Love From Your Local Chocolatier
Story by Erin Wyble Newcomb
Published in our January/February 2014 issue
No matter what the groundhog predicts at the beginning of the month, February 14th always feels like winter. Nestled between the flurry of year-end holidays and the impending promises of spring, Valentine’s Day appears each year like an explosion of red and pink against an otherwise bleak landscape. It’s a holiday of excess, marked by consumerism and social pressure to participate—to shower our loved ones with symbols of extravagant love, like roses blooming in winter. Consider the 2013 stats compiled by CNN’s Belle Reynoso in “Valentine’s Day by the Numbers:” $18.6 billion in overall spending, with $1.6 billion for candy alone. Few gifts are as iconic as those heart-shaped boxes of candy suddenly available at every grocery and drug store. But before you snatch up a case of those classic confections, consider that your purchase is part of an international story that’s often more bitter than sweet. Here are some suggestions to help you get acquainted with labels like “fair trade” and “organic,” as well as some recommendations for buying chocolates locally. This year, instead of an impulse buy, your chocolate selections
can be environmentally and ethically considerate—and what better way to show some love to the Earth, the Hudson Valley, and your sweetheart?
Fair Trade, the Fairest of All
The chocolate products we consume are a far cry from the original cocoa bean that grows on the Theobroma cacao tree, though it’s unsurprising that the tree’s Latin name translates as “food of the gods.” Between the bean and the bar exists an international industry including farmers, transporters, producers, and consumers; like all agricultural industries, chocolate production is vulnerable to weather conditions, pests and diseases that attack the plants, and an international market that fluctuates based on local economic and political systems. One group that tracks and tries to regulate the chocolate industry is the International Cocoa Organization (ICO), which calls itself “a global organization, composed of both cocoa producing and cocoa consuming member countries” whose primary goal is stabilizing “a sustainable world cocoa economy.”
The ICO sees fair trade as a critical component of a sustainable chocolate industry. Fair trade, according to the ICO, means “a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade.” In addition, “certified producer organizations must comply with a number of requirements, related to social, economic and environmental developments. In addition, labour conditions in these organizations must follow certain standards.” Those standards translate to higher prices for the beans themselves and ultimately the final products, yet those price tags represent commitment to economic and environmental responsibility and justice for every worker who contributes to that tasty final treat. Such standards also support sustainability, so that producers and consumers alike can keep the chocolate industry and its ecosystem thriving into the future.
Fair Trade USA also explains what that “fair trade” label means for producers and consumers: “certification ensures that farmers receive a fair price, allows farmers to invest in techniques that bring out the flavors of the region, and strictly prohibits slave and child labor.” Katherine Loeck and Aubrey Vaughn, writing in a 2009 article for Mother Earth News, add “the Fair Trade certification system prohibits using genetically modified organisms (GMOs), promotes integrated farm management systems that improve soil fertility, and limits the use of harmful agrochemicals in favor of environmentally sustainable farming methods that protect farmers’ health and preserve ecosystems.” Ultimately, the fair trade label means integrity—the integrity of the product, of the workers whose personal and communal livelihood depends on that product, and of the land that yields such delicious bounty. Purchasing fair trade chocolates expresses a deep and abiding love not just for your Valentine, but for the workers and the land that make “the food of the gods” available at all.
Organic, a Love Story
The ICO says fair trade chocolates capture only 0.5% of the global market, and the same is true for organic chocolate, though demand grows as more and more consumers pay attention to health and environmental issues. Organic is a marketing term defined by the USDA as a food or crop produced by “approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” The label prohibits “[s]ynthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering.” In “Why Organic and Fair Trade Chocolate is a Sweeter Deal,” Kate Peake writes, “Organic cacao is typically cultivated on small plots under existing forest canopy, which preserves valuable habitat for birds (particularly migratory songbirds) and other wildlife. Biodiversity is much higher on organic cacao plots versus conventional plantations.” Just as with fair trade, the certified organic label insures that the means of production are responsible to producers, consumers, and the ecosystems affected by a world of chocoholics.
