The Flavor of Love
All We Really Need Is Love, But A Little Chocolate Never Hurt!
by Audrey Hingley, Contributing Writer
When spring comes, a young man’s heart may turn to love, but when Valentine’s Day arrives, most everyone’s mind turns to chocolate.
That’s good news for sweet shops and chocolate sellers in Virginia. In some cases, Valentine’s Day has even launched businesses.
Mary and James Deatherage own the largest privately owned specialty chocolate store in Virginia, Mary’s Cakery and Candy Kitchen in King George. Mary Deatherage, the store’s namesake, started baking, decorating and selling cakes at age 18 out of her home kitchen after learning the art from her mother. After she started “playing with” candy recipes at home, in January 1995 a friend took some of her candy to a nearby Navy base. Within two weeks she had orders for 52 pounds of heart-shaped candy for Valentine’s Day.
In 1998 she finally moved from home to a showroom/kitchen location totaling 7,000 square feet. Mary’s Cakery and Candy Kitchen today offers 72 different kinds of candy (including sugar-free varieties), fudge, cakes and custom orders. Her top sellers: hand-dipped chocolate-covered potato chips and a caramel, chocolate and pecan candy called “snappers.” Mary’s still does a brisk Valentine’s business with heart-shaped cakes and chocolates.
“Women buy the majority of chocolate, but we see an upswing [in male customers] at Valentine’s,” she explains.
Chocolate helps men be romantic: Deatherage recalls at least two instances where husbands bought special rings for their wives and requested the rings be put inside chocolate boxes. Her most unique Valentine’s request: One customer requested a large tray of caramel apples for his wife.
Valentine’s has also been good to Lexington’s Cocoa Mill Chocolatiers, owned by Laura de Maria and Janine Hathorn since 2006. The company first opened in 1993 and Valentine’s Day, de Maria says, actually launched the business “in a back-door kind of way.”
“One year The Wall Street Journal ordered chocolates from people who sold them online — the stores didn’t know who the buyer was. They did a blind taste test, including all the ‘big name’ chocolates,” she explains.
When the national newspaper chose Cocoa Mill’s signature edible chocolate Valentine Truffle Heart Box (chocolates in an edible chocolate box, topped with tin foil) as “Best Overall,” orders spiked so much that the former owners had to shut down for three days due to demand. Since then Cocoa Mill has received multiple press accolades in such publications as The Washington Post and Cooking With Paula Deen.
“For Valentine’s we only have a small heart and a large heart, but every ‘box’ is edible and made of chocolate,” de Maria says.
She adds, “Most everything we do is made by hand from scratch, stirred over an open fire in a copper kettle and made in very small batches.”
New kid on the block Spice Rack Chocolates in Fredericksburg began by accident when former personal chef Mary Schellhammer was making desserts for a client. Her personal-chef business put her in customers’ homes, where she prepared meals on-site with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and herbs. One day she was icing a chocolate cake and had fresh rosemary on her hand; when she licked her hand and tasted the combination of rosemary and chocolate, a business was born.
Ignorance is Bliss
“All my flavors are layered,” she says of her signature chocolates. “It’s supposed to be impossible to do what I’m doing. If I had chocolatier [training] before this, I would never have thought to try this.”
She began making chocolate spice creations for clients. Demand grew, and in 2006 Spice Rack Chocolates was born. In 2008 the company won “Best New Food” for its grapefruit-lavender-flavored chocolates via the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services “Virginia’s Finest” awards. The awards are presented during the bi-annual Virginia Food and Beverage Expo, which showcases Virginia products to buyers. In 2010, Spice Rack Chocolates won the Expo’s “Best New Product” award for its Mexican Chiapas coffee-infused chocolates, which Schellhammer termed “a total surprise.” Spice Rack chocolates are vegan-certified and gluten-and-dairy-free.
“I am not a vegan or a vegetarian but I am a purist. I want it to be the purest chocolate with the best ingredients. We don’t put junk in our chocolate,” Schellhammer explains.
