A quick visit to Santa Fe's half-dozen artisanal chocolate shops two weeks before Valentine's Day revealed a bustling economic surprise: Local chocolatiers were filling Internet and phone orders and packing their painstakingly crafted fresh passionflower truffles, wax-dipped raspberry ganache hearts and Hatch red-chile peanut brittles just as fast as they can make them.
Their retail cases are full right now, and their shelves are stocked with heart-themed packaging ... but as the big day approaches, the chocolatiers know the pressure's on.
"It's all about Valentine's Day," said Chuck Higgins, owner of C.G. Higgins. The charming interior of this quiet chocolate boutique and coffee bar belies its St. Francis Drive location; nary a sound from the outside world penetrates the peaceful space.
Known from his years selling handcrafted caramel apples and flavored nuts at the state fair and other festivals, Higgins created a chocolate "fiesta" truffle for the city's 400th anniversary, using butter-pecan, cinnamon and chile. He also sells made-to-order chocolate-dipped strawberries, cardamom-raspberry truffles, molded rose-shaped chocolates and "simple and straightforward single-flavor" hot sipping chocolates.
Higgins said he created his sipping chocolates -- which feature steamed milk, ground and strained almonds, fresh vanilla bean and other flavors -- in honor of Kakawa Chocolate House founder Mark Sciscenti, who has spent years researching the traditional Mayan use of drinking chocolate.
"He's the master," Higgins said of Sciscenti, "so mine are a nod to the expert while appealing to a different customer base than at Kakawa. It's worked out very well."
Kakawa, over on the eastern leg of the Paseo de Peralta loop, has become known for Sciscenti's authentic and exotic elixirs. Except for refreshening the space, new owner Tony Bennett, who took over the business last fall, said he has no plans to change the busy shop.
According to head chocolatier
Ariana Rossi, the small staff is currently focusing its efforts on "aphrodisiac" truffles, flavored with the Mexican herb damiana as well as rose, pomegranate, passionflower, Champagne and the legendary stimulating maca root. "Our Aphrodite's Nipple is very popular for Valentine's Day," she said, noting its flavorful blend of herbs, rose, orange, chile and other spices.
Even in the face of growing competition, Señor Murphy Candymaker continues to hold its own as the premier spot to appease a chocolate fix in the Plaza area. Now celebrating its 40th year in the candy-making business, Señor Murphy routinely sells out of its fresh chocolate-dipped strawberries by Valentine's Day.
While most of the shop's signature chocolates are all handmade at its production facility on Chamisa
Street, Gomez said the strawberries are dipped onsite to order at the
La Fonda store. Local ingredients
such as Chimayó red chile and New Mexico-grown pecans ensure authenticity.
Over at the ChocolateSmith on Cerrillos Road, two chocolatiers focus their efforts on a variety of signature "barks" and wax-dipped patés, which are essentially dark-chocolate ganache truffles dipped in colorful wax to seal in the fresh flavor.
Julayne Farmer, who spends her time cooking the caramel for the Himalayan pink-salt caramels and packaging the vivid retail offerings and special orders -- including caramel samplers, ganache mini-hearts and flavored barks -- said that the 12-year-old store chooses "local first, organic second" sources for its ingredients.
"The pistachios are from Alamo-gordo," she said. "We use Santa Fe piñons, Hatch chile, organic New Mexico pecans and organic milk."
If presentation is important to you, then the New Orleans-meets-Mexico-meets-Santa Fe dynamic at Todos Santos -- home of the chocolate and edible gold-leaf milagro -- might be your best shot.
Owner Hayward Simoneaux has tin Sacred Heart boxes that open to reveal an assortment of his signature dark-chocolate truffles, not to mention books with hidden compartments, heavily decorated chocolate bars and Day of the Dead themed containers for his skull-shaped chocolates.
"We're also doing a dark-milk chocolate now, [which] is milk chocolate with a high cocoa content, so you kind of get the best of both worlds, and inside it has crunchy, salted toffee bits," he said. "That's been very popular so far."
The newest kid on the chocolate block is Mi Amor Chocolat at the
La Tienda center in Eldorado. In
addition to Mayan hot chocolate and an assortment of handcrafted chocolate barks, Mi Amor Chocolat also offers a full menu of coffees
and breakfast, lunch and dinner choices, making a trip outside the downtown "chocolate trail" well worth the time.
IF YOU GO
Where: 847 Ninita St., off
St. Francis Drive
Information: Call 820-1315,
or visit cghiggins.com
Kakawa Chocolate House
Where: 1050 E. Paseo de Peralta
Information: Call 982-0388,
or visit kakawachocolates.com
Señor Murphy Candymaker
Where: La Fonda on the Plaza,
Santa Fe Place mall
Information: Call 982-0461 or
471-8899, or visit senormurphy.com
Where: 851A Cerrillos Road
Information: Call 473-2111, or visit chocolatesmith.com
Where: 125 E. Palace Ave. No. 31
Information: Call 982-3855
Mi Amor Chocolat
Where: La Tienda center in
Information: Call 466-1442,
or visit miamorchocolat.com
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