One of the best ways to make your Valentine’s Day greener this year is to shop locally, to support shops within the Hudson Valley who’ve made a commitment to sustainable products and practices as well as to our local communities. There are a number of chocolate shops within the region that specialize in fair trade and organic chocolates; the prices reflect those ethical and environmental commitments, but the taste also reflects the bean’s origins as “the food of the gods” in a way that waxy, mass-manufactured bars can never imitate. I’ve tasted a few chocolates in my travels around the Hudson Valley, and these shops stand out as some of my favorites. I’m confident that with the help of our local chocolatiers, you can find the perfect sweets for your sweet. So now it’s just a matter of paring down my own wish list.
My husband and I discovered Lagusta’s Luscious during one of our strolls along the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. We’d passed the shop, located at 25 Front Street in New Paltz, and were eager to sample its scrumptious selections. The store, like the village where it resides, bears a hip, mellow vibe; it’s quirky and inviting, with unique treats that change with the seasons and the creative whims of chocolatier Lagusta Yearwood. As owner Yearwood says, “All of our chocolate is fair-trade and organic, and all our other main ingredients are organic and fair-trade too. Our prices reflect this commitment, but our customers have come to rely on us for an ethical component, and we’re grateful so many people get what we’re trying to do.” And, as my husband and I can attest, these vegan delights live up to their luscious name.
Lagusta and partner Jacob opened shop in 2011, but she has been making chocolates for about a decade. Lagusta’s entire business philosophy is founded on principles of environmental and economic responsibility; as the store’s website boasts, “We are a completely vegan business using 100% post-consumer recycled paper and packing materials. We compost all kitchen scraps, use all eco-friendly cleaning products, and generate almost no waste! We make all our chocolates in our lovingly renovated chocolate shop, carefully built with the most eco-friendly materials our budget could buy.” Lagusta’s Luscious serves as a great role model for ethically- and environmentally-aware business practices,
and the chocolates are works of art as well, hand-crafted with attention to detail and an emphasis on supporting small farmers locally, nationally, and internationally. Lagusta loves surprising customers with creative
new products (a benefit to being a small operation, where inventory
can hit the shelves right away) and she looks forward to Valentine’s specials like smoked sea salt caramels. Best of all, Lagusta admits “we’re happiest when people have no idea that things are vegan or organic until long after they’ve tasted them, because that means
we’re changing people’s minds about how food that’s produced in an ethical way tastes.” That’s luscious, indeed. For more information, go to their website at www.lagustasluscious.com.
Oliver Kita Chocolates
Oliver Kita Chocolates in Rhinebeck shares a similar mission. Situated at 18 West Market Street, Oliver Kita Chocolates is an elegant shop where the holiday displays are as refined as the confections. Set on the periphery of the bustle of the central downtown area, this store glitters with graceful decorations that accent and enhance the true showpieces—the chocolates. Beautiful as well as functional, the “boutique is set up so that visitors can also see Kita hand finishing the chocolates and confections, or preparing for a festive catering occasion at a nearby historic site or private estate.” To catch a glimpse of an artist at work, Kita’s website recommends that visitors call to confirm days and times. These award-winning chocolates look (almost) too stunning to eat, and the Vegan Valentines Collection would make a luxurious gift for the eco-conscious and animal activist.
Kita combines French chocolate-making methods with organic and fair trade ingredients to delight customers with sweets that are delicious as well as ethical. Says the chocolatier, “I believe it’s important for the patrons of my shop in [sic] Hudson Valley and anyone who purchases chocolate to align their spending choices with universal and personal values.” For Kita, that means supporting suppliers and creating products that uphold high ethical, environmental, and artistic standards. Kita takes his inspiration from the local setting as well as the finest candy-making traditions in Europe; he writes “My chocolates are inspired from floral fruit and herbal influences found in the garden, field and orchards of the Hudson Valley. I use a lot of local dairy, nuts and fruits in my bon bons, but source all of my fair trade organic chocolate from two French based companies that support human rights.” This is one local shop where patrons can satisfy their aesthetic and gastronomic sensibilities while elevating the standards of the chocolate industry. For more information, go to their website at www.oliverkita.com.
