At first, it was a trickle — then a flood. After a few months of hearing about new chocolatiers and seeing their products on the shelves, we realized that Vermont is experiencing a chocolate renaissance. The state is inundated with innovative chocolate artisans, from makers of single-origin bars to shapers of truffles to bold souls wrangling cacao into new forms. It was high time for a Seven Days taste survey.
We fanned out to find the wares of local chocolatiers who founded (or revived) their companies within the past 16 months or so, and who sell their products in at least one retail location. We tried to assemble a succinct, robust and representative sample, though we no doubt missed a few chocolatiers who meet these criteria.
First up were maple truffles from the Vermont Truffle Company, founded a year ago by Stephen and Anna Montanez of Mendon. The Montanezes are both alums of Johnson & Wales University, where Stephen studied pastry and baking. While they produce several types of truffles, the maple variety was easiest to find.
Studio Cacao Chocolatier is a "round two" of sorts for owners Kevin and Laura Toohey, who ran Hardwick's LUNA Chocolate Truffles for several years. Now working in Burlington alongside their son, Rowan, the Tooheys source cream from Jack Lazor's Butterworks Farm for their intense chocolate truffles. In January, Kevin Toohey told Seven Days about the difficulties of finding new local markets for their confections. "I think all of the shelf space in northern Vermont is filled, so it's really a challenge to get [chocolate] in front of the customer," he said. (We found his wares at Vin Bar & Shop in Burlington.)
We came upon the truffles of Burke Mountain Confectionery at Healthy Living Market and Café — many miles from East Burke, where former landscape designers Tom and Nancy Taylor craft truffles filled with maple or Eden Ice Cider.
The single-origin chocolate bars of Bristol's Farmhouse Truffles come exquisitely wrapped in Japanese paper. Though the company was founded several years ago, it was recently revived with the bars as a new product, write owners Erlé LaBounty and Eliza La Rocca.
Single-origin chocolate is also on offer at Vergennes' 3 Squares Café, where Matt Birong makes and sells Kerchner Artisan Chocolate bars. Birong is part owner of a cacao farm in the Dominican Republic, where he helps pick the beans that go into the bars.
Even though the dark chocolate toffee of Barnard's Down to Earth Confections didn't fit the mold — it's toffee, after all — we couldn't resist picking up two baggies of the stuff for a bonus tasting round. Who could resist trying Simply Maine Sea Salt or Chioggia Beet and Vanilla Toffee?
In some cases demand was so high for the artisan sweets that even we couldn't try them. Owner Quayl Rewinski was working on a new batch of her Quayl's Chocolates during our tasting last week.
It took all of 10 minutes for us to assemble a phalanx of Seven Days staffers for the difficult task at hand. Our brave tasters cut across many departments: office manager Cheryl Brownell, staff writers Ethan de Seife and Kathryn (Katie) Flagg, cofounder and coeditor Pamela Polston, designer Rev. Diane Sullivan and, of course, the two food writers.
We plunged in with verve and left the room with sugar highs. In a few cases we tasted two products from the same chocolatier. Here are our impressions.
— Corin Hirsch
The Vermont Truffle Company
Vermont Maple Truffles, $8 for four
Diane: First thought on appearance: Oooooh! Shiny balls! Then I picked one up and was surprised that it was kinda shaped like a Pac-Man ghost. Outside was a little waxy. Inside was crazy sweet and very creamy. I didn't really taste the maple until later. It kinda snuck up on me. A little too sweet for me.
Katie: These little truffles border on "too perfect." They're shiny, a bit waxy and visually uninteresting — a little cheap looking. While the interior was pleasantly creamy at first bite, it dissolved into graininess after a few moments. Overall, these were far too sweet for my taste, and the sugar dominated so much that it was hard to pick up on any other tasting notes.
Alice: Don't get me wrong: Wax lips were always my favorite Halloween candy. But this didn't taste as good. The low-quality "candy melt" taste overwhelmed the maple. More salt in the center would have made this a more appealing, more balanced bite.
Ethan: This one looked like the waxy cherry bonbons of my childhood, but, happily, did not taste like them. Though it was allegedly maple flavored, the main note I got was one of honey. Not very maple-y at all. This was pleasant but not exciting, and it had a cleaner aftertaste than I thought it might.
Corin: This was glossy and almost too perfect looking — and then sweet maple lava oozed from within. I wouldn't become a regular of this truffle, but it's the kind of confection I might give to my aunt.
Pamela: I found this pleasingly understated, not hit-you-in-the-face maple, and not overly sweet. Very good but not spectacular.
