Going Down to Chocolate Town

Nov 14, 2009 | Day Tripping, Food Adventures, U.S. Travel

If a fairy godmother offered me three decadent days, of the G-rated variety, I’d wish for one like this: filled with chocolate. The Denver Gourmet Tour du Chocolate isn’t only delicious, but also educational. A day learning about chocolate is a day you don’t want to ditch school.

It’s Indian Summer, perfect for touring Denver, Colorado’s chocolaty side. We climb into a chauffeured van: six chocolate tourists and our guide, Chelly Vitry. Next time I’ll take the walking tour, to enjoy the sun and walk off the sugar. But, as my friend Lyn says, “Sometimes it’s nice to be carried.”

Our first stop is at Living the Sweet Life, a gleaming bakery where tall windows shower sunlight on a display of rich brown and golden pastries. Owner Erika Cunha joins us upstairs in her ladybug apron, a playful pastry sprite carrying a tray of chocolate cupcakes and brownie samples. The espresso-laced brownie is rich, chewy perfection.

At Living the Sweet Life, sunlight showers on rich brown pastries.

Erika shows us how to properly frost cupcakes, putting the pastry tip on the outside of the bag, and applying even, downward pressure. I’m proud of my stunted dollop. But the pro’s are the prettiest.

Owner Erika Cunha shows us how to properly frost cupcakes.

Erika has been baking since she was three, back when her mother opened the dishwasher door for her to use as a workspace. Some 25 years later, Erika still can’t get enough of baking. “Regardless of how I’m feeling, it’s almost meditative. Even on my day off, that’s what I like to do.” Her favorite thing to make is her favorite thing to eat: apple pie. She’s including one on her Thanksgiving menu: Caramel Glazed Apple. Shortly before Thanksgiving she’ll fly her mother in to help. Mom will spend two days making crusts just like her mom, and her mom’s mom, used to make.

Our next stop is a little brick house, where Little Man Ice Cream is made – by a woman. Manager Kristen Maldeis makes all their flavors. Today she’s making chocolate, of course. She blends three kinds to create her unique recipe: dark chocolate powder, dutch cocoa powder, and a dark liquid chocolate concentrate. It all goes into a machine, with a little vanilla, and lots of gooey white liquid base with egg yolks. Most store-bought ice cream has 10% butterfat and 100% overrun. (100% overrun means 50% air). Little Man Ice Cream boasts 14% butterfat and 25% overrun, making it more creamy and thick.

Manager Kristen Maldeis blends three chocolates to create her unique chocolate ice cream recipe.

The ice cream schleps out of the machine in gloppy blobs. “I’m spoiled,” Kristen says. “Now I’ll only eat it fresh out of the machine.” A taste tells us why: it’s the consistency of soft serve, with the creamy flavor of real ice cream.

The ice cream schleps out of the machine in gloppy blobs.

The Little Man Ice Cream stand is shaped like a giant milk can, a visual so fun it overcomes my disappointment that they’re out of their most popular flavor today: Mexican Chocolate, made with cinnamon. I settle for Chocolate Mocha Chip, also excellent.

The Little Man Ice Cream stand is shaped like a giant milk can.

Owner Paul Tamburello started Little Man to feed the hungry – not just those hungry for ice cream. With his Scoop for Scoop program, for every scoop of ice cream sold, he donates a scoop of rice to hungry people in third world countries, like Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Senegal. Never before has licking an ice cream cone made me feel so satiated and so virtuous at the same time.

For every scoop of ice cream sold, Little Man donates a scoop of rice to hungry people in the third world.

Back in the van, Chelly gives a chocolate lesson. Like fine wines, artisanal chocolates have many flavor subtleties: nutty, spicy, floral, fruity, vegetative, or caramel. Sometimes those influences come from the locations where cacao beans grow, sometimes chocolatiers add flavors. Chelly hands out bites to test our palates. My favorite tastes coconuty and peppery: it’s mango chili.

Chelly reminds us the Aztecs were chocolate pioneers, who drank hot chocolate for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes. They even used cacao beans as money: a rabbit cost 40 beans, a house slave 1000.

Cacao only grows near the equator, thriving in warm, moist climates, like the Ivory Coast, Indonesia, and Brazil. Ah, I want to live where chocolate lives.

We learn more about chocolate in an unexpected place: Wystone’s World Teas. The smell of some 150 teas soothes Wystone’s modern space. Sampling trays sit on the counter before us: with four chocolates, four steeping cups, and four Asian-style drinking cups. Our host, Tony Boyer, fills our cups with loose leaf teas: that’s the only way they make it here, for optimum flavor.

At Wystone’s World Teas, Tony Boyer, fills our cups with loose leaf teas: the only way they make it here.

Tony explains, when tea tasting, it’s best to move from light to dark: white, green, oolong, black. The same goes for chocolate tasting: 55% cacao, 60%, 65%, or more. It’s easier to appreciate the subtle before the strong.

When tasting tea and chocolate, it’s best to start with the lighter ones first.

Ten years from now, many of the teas we’re drinking now will vanish forever. “The people who grow them are 80 to 90 years old. They won’t be alive anymore,” Tony explains. “You’re drinking history.” My favorite taste of history is the Ginger Peach Tea, which compliments a tangy ginger-laced chocolate.

Wystone’s offers a menu of meals cooked with teas, but today is about chocolate, so we move on. Our final stop is at the side-by-side Savory Spice Shop and Wen Chocolates.

At Savory, I have a crush on the old-fashioned, jar-lined wood shelves. Chelly hands out chocolate tarts sprinkled with sea salt. Sweet-and-salty tastes almost as exciting as sweet-and-spicy. Manager Kate Wheeler gives us a salt and cinnamon lesson, explaining that both go well with chocolate.

What most people in the U.S. call cinnamon isn’t real cinnamon, but cassia. I groan with pleasure upon tasting Orgasmic Ceylon Cinnamon… did I say orgasmic? I meant organic. It’s sweet and spicy, like a Red Hot. I buy a bottle, which I can always bring back for an inexpensive refill. The Organic Ceylon Cinnamon will go in my next cup of hot chocolate – I’m determined to get my Mexican chocolate, one way or another.

At Savory Spice Shop, I have a crush on the old-fashioned, jar-lined wood shelves.

Wen is a perfect final stop for chocolate lovers at their limit. Although the chocolates look rich – some wearing a gold or pink sheen – their flavors are delicate. I’m impressed that Chef William Poole uses fair trade chocolate, and that he started Wen on the strength of just one truffle. His Violette blends dark chocolate with black violet tea: it’s like eating chocolate while inhaling the aromas of a pot of tea and a vase of fresh flowers, a breath of spring in Indian Summer.

Although Wen Chocolates look rich – some wearing a gold or pink sheen – their flavors are delicate.

What impresses me most about every place we’ve visited is the passion of small business people. Supporting them feels like being part of someone else’s dream. And is there any better dream than one about chocolate?

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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