Jefferson Monthly Feature
10:36 am
Fri February 28, 2014

Ashland Chocolate Festival Celebrates Sweet Decade

The artisan chocolate industry in Southern Oregon has found its sweet spot.

Ten years ago about the only local chocolate you could buy was made by Harry & David, Endangered Species, or Dagoba. The Oregon Chocolate Festival, which celebrates its 10th year from March 7-9, has helped nurture a local artisan chocolate industry and granted new shelf space to many new startups.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I see this much interest,” says Karolina Lavagnino, festival founder and marketing and sales manager for the Ashland Springs Hotel, the festival’s venue. “We had 14 vendors the first year, last year there were more than 40.” The number of festival goers, many of them out-of-town visitors for this three-day event, has also risen from about 300 to 1,500 last year.

“It’s been wonderful, I’ve seen partnerships build because of the festival, products created,” says Lavagnino. “For example, Rising Sun Farms. They created a chocolate cheese torta that never existed before, created for the festival then I would see it in the stores. The blue cheese truffle that Lillie Belle Farms created with the Rogue Creamery, created for the festival, now it’s a popular confection. “

To create that truffle, says Jeff Shepherd, owner of Lillie Belle Farms Artisan Chocolates, “we experimented with every different chocolate that I had at my disposal and combinations and every one of their cheeses.” Recalling the process of getting to the final product, Shepherd laughs. “It was hit or miss, making different batches, trying different combinations, trying different ratios. I made some of the worst truffles on the planet. It was a grueling experimentation process.”

Shepherd started Lillie Belle Farms not long before the first Oregon Chocolate Festival and has participated in every one. His Central Point business has become an international success: his signature product, Lavender Sea Salt Caramel, won a silver medal at last year’s International Chocolate Awards in London. Martha Stewart Living purchased well over a hundred pounds of the caramels as a corporate gift one year, and a few years later, Oprah listed them on her website as a Christmas gift suggestion.

As to which of his 100+ products he’ll bring to this year’s festival, Shepherd only hints. “We hardly take any truffles to shows any more because people are buying bars. So maybe there’s a trend in bars.”

The 10th annual event begins on Friday evening, March 7, with a chocolate-themed First Friday Artwalk in downtown Ashland. Many local retailers will feature chocolate among the hors d’oeuvres they offer to the artgoing public that evening. Also on Friday is the Chocolate Makers’ Dinner at Larks, the Ashland Springs’ restaurant.

The main event on Saturday and Sunday is the vendor display area—with plenty of samples and an opportunity to chat with the chocolatiers. There will also be a candy-making workshop for kids at ScienceWorks, chocolate/wine pairings at Enoteca Wine Bar, a baking class at Deux Chats Bakers, tastings at Harry & David, chocolate body treatments at Waterstone Spa, chocolate facials at Lithia Springs Resort, and more.

The Chocolate Makers’ Dinner is a four-course meal featuring chocolate-infused dishes designed specifically for this year’s event.

“This is the most challenging menu we write every year, because classically, chocolate is not served with a lot of savory dishes. You look for combinations, like beets work really well with bittersweet chocolate,” explains Damon Jones, Executive Chef for Lark’s who oversees the production of the dinner. “We’re looking for how to fit the chocolate in there to accentuate the dish. It’s not a stand-alone feature, it’s just a hint.”

A dinner for 140 people presents challenges of its own, but the pairings are created in a brainstorming session with four or fives chefs. This year’s signature dish is “grilled lamb loin with mint-chocolate-porter demi-glace, roasted garlic carrot puree & Yukon potato frites.”

Like most festivals, the Oregon Chocolate Festival is also a competition. In addition to “Best in Show,” the festival’s three judges select winners in six categories. The judges decide by consensus, a task made difficult by the growth in both quantity and quality of the entries.

“I’m looking for something that’s unique but also something that’s—I guess I’ll use the term ‘delivers on flavor,’” says Charlie Douglass, a returning judge whose day job is chocolatier for Harry & David. “How do the flavors unfold, how do they present themselves in the product? Are they harmonious—which is pretty much what I’m looking for. Sometimes it’s nice to have a finishing flavor that everything wraps up to.”

Though there is plenty of science in chocolate making, the art is in assembling all the pieces for a variety of effects. “Is it balanced?” asks Douglass. “Does it really say what it is? When you eat it, do you need to search for it? Or do you go, ‘that’s this!’ And/or does it have any surprises? Sometimes they do.”

The surprise could be in the timing of unfolding flavors, or the contrast between sweet and salty, citrus and spicy. Says Douglass, “sometimes surprise is not so good. Maybe there’s some strange flavor note that is legitimate but it doesn’t really fit or sometimes it’s an interplay between flavors that’s really strange, but of course in the food world the opposite could be true: there’s an interplay that’s really wonderful.”

With more than 40 vendors at last year’s festival, a winner had to be different just to be noticed. And after hours of tasting, “they all start to seem similar,” says Sarah Lemon, another of last year’s three judges. Lemon is Food Editor for the Mail Tribune. Thinking back on last year’s competition, one item that has not melted in her memory with the others was a chocolate-stuffed pretzel bread, the winner in the baked goods category. “It was just off the hook it sounds so weird … salt has become a big thing in chocolates, there’s a ton of things with sea salt—salted caramels, to pair this salted pretzel bread, that’s what stood out in my mind.” The pretzel, made by Sunstone Artisan Bakery, also ended up with Honorable Mention for Best in Show.