Studio Cacao Chocolatier
Classic Dark Truffles, $29 for a box of 15
Pamela: This was one of a selection that came in a beautiful box — floral-designed lid, very Japanese. But the truffle I chose was kind of overkill, like fudge sauce on chocolate ice cream. Nice creamy consistency in the ganache, but I prefer a little contrast to the dark chocolate cover.
Alice: The tannic undertone kept this interesting, along with what I thought was a hint of cinnamon. The claylike texture simply didn't melt into ecstasy the way a truffle should. Once it did begin melting, I appreciated the bloom of fudgy flavor.
Diane: Gorgeous box. The truffles were cute and homemade looking. The outside was very thin, and the inside had a kinda funky texture. Very thick and fudgelike. Kind of a weird combo. I couldn't figure out the flavor. Didn't taste like much.
Corin: This truffle had a lumpier appearance, almost as if it was filled with nuts, and was crisscrossed with abstract chocolate lines. No nuts lurked within, but its gooey interior had a Russell Stover-esque quality.
Cheryl: This truffle just plain tasted like it was trying way too hard. The interior and exterior chocolates competed for center stage instead of complementing each other. I also thought it had too much of a liquor aftertaste to it.
Katie: Is "chocolaty" too obvious a reaction in a survey like this? This didn't grab me as particularly complex or interesting. One-dimensional. You wouldn't have to twist my arm to make me eat one — it's a truffle, after all! — but I don't think I'd go back for a second.
Ethan: Probably the best-looking chocolate in the lot. The swirly icing was a handsome touch. The super-duper-smooth texture was pleasant, but the tannic tang — I detected red wine — was not so exciting to me. Chocolate ganache inside a chocolate shell (or whatever the hell the technical term is for the outside part of a truffle) is also a bit overwhelming. There is such a thing as too much chocolate, people. I deliver this news with heavy shoulders.
Coffee Cacao Nib Truffle Bar, $2 for a 1.02-ounce bar
Pamela: A bar/bark with a slightly crunchy, gritty quality, which I liked. The crunch was from coffee beans, and the flavor was intensely espresso. Very good, but I sure wouldn't eat it at night!
Corin: I've long been a fan of dark-chocolate-covered espresso beans, and if I hadn't eaten thousands of them during my life (they were the favor at my wedding), I would probably have been more wowed by these. As it was, I found the texture too coarse, the espresso flavor too crude.
Cheryl: I like this one a fair bit. Unlike the previous one, I thought the espresso and chocolate complemented each other rather well, and the texture of the espresso allowed the flavor to linger in my mouth.
Diane: I took a bite and thought, What's in this? Am I eating coffee grounds? It felt like I was eating something that I shouldn't be eating.
Alice: I'm not a coffee drinker, so this was almost painfully intense for me. Still, there was a woody, roasty edge that I appreciated. Too bad that it overstayed its welcome in the form of coffee grounds stuck in my teeth.
Katie: This is like an upscale candy bar: a little bit crunchy, a little bit creamy and not as tooth-achingly sweet as some of the truffles we've already tasted. I'm a coffee nut, and so the ground espresso won me over.
Burke Mountain Confectionery
Eden Ice Cider Dark Chocolate Truffles, $6.95 for a box of two
Alice: The bright, appealing packaging and high price tag might have given me heightened expectations, but this was the biggest disappointment of the lot for me. I'm someone who eats things because they are "interesting" as much as "good." But while I liked the tangy apple flavor, the plasticky, white-chocolate aftertaste made me feel like I'd been ripped off.
Diane: The first bite made me yell, "Good God! It's like cheese and feet!" Very strange taste. Like lemony blue cheese.
Corin: These truffles were enormous. I didn't find the slightly lemony interior offensive — just strange.
Ethan: Though I'm the only one in the group to have this opinion, this was my favorite of the bunch. I liked the slightly salty, almost sour-cream-like flavors, and I appreciated the not-too-snappy texture of the jacket (there's the word!) balanced against the not-too-creamy texture of the ganache. A weird, complex and very tasty chocolate.
Pamela: A dark chocolate mound with a pale yellow, creamy filling. This turned out to taste fruity (unidentifiable, but tangy) and just kind of weird. There was a smoky aftertaste. Did not care for this one.
Sweet Maple Dark Chocolate Truffles, $6.95 for a box of two
Alice: A hint of the white chocolate aftertaste inherent in its sister truffle didn't mar the deep, complex maple for me. The texture was pleasant if somewhat gummy, but I found this to be a smooth, grown-up version of the first truffle we tried.