Some experts call chocolate “the best-known food nobody knows anything about.” Cacao generally refers to the plant (botanical name Theobroma cacao); chocolate is anything made from the beans; and cocoa generally refers to chocolate in powdered form. Beans grow on the cacao tree, primarily found in hot, humid areas in West Africa, Central American, the Caribbean and parts of South America.
It's Ancient History
Some historians say there’s evidence of chocolate existing as long as 3,000 years ago, and in 2007 anthropologists found cacao residue on pottery dating to 1,400 B.C. in Honduras. But Europeans first tasted chocolate in 1519 when the Aztec emperor Montezuma greeted Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included a chocolate drink. By the 1700s, chocolate drinks were popular in Europe and were believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. The Industrial Revolution made mass-market chocolate production a reality and by the second half of the 20th century, chocolates had become traditional Valentine’s Day gifts.
Ironically, Valentine’s Day initially had nothing to do with romantic love: like many holidays, it has Christian origins. Numerous early Christian martyrs were named Valentine, and the day is named after one or more of these early martyrs. The religious day known as Valentine’s Day first became associated with romance and love via the writings of Chaucer in 1382. The English first began the practice of sending valentine cards; the first mass-produced valentines in America, complete with embossed paper lace, did not appear until 1847.
Chocolate’s early association with romance (the famous Casanova supposedly consumed chocolate prior to romantic trysts) continues today: One study done in the United Kingdom in 2007 suggested that eating dark chocolate was more rewarding than passionate kissing. Scientists point to chemical reasons for peoples’ love of chocolate: One chemical in chocolate has been called “the love drug” because it quickens the pulse.
Dark chocolate has also been promoted for health since it contains more flavonoids (proven to keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels, reducing the risk of clots). Other studies have demonstrated that dark chocolate has anti-inflammatory properties.
The Valentine’s Day/love/chocolate association continues, but recently there’s been increasing interest in high-quality, handmade chocolates from companies like Mary’s, Cocoa Mill and Spice Rack.
“We can make anything special for a customer for any occasion,” Deatherage says. “We have 2,500 chocolate molds and can custom do it ... that’s what I like about having a small business. The main difference is quality; if I can’t do the best quality, I won’t do it.”
Laura de Maria, who grew up in a family-owned business, is also a church musician and teaches piano. She says there was “a God element” in the decision to buy the business, which now employs her son-in-law and other family members. Cocoa Mill sells from their Lexington location and wholesales to some retailers, but the primary business is Internet-based.
“If I can get it in your mouth, you will taste the difference,” de Maria says.
Schellhammer says very few people order her spice-infused chocolate without trying it. “We do shows, we provide stores [where we are sold] with sample bins. Our Spice Rack Collection with the first five flavors I ever came out with remains our biggest seller. Our concept is that chocolate can be healthy and you can be satisfied eating one piece because it’s pure, solid chocolate.”
Another unique feature, Schellhammer says, is Spice Rack’s recyclable Tree Box container, a corrugated shipping box that contains actual tree seeds: “You can soak the box and plant it, and they say from each box at least one tree will reach maturity. For Valentine’s Day, we put ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ ribbon around the box and enclose handwritten cards.”
Surprisingly, although sweethearts are the traditional focus of Valentine’s Day, many cards and gifts on that day are given from parent to child. But romantic love and Valentine’s remain forever linked, and sweets aren’t far behind: Like love, chocolate can be addictive.
Chocolate has come a long way from its humble roots but one fact remains: Many people this Valentine’s Day will continue to enjoy this decadent pleasure. Or as Lucy in “Peanuts” by Charles M. Schultz famously said, “All I really need is love but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
Ready to Order?
www.maryscakeryandcandy.com • (540) 775-9350
www.cocoamill.com • 1-800-421-6220 or (540) 464-8400
www.spicerackchocolates.com • (540) 847-2063