Fruition Chocolate Works
For my trip to Fruition Chocolate Works, found along route 28 in Shokan, I brought the whole family along. My little girls were eager to experience a chocolate tasting too, and they reminded me that it’s only fair to share the fair trade, organic chocolates with my youngest Valentines. Fruition Chocolate Works might seem out of place tucked in a small shopping center on a rural highway, but that little retail space bursts with the decadent aroma of chocolate as soon as the door opens. As we learned during our tasting, Fruition initially sourced other chocolate shops and only opened a retail space as a way of giving back to the community—a decision that pays dividends for Fruition and its patrons. A sleek, modern space, the counter and shelves display the bars and chocolate-coated creations along with generous samples. Of the bars, my whole family loved the Rustic Crunch best, though I also quite liked the Toasted White (and I’m not generally a fan of white chocolate). My husband and I also couldn’t resist the Brown Butter Bourbon Caramels, made with Hudson Valley Baby Bourbon and indicative of Fruition’s success in pairing their chocolate with other local delicacies.
You can watch their chocolate-making process and order the products online, but a trip to the shop is well worth the scenic drive. Fruition touts its goods as “Handcrafted from Bean to Bar” and cites its mission “to create superlative, handcrafted chocolate and confections from responsibly grown and sourced ingredients.” All of the chocolates are fair trade and organic, and chocolate-maker Bryan Graham also draws inspiration from local produce, a dynamic duo of fruit and chocolate that results in the delicious Hudson Valley Strawberry and Cashew Bar. Graham credits his grandmother with his early culinary affection and skill, reminiscing how during “visits to her farm in upstate New York, Bryan learned how to pick perfectly ripe ingredients, and how to transform them into pies, tarts, jams and jellies in the old world tradition only a grandmother can teach.” Graham’s love for his grandmother, the Hudson Valley, and an ethical chocolate industry shines through in his delicious creations—and my family and I loved sharing in this unique tasting experience that’s sure to help me raise two little chocolate gourmands. For more information, go to their website at www.tastefruition.com.
Krause’s Chocolates offers visitors a warm, inviting space that features classic candies, bars, and molded chocolates; the displays evoke tradition and a family-friendly style sure to please even the youngest Valentines’ palates. At the counter, truffles and other hand-dipped candies stretch out in rows upon rows; around the perimeter of the room, baskets beckon visitors to explore the timeless allure of good food made better by a chocolate coating. As Krause’s Facebook page attests, the business “is a third generation family run hand-made and hand-dipped chocolate and candy company,” currently owned by Karl Krause, a chocolatier who “added his own touches to these recipes, with his training starting in the store at age 10.” While Krause’s has long been a feature in the historic Saugerties landscape, retail stores are now available in Rhinebeck and New Paltz as well. For each holiday, the shops feature seasonal molds, like last year’s edible chocolate heart boxes, as well as an array of fun, patterned non-edible heart boxes. And while I can recommend the Break Up Chocolates for their smooth, creamy texture, they might not send quite the right Valentine’s Day message.
These local candy-makers offer a small line of organic products, though the focus at Krause’s is about the family’s tradition of crafting high quality, hand-dipped chocolates. The store’s website describes this careful process: “Karl makes the centers of each candy by hand in a copper cooking pot….Mass produced candy can not compare. The unsurpassed quality makes Karl’s candy virtually fly out the door. Freshness is never an issue!” Patronizing local businesses reduces fossil fuels wasted during the transportation process, supports the economy of the Hudson Valley, and reflects the strong relationships between producers and consumers that help industries thrive. Krause’s Chocolates has dedicated generations of tradition and craftsmanship to producing high-quality chocolates, and a Valentine from Krause’s spreads the love from their family to yours. For more information, go to their website at www.krauseschocolates.com.