Cheryl: With a touch of the same sourness as in the previous truffle, the maple in this one played more nicely and allowed for a better-rounded taste. I liked the almost smoky taste of the maple, but still would have preferred it had it been less sour.
Diane: Made me think of pancakes. Smooth and thick texture. Kinda yummy, but still had the weird cheesy aftertaste.
Katie: Simple and sophisticated, with a strong maple scent. I liked the creamy, dense texture. These taste like a sugarhouse in March: maple, maple and more maple. My only complaint was the slightly alcoholic aftertaste.
Ethan: Too strongly maple-tasting for my liking. Maple is fine and all, but this was like four-times-distilled Grade B. A bit overwhelming.
68 percent Bolivian Dark Chocolate Bar, $4.49 per 1.7-ounce bar
Katie: The design is unusual and playful; instead of the expected rectangles, the bar is carved up with swooping, curved lines, and imprinted with leaves and cacao beans. The smell is leafy and, for lack of a better word, green, and the texture is smooth without being waxy. A little bit bitter, a little bit fruity. I think this is the best all-purpose chocolate bar of the bunch.
Alice: Wrapped in what looked like fancy wallpaper, the inside was just as pretty with its uneven puzzle-piece shapes. Apparently 68-percent cacao is right around my sweet spot. This was a lovely balance of earthy, mud-and-twigs taste with a cherry aftertaste. Sorry, though. I didn't detect the prune notes mentioned on the label.
Cheryl: The simplicity of this bar appealed to me. Although I was able to detect notes of cherry, everything about this was subtle, smooth and understated. I just enjoyed having the different tastes roll over my tongue as the bar melted in my mouth. I imagine it would go beautifully with a latte.
Ethan: Lovely "etchings" of cacao pods were a classy touch. I'll borrow Katie's term: This one smelled pleasantly leafy. It had a sharp snap but a smooth mouthfeel. It melted quickly and richly, and was bitter in a good way. Nice, bracing aftertaste. My second favorite of the samples.
72 percent Cacao Nib & Sea Salt Bar, $4.49 per 1.7-ounce bar
Pamela: Dark chocolate with salt —yum! Little nibs gave it a slight, dry crunch, too. In both flavor and texture, it was interesting. I really liked this one.
Cheryl: I also thought this a very respectable chocolate bar. It had more pop than the previous bar. It was definitely brighter and sharper in its flavor. The gritty texture was a bit distracting for me, but the flavor that the cacao nibs added was very nice.
Alice: I disagree with Cheryl about the salt. Its flaky crunch amid melting chocolate kept each bite interesting for me. It also served to lift the potentially muddy flavor of the darker chocolate, like a fruit-flavored spotlight.
Corin: While grainier than its sister bar, this was brighter, and a tiny hit of salt brought its flavors to life. It packed a lot of personality into a small space. My fave.
Ethan: Chocolate plus salt equals happiness. The salt added notes of slightly acidic brightness. Fairly complex in both taste and texture.
Kerchner Artisan Chocolate
$7 per 2.2-ounce bar
Pamela: This one smelled like hot fudge sauce. But the flavor was fruit-tart, like chocolate-covered Smarties or Skittles. Kind of a tannic/metallic aftertaste, like a little aluminum foil got in there. It was a little bright tasting for me, but it seemed like a high-quality product nonetheless.
Corin: Once Pamela said that, Skittles were all I could taste — it was almost juicy, but still somehow brooding. The most intriguing of the bunch.
Ethan: This was even weirder than [the Eden Ice Cider truffle], my favorite, apparently because the maker used a totally different kind of bean. Those beans imparted a tangy, sour taste that was not totally unlike pomegranate. But I'd rather just eat a pomegranate.
Diane: Smells like fudge. Very tart and interesting taste. Felt like the moisture was sucked right out of my tongue.
Katie: The small, rectangular design of the bar struck me as a little boring at first, but after tasting this particular chocolate, I realized the design serves a purpose: A little square of this goes a long way. This was fruity, acidic and complex. I'd reach for a tiny nibble after dinner.
Down to Earth Confections Toffee
In the end, the most popular chocolate we tried ... wasn't primarily chocolate. The chocolate-covered toffee from Down to Earth Confections won us all over. Organic, homegrown beets infuse Chioggia Beet and Vanilla Toffee with sweet, earthy tones and a candy-red hue. Our tasters loved how the fruity Bolivian cacao blended with vanilla.
But Simply Maine Sea Salt Toffee received the most love. Its dark, sweet caramel melted with dark chocolate just the way we had hoped the truffles would. Perhaps bean-to-bar artisan toffee will eclipse bars and truffles one day. In our hearts, it already has.