Transforming Boston, Bite by Small Bite
by Rebecca Hansen
Photographs by Katie Noble
The story of Vianne Chocolat begins with a silver lining: This new small-batch line of local chocolates came into being in one of those inspiring tales where tough economic times lead to unexpected opportunities. Last January, when the urban design firm where Valerie Conyngham works asked staff to switch to a four-day work week, Valerie took the opportunity to spend that extra day pursuing a longtime passion: chocolate. Now, every Friday, she can be found at the Crop-Circle Kitchen—a communal incubator for new food ventures in Jamaica Plain—working methodically from one stainless steel table with little more than a tempering machine, some molds and a small but delectable set of carefully chosen ingredients.
Valerie’s love for chocolate is longstanding. After attending the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts 10 years ago, she had the opportunity to “tool around” in the kitchen with the pastry chef at Chez Henri, a friend of her husband’s. She knew that she didn’t want the fast-paced lifestyle of a chef, but it provided the perfect opportunity to explore the art of chocolate making. She learned how to temper chocolate—a delicate, highly temperature sensitive process—and to develop creative flavors for fillings. She also learned to love the meditative nature of the work, so different from cooking. “It’s almost peaceful,” she says, labor intensive but infused with calm. Indeed, the slow rotation of warm, melting chocolate in Valerie’s tempering machine seems like the perfect focal point for some sweet meditation.
As chief, and currently only, chocolatier at Vianne Chocolat, Valerie takes her work seriously. After all, this is no ordinary food she’s preparing. “Chocolate comes from the fruit of the Theobroma Cacao tree,” she says, “which loosely translates to ‘Food of the Gods.’” In addition to this exalted ideal, Valerie takes much inspiration from the movie Chocolat and the central character, Vianne (pronounced vee-ENNE), the company’s namesake and Valerie’s self-proclaimed alter ego. Vianne is the perfect person to be doling out such a distinguished confection, says Valerie. “It’s her passion in life and in chocolate that eventually helps her to make a positive impact on the people’s lives which cross hers. For me it’s the perfect alter ego to embrace.” In the film, Vianne transforms a town with chocolate. “Everything should be transformed by chocolate,” says Valerie.
True to these ideas of community and transformation, Valerie finds much of her inspiration and many of her ingredients from local sources. And while this emphasis on local began in part as a marketing strategy, it has brought Valerie and Vianne Chocolat right into the heart of a growing movement. “Embracing it has opened my eyes as to how important it is to the health and economics of our local community. And it’s been a disappointing eye opener to how far as a country we’ve fallen away from fresh, local food. However, the more food entrepreneurs that embrace local, the easier it will be for those around us to find fresh, local food. It’s a wonderful dynamic to embrace and be a part of.”
In addition to the positive impact on the community, working with fresh, local ingredients also means a higher quality product, which is of the utmost importance to Valerie. After much searching in local shops and groceries, she uses butter from Mendon Farms and heavy cream from Shaw Farm, which she gets through the Dairy Bar at Kickass Cupcakes. “The cream and butter are really the shining stars of the chocolate,” Valerie says. “This is the kind of cream you’d want to pour over your strawberries.”
From there, Valerie adds fresh, seasonal flavors to create deliciously uncommon confections. Her strawberry balsamic chocolate incorporates strawberry jam from the Copley Farmers Market and a creamy goat’s milk butter she discovered at the Harvest Co-op.With a milder flavor than cow’s milk butter, it lends a rich, creamy quality to the white chocolate filling without overpowering the other delicate ingredients. Add just touch of balsamic, wrap it in a fair-trade dark chocolate shell, and sprinkle it with a whimsical dusting of freeze-dried strawberry powder. The result: a perfectly balanced blend of flavors that is somehow rich and creamy but delicate and light all at once.
The unpredictability of working with ingredients that are fresh and seasonal also appeals to Valerie. “I’m not really stuck on recipes,” she says. Changing ingredients based on what’s available at farmers markets or from local vendors like Christina’s Spice &Specialty Foods in Inman Square means that she never gets bored and she can keep her customers on their toes. It also means that her chocolates are always “super, super fresh.” Every batch is made to order. Currently, she’s working on new recipes that will incorporate some surprising fall flavors, including local apples and pumpkin seeds.
Valerie’s mission to transform everything through chocolate extends beyond her corner at CropCircle. Combining her love for chocolate with her love of dogs, she designed a signature “Pug Bar”—an adorable row of six little organic, fair-trade chocolate dogs—and donates 25 cents from each bar sold to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Valerie also throws private chocolate parties for those who are looking to get inspired by the “Food of the Gods” in their own kitchen. “One thing I set out to do when starting Vianne Chocolat was to both make high-quality chocolates with local ingredients, but also to teach others how they can make chocolates at home.” With this in mind, Valerie brings her equipment, chocolate and fillings right into home kitchens and spends two to three hours teaching the art of making molded, dipped and truffle chocolates. “It’s perfect for the aspiring home chocolatier or just a group of people that want to have a good time laughing, eating chocolate and getting dirty.” Sounds pretty sweet to me.
You can find out more about Valerie’s chocolate parties and get your own box of Vianne Chocolat at www.viannechocolat.com. Vianne Chocolat is also sold at many local specialty shops, including City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain and South End Formaggio.
Rebecca Hansen is a freelance writer and editor living in Jamaica Plain. A longtime chocolate lover, she recently endured a sudden and inexplicable aversion to chocolate during the early months of pregnancy. Happily, this disturbing phase lasted only a few weeks, and both mom and baby have been indulging in the joy of chocolate ever since. You can read more of her writing on all things local, organic, sustainable and yummy at www.ecofoodie.blogspot.com.