T his year, there are a few reasons besides Valentine’s Day that give you cause to make sure there’s some chocolate around the house. Recovering from a massive snowstorm, various political speeches about the state of the city or the state of the nation, and the usual pressures of February all call for chocolate.
So a day of love, caring and chocolate is perfectly timed.
With downtown New Haven officially reopened for business (following days of travel bans and other understandable concerns of City Hall), the streets largely cleared of snow and love in the air, it’s time to stock up on sweets.
New Haven, lovestruck city that it is, has always had a hankering for well-made chocolate. Longtime residents will recall a couple of Chapel Street ice cream stores which also specialized in chocolates and candies. Chapel Sweet Shoppe had candy by the pound and a sweet, good-natured disposition. The classy-looking Thomas Sweet & Co. (where Book Trader now is, near the corner of Chapel and York) was as renowned for its assortment of interestingly shaped chocolates (resembling everything from pipes to cars to Yale “Y”s and bulldogs) as it was for the impressive machinery it used to blend M&Ms and other confections into its ice cream treats.
The past few years have seen a sugary resurgence of artisan, handmade and just plain special chocolates downtown. WAVE Gallery, which exalts the fine art of teatime with its fancy teapots and dishware, indulged early on. The choc offerings in the glass case in the middle of the store have changed over the years so that WAVE can stay ahead of the latest trends. Once exclusively local and handcrafted, the chocolates now come from far and wide… and deep and rich. Connecticut is represented by the Manchester-based, European-styled Divine Treasures, whose creations are so comforting and upbeat that their titles sound like romantic comedy movies: “Orange Meets Walnut”; “Red Hot Love”; “Giggles.” Other New England chocolates found at WAVE include My Brigadeiro from Vermont and Carolyn’s Handmade from Massachusetts. Traveling along, WAVE stocks delicacies from Zöe’s Chocolate Co. (Pennsylvania), Donna Toscana (New Jersey), Kitchen TLC (Montana) and John Kelly (California).
Around the corner from WAVE on High Street, there’s a branch of Chocopologie, the café/chocolate shop business begun by master chocolatier Fritz Knipschildt in South Norwalk, CT, in 2005. Knipschildt grew his business out of a longtime interest in blending sweet and savory taste experiences, bringing fresh spice infusions and other surprises to the established practice of chocolate-making. The café gets high marks for its hot chocolate drinks.
An oft-overlooked cocoa purveyor on Chapel Street is J B London Ltd., next to Geraldine, a florist, between Howe and Park streets. The store is an oasis of warmth; manager Stephanie Hug even makes quilts when the shop’s not busy. She also handpicks a selection of the best candy bars to be found on any candy rack downtown: Milka and Ritter Sport bars from Germany, Lindt chocolate bears from Switzerland and Chocolove “premium chocolate bars” from Boulder, Colorado, but also quirky big-brand domestic items like Milky Way Dark and less domestic tins of Ghirardelli hot chocolate mix. You can also find a deck of “Knowledge Cards” among the gift items at the front of the store, listing facts and trivia “All About Chocolate.”
Elsewhere, you’ll find attractive gift boxes of Lake Champlain chocolates at Elm City Market, which also sells those little candy hearts with messages on them (“Cutie Pie,” “Be True,” etc.) by the pound.
Chocolate can be a gift of deep personal meaning, but it also inspires grand public ceremonies. Last month, the Montessori School on Edgewood held its annual Valentine Chocolate Festival fundraiser at the Thomas E. Golden, Jr. Center on Park Street. The event is ostensibly a competition among local chocolate makers, with celebrity judges and a chance for all attendees to vote in some categories.
The winners have reason to be proud, since all the entries this year were extraordinary. But this is not the sort of competition which can be labeled “fierce.” The festival, vibrant and delectable as it was, would’ve made for a dull episode of a TV foodie show, since it lacked the conflict and conflagration such shows thrive on. This event was about chocolate and coming together. Dozens of local businesses which are not in the chocolate business donated items for a silent auction. The professional bakers and chocolatiers in the competition arrived from all over town: 116 Crown Restaurant, Café Romeo on Orange Street, Claire’s Corner Copia across from the Green, Edge of the Woods market on Whalley, Katalina’s Cupcakes on Whitney, Marjolaine on State Street, the Whalley Avenue Stop & Shop and a few suburbanites such as North Branford’s JCakes, Branford’s LaCuisine and Hamden’s Whitneyville Market.
Clearly, chocolate flows into and out of every New Haven neighborhood (and beyond). It stimulates the economy as it stimulates our taste buds.
Our culture has come to associate chocolate with decadence, but snowy days teach us that warmth and humanity and decency are also compelling elements of the chocolate-munching experience.
Not that you need an excuse to indulge, but…
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.