smooth, very creamy, nothing out of the ordinary, the emphasis was on the chocolate. One of the longest-working chocolatiers in Madison, Candinas is puzzled by the fiercely mounting competition in the business locally. “You could go anywhere else in the country and you’d be the only one,” he told me. “So why true to push someone else off a pedestal when you could have a whole pedestal to yourself?” But Candinas is also one of the most affable chocolatiers in Madison, who prefers words like “hou-ha” to sharper expletives. When I asked if he had any special events planned for the fall season, Candinas told me that “everyday at the factory is a special event.”


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