A Never-Ending Love Story
My quest for the finest fair trade and organic chocolates in the Hudson Valley gave me and my loved ones the chance to savor the “food of the gods,” each other’s company, and the delightful handiwork of our local chocolate shops. It also reminded me of the region’s beauty, and gave me new appreciation for the way local chocolate-makers understand and implement the agricultural bounty of the Hudson Valley into their candy. Whenever I spoke of this project, I found eager volunteers willing to assist me in sampling the area’s chocolate offerings. There are many local shops I haven’t yet visited, but as my list grows, so does my appreciation for the Hudson Valley’s creative confectionery talents—especially those committed to the highest principles of ethics, environmentalism, sustainability, and localism.
One shop still on my list is Hudson Chocolates, located at 211 Cottage Street in Poughkeepsie and under the creative direction of chocolatier Francisco Migoya. Part of the shop’s mission—in addition to wooing local patrons with the finest chocolates—is to “respect our terroir, the Hudson Valley, as a source of ideas, inspiration and extraordinary ingredients, and strive to make it a better place with our work.” As far as ingredients go, Hudson Chocolates uses “hormone free dairy products from the Hudson Valley and as many fruits and produce from this region when they are in season,” and when those items are not available, “only those products whose quality warrants a flight across the ocean or across the country.” With an emphasis on exceptional quality from ingredient selection to packaging, it’s no surprise that each of Migoya’s award-winning confections looks like a showpiece. For more information, go to their website at www.hudsonchocolates.com.
Another local place still on my list is Commodore Chocolatier in Newburgh. I spoke with owner John Courtsunis,
who followed his father into the business thirty years ago; between the two of them, they’ve been making confections at the same location for more than eighty years. For those eight decades, everything has been handmade on site, using artisanal techniques John says have been “handed down from generation to generation” and simply cannot be replicated by modern machines. John prioritizes the quality of his ingredients and traditional techniques, which come together in romantic names like “roseberry truffles.” Every season brings new treats to the shop, and this Valentine’s Day, John anticipates hearts galore—lollipops, truffles, pralines—along with their most popular item: chocolate-covered strawberries. One of his special skills as a confectioner is his ability to make chocolates as well as pull sugar, a rare combination John attributes to generations of family lore, and he shares his sugar-pulling process in yearly demonstrations. A local staple, it seems certain that Commodore Chocolatier would be a welcome addition to any Hudson Valley family’s Valentine’s Day. For more information, go to their website at www.chocolateusa.com.
Maybe this Valentine’s Day, instead of tying myself down to a single chocolate gift for my husband, we’ll conduct a chocolate-tasting tour of the Hudson Valley. There’s also the intriguing Gourmetibles of Beacon, where sisters Ann St. Geroge and Regina Furphy make “The candy that thinks it’s a cookie!” As Anne told me, they pride themselves on knowing and supporting their local community. And what better way to spread the love than a feast of “food for the gods” set in our beautiful region? I can already imagine my littlest chocoholics clamoring to join us for a family-friendly Valentine’s feast. For more information, go to their website at http://gourmetible.com/.
February 14 represents a singular celebration of love, but we can preserve that beauty and strengthen our relationships locally and internationally by the culinary choices we make each day. Choosing fair trade, organic, and local Valentine’s Day gifts helps to reduce the wasted resources affiliated with mass-produced goods that guzzle fossil fuels as they travel the globe; paying attention to the production process also means more ethical gift-giving, where workers internationally and locally earn fair wages and work under safe conditions to make the products we love to enjoy. Remember that even if your relationship with this year’s Valentine is temporary, our connection with the Earth and with our communities will influence generations to come. Carefully selecting your Valentine’s Day gifts with sustainability in mind can turn a holiday of overconsumption into a time of reflection and thoughtful gift giving. February 14th falls smack in the middle of the shortest month, but Earth Day is just around the corner, and while those chocolates will be long gone, hopefully your love will be sweeter still.