It’s probably no coincidence that National Chocolate Lovers Month and National Heart Health Month overlap during February. After all, the health benefits of chocolate can aid in the reduction of heart disease, according to healthline.com, a Food and Drug Administration partner. Flavonoids, a class of antioxidants associated with higher levels of healthy HDL cholesterol and better overall cardiovascular health, are abundant in cacao (or cocoa—the two are used interchangeably) seeds. All chocolate products are derived from cacao seeds in some form or another.
Cacao seeds (or beans) grow in large pods on the trunks of the cacao tree, a leafy evergreen growing in West Africa, Central and South America, and Indonesia, roughly 20 degrees on either side of the equator. Who better to know the best chocolate to affect good health than chocolatiers in the Madison area?
Gail Ambrosius, who has been in business since 2004, explains that the higher the cacao percentage in a piece of chocolate, the more pure chocolate one is getting. Seventy percent or more is best for health benefits. Choose dark chocolate even though it contains a small amount of sugar to ameliorate the bitterness of pure cacao.
Red Elephant Chocolate offers cocoa bean tea in addition to a selection of premium chocolates. According to founder Richard Koenings, this tea is the “super food drink of the century.” No additives, sugars, flavorings, fats, or caffeine are in the tea derived from 100 percent pure dried and roasted cacao beans.
But, of course, our chocolatiers caution this doesn’t mean people should go all out and consume lots of chocolate every day. Chocolate is still loaded with calories and is easy to overeat. Maybe savor a piece or two after dinner.
The cacao plant’s binomial name, Theobroma cacao, literally means “food of the gods.” To its many devotees, chocolate is exactly that. But consumers need to be aware much chocolate, especially that found in the supermarket, is highly processed and full of sugar and additives to increase its shelf life.
According to Elizabeth and Dan Donoghue, owners of The Chocolate Caper, most local/artisan chocolate makers don’t need to use additives because their chocolate is sold while it’s still fresh. Chocolate’s unique characteristics give it a long, natural shelf life—up to a year. However, chocolate needs to be stored at less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit and kept out of the sun.
The Madison-area chocolatiers in this article came to the chocolate business in different ways. Megan Hile, owner of Madison Chocolate Company, took the Ecole Chocolat training, an intensive part-time program in chocolate making delivered online over a three-month period. A hands-on element of the program sent her to Ecuador for an internship. Prior to opening her store in May of 2017, she was a food blogger. A year ago, Megan worked alongside Nicaraguan cacao farmers collecting, fermenting, roasting, and grinding the beans to better educate herself and, in turn, her customers seeking fine-flavored chocolate.
Gail is also a graduate of the Ecole Chocolat program. In addition, she trained with chocolatiers in France to hone her craft. The Ecole Chocolat website notes the success of Gail’s chocolate creations, picked as favorites by both Oprah and Martha Stewart in their magazines.
Elizabeth, with a baking background and cake-decorating expertise, was taught by Ellen and Claude Marendaz, previous owners of The Chocolate Caper, and took the business over with Dan in October of 2014. They also recently opened a second location in Sun Prairie.
Richard, an attorney who worked as a corporate counsel to small businesses, brought Quality Candy and Buddy Squirrel out of bankruptcy with two partners and, as a result, learned the business. He opened his first store in Milwaukee’s Third Ward in 2012 and brought Red Elephant Chocolate to Madison, where he had attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in February of 2015.
All of the chocolatiers believe in educating their customers. Gail holds chocolate tastings every third Thursday of the month January through October. Customers can savor different original chocolates and describe the flavors with the use of a chocolate wheel.
Megan features a chocolate library in her store. Customers can buy chocolate bars from all over the world, each with its own distinctive flavor reflecting the area where the cacao was grown. With a concern for the health of the environment where cacao is grown, she recently invited a cacao farmer to speak to her customers about his farm and the integrity with which his cacao is produced.
At Red Elephant, Richard offers customers a chocolate experience café, where they can sit down and enjoy fine chocolates with a glass of wine or cup of coffee. There the staff provides “cocoaphacts” as well as “elephacts” in a fun way. A map in the store shows where cacao is grown, and Richard will share a wealth of information about the history of chocolate.
At The Chocolate Caper, customers can educate their palates by sampling any of the chocolates in the case—especially the new flavors. The Donoghues also offer tours of their production facility to groups, and Dan gives presentations about chocolate to local schools, senior centers, service clubs, and similar organizations.
Dan and Elizabeth consider themselves confectioners, not just chocolatiers, and involve their oldest son in the business. They hope to grow their business into more locations so each of their other three younger children has a place in the future. Gail’s son is the general manager and has been with her business for five years. She hopes that one day he can take over completely. Right now Megan wants to make her business sustainable and provide a “space offering a service to the community.” Richard plans to continue the evolution of his business by giving his customers a concept that is “a pleasurable experience you can’t get by pulling it out of your computer.”
Each of our Madison-area chocolatiers offers something special to the community. At the Red Elephant, it’s the experience of a café and not just grab and go. The Chocolate Caper donates chocolate to local food pantries. “We’re boosting spirits at the pantry,” says Elizabeth. Megan rents out her store’s space for evening parties or Sunday afternoon gatherings. “It looks very French and sparkly,” she says. And Gail is planning a trip in April for customers to meet farmers in Ecuador and see the cacao harvesting, fermenting, roasting, and grinding processes in action.
The growing number of local chocolatiers gives rise to the question—why Madison? It’s a simple answer. “Madison-area customers love their food and like to know where it comes from,” says Gail. It’s no different with chocolate. Fortunately, our Madison-area chocolatiers have spoiled us with quality chocolates and confections, making it difficult to go back to the chocolate bars on the supermarket or gas station shelves. Help yourself to health in February. Indulge in some fine chocolates made locally and lovingly.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.
The Chocolate Caper
105 S. Main Street
Oregon, WI 53575
107 N. Bristol Street
Sun Prairie, WI 53590
Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier
2083 Atwood Avenue
Madison, WI 53704
Madison Chocolate Company
729 Glenway Street
Madison, WI 53711
Red Elephant Chocolate
119 State Street
Madison, WI 53703