Move Over, Hershey’s

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Kids may be running door to door bagging pounds of miniature sucrose-heavy Halloween Hershey Bars. But adults looking for a chocolate fix head to Copperleaf Chocolat Company. Exquisite hand-made chocolates look like works of art – too good to eat. Almost. The confections don’t overpower with sugar, but linger with light spice or fruity overtones.

“These chocolates are not a guilty pleasure, nor a one-time special thing,” explains owner and chocolatier Susan Schnee. “They’re something you can do a little bit every day.” Made with dark cocoa solids and very little sugar, Schnee’s chocolates far outclass other brands in quality and artistry. Copperleaf Chocolate Company on Central Avenue in Whitefish enters the market at a time when health gurus advocate cacao’s benefits and folks lean toward enjoying small portions of distinctive foods rather than super-sized helpings of the mediocre.

Schnee is not shy about presenting locals with new gastronomic experiences. After introducing calamari to the chicken fried steak crowd at her West Yellowstone restaurant in the 1980s and backyard-grown produce while serving as an executive chef in Hawaii, she knows how to work specialties into people’s eating habits. She’s also counting on piggybacking interest in her chocolates on her successful private chef business which she ran for seven years in Whitefish.

Between the slow food movement and the health benefits of dark chocolate, Schnee feels the time is ripe for fine chocolates in the Flathead. “Instead of American fast food culture, it’s about enjoying slow food and eating good stuff,” she points out. “Eat good chocolate and the body is satisfied with a little bit.” Her chocolate truffles are mouthwatering: Kaffir lime with coconut and candied ginger, lemon blossom, and passionfruit. She fills her seasonal Harvest Moon truffle with spiced pumpkin ganache and stencils tiny fall oak leaves on top.

The slow food movement promotes awareness of healthy, eco-friendly, tasteful food sources and dining for entertainment. Just one of Schnee’s fair-trade chocolates is sheer delight. “The most fun part is having people eat chocolate and watching the expressions on their faces,” says Schnee. “It’s all about the joy, the oohs, and the aahs.”

At $1.90 per truffle, the confections are far from treats to wolf down or consume in volume. They are meant to be savored in small portions. That philosophy coincides with what researchers tout about dark chocolate – that in moderation, good dark chocolate reduces risk for cardiovascular disease, fights aging, prevents cancer, decreases blood pressure, and improves blood flow. Reasons enough for indulging. But not all chocolates have these attributes – only those with a higher percentage of cocoa solids and butters than sugars.

Launching a chocolate company is not easy. Armed with a culinary degree, Schnee studied via Internet under Ecole Chocolat, a professional school of chocolate arts out of Vancouver, B.C. Schooling provided the skills, but her artisanship came from practice with her hands. “I made huge messes in the kitchen,” she laughs.

To make her own truffles, Schnee relies on three international chocolate manufacturers – Callebaut from Belgium, El Ray from South America, and Valrhona from France. What makes these good? “It’s the genius of the chocolate maker,” she says. “You can taste the fruity overtones.” Plus, she only orders chocolate when it can be shipped at the correct temperature. With world-class chocolates as her base, she labors in a kitchen shared with a caterer just outside town.

Truffles demand patience. To make a batch of 36 may take three hours. “It’s not like the movie ‘Chocolat.’ It’s messy, and it’s hard,” Schnee explains. She chips bits off raw chocolate blocks and tempers them into flexible, gooey softness. She adds flavors – spices or herbs, for instance – and pours the chocolate into tiny upside-down molds. After the chocolate shells harden, she fills them with ganache and seals the truffle bottom with more chocolate. For finishing touches, she stencils tops with miniature cocoa butter prints or paints designs with an air gun.

In addition to Schnee’s edible creativity, Copperleaf Chocolat Company carries both local and international flavors – a marzipan made by a German woman in Spokane and cordials made from local huckleberries, cherries, strawberries, and raspberries from Libby. “I like to keep much of the focus local and sustainable,” Schnee says.

But noting that cacao beans are not grown anywhere in the contiguous U.S., she also imports fine chocolate bars from around the globe. Scharffen Berger chocolate molds their bars from beans hailing from Venezuela, Ghana, Madagascar, the Caribbean, and Indonesia using restored vintage European machinery. Honolulu’s Malie Kai uses the only American-grown cacao. Columbia’s Santander practices ethical conservation with organic fertilizers and fair trade practices.

Not all chocolates are alike; Copperleaf’s linger like a good vintage wine. Schnee suggests: “A piece of dark chocolate and a glass of red wine every night, and you’ll live happily ever after.”

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