Other unusual pairings of ingredients that ended with an award include the Cleopatra Truffle from Sweet Thang Chocolates, a morsel that Lemon recalled “had pomegranate oil and apricot jam with toasted pistachios on top.” Pairing spicy ingredients with chocolate is a worldwide chocolate industry trend that grabbed the attention of last year’s judges. Melting Pot’s Jalapeño Toffee won the Best Chocolate Candy category, and the fruit/spicy pairing in The Great Unbaked’s Orange Rawbañero Truffle won Best Raw Chocolate product.

“What I’ve noticed that’s gotten big in the past couple of years is raw chocolate,” says Lemon. “A lot of people are into raw foods.”

Raw chocolate has grown so quickly that it was only a few years ago that it was given its own category in the competition, even though raw can take a variety of finished forms that could also fit into existing categories. Fortunately, says judge Charlie Douglass, “the one category that keeps getting better is the raw chocolate category. That’s where the beans are not roasted so that there’s a different flavor profile. But some of the early years of those products weren’t nearly as good as some of the later years.”

The popularity of raw chocolate is due in large part to the touted health benefits of raw cacao powder. High in flavinols, raw cacao rates extremely high as an antioxidant—almost four times as much as gogi berries of the same weight. And while dark chocolate can also have positive health benefits if eaten in small quantities, the benefits decrease as other ingredients are added, like high fructose corn syrup. Several studies have found dark chocolate and its antioxidant qualities as lowering the risk of cancer, though that view has not reached consensus in the medical establishment.

Cacao is a stimulant, acting in a similar way as coffee, though at a lower level. It would take 20 cups of hot chocolate to equal the amount of caffeine in a similar-sized cup of coffee. Cacao contains an additional type of pick-me-up: serotonin. This chemical is used in the brain to regulate sleep, appetite, and mood. It also serves as an anti-depressant, which is one reason we often reach for chocolate when we feel blue. One research study found that allowing chocolate to melt in the mouth increased feelings of passion more than kissing. This may explain why chocolate is a favorite gift for Valentine’s Day.

In addition to using unroasted cacao bean, raw chocolate makers must limit their processing temperature to around 111 degrees. “Traditional chocolate is often heated to 140-160 degrees for one to three days,” says Todd Bjornson, owner of the Ashland-based Zorba’s Chocolates. Because raw chocolate is made by mixing the cacao powder, cacao butter, and sweetener rather than purchasing ready-made chocolate, an extra step must be taken to tempering the chocolate. In the tempering process, seed crystals are formed, which gives the finished chocolate its characteristic texture.

It’s not only the labor, but the raw materials that lead to the high price tag for raw chocolate. “(It’s) eight or nine dollars a pound just for the raw materials. Organic raw chocolate costs probably two to three times as much as plain old chocolate,” Bjornson adds.

With the extraordinary growth of the Southern Oregon wine industry during the past decade, it should come as no surprise that wine/chocolate pairings have become popular both as a special event at the festival and with vendors. Last year’s Best In Show award went to Smitten Artisan Truffles, whose signature chocolate at the festival—calamansi and creme honey truffle, with Philippine limes—has a wine pedigree.

“It started when I wanted to make a chocolate that paired well with Methven 2010 Chardonnay on Valentine’s of 2012,” explains Vanessa Holden, owner of the Portland-based company. “I wanted to make something that would pair with a drier Chardonnay, the fruit and acid in the wine really balanced it out nicely.”

When Holden does her public wine/chocolate pairings, Pinot is her go-to wine, semisweet or bittersweet for the chocolate. “My interest lies is being able to find ingredients that will bring the wine to life without overpowering it,” says Holden. To that end, one of her most unique pairings was a 2011 Sémillon dessert wine paired with a passionfruit habañero truffle.

If you’ve been invited to a wine/chocolate pairing party, Holden recommends you bring “nothing too sweet, I also would not recommend milk chocolate because it has a different coating on the palate with the milk powder than a semisweet or bittersweet would, you also don’t want to get too insane with spice or mint because anything like that is really going to kill your palate, you want to be able to bring the wine to the forefront while still having something that plays nicely with it.”

Another favorite wine of Holden’s for chocolate pairings is a Grenache. Currently, she says, “I’m doing a Grenache infusion right into the chocolate—talk about wine and chocolate pairing!”

Chocolate has uses beyond the gastronomic. Waterstone Spa will be offering several chocolate-themed facial and body treatments. Lithia Springs Resort will be holding a chocolate martini facial spa party. “Chocolate is so healthy for the skin,” says Susannah Bahaar, one of last year’s vendors who creates chocolate-themed lotions and creams out of her Applegate Valley home. Her top selling product is a white chocolate body butter. “White chocolate is also an incredible antioxidant,” she says. “It’s so wonderful to be able to rub the cacao butter directly on to your skin.” Other ingredients include vanilla and honey, arnica and St. John’s wort.

Bahaar’s other chocolate products include a chocolate lip gloss and a drinkable aphrodisiac she calls Love Potion #9. It contains nine ingredients, which include cocoa paste, port wine, ginseng, and is sweetened with honey. “Last year, a honeymoon couple came to my table and bought some,” she adds.

Expect to see plenty of other non-traditional uses of chocolate, and unusual pairings of ingredients at this year’s festival, be they the bacon-dipped truffles or ancho chile-flavored chocolate from last year’s festival. It’s also possible that a hot new product may make its debut in 2014.

Case in point: the Bend-based company, Sipping Dreams. “They make a chocolate bar that looks like a soap bar and you dump it in milk or water and it dissolves and you have hot chocolate to drink,” says festival founder, Karolina Lavagnino. “They connected with one of our judges and she helped them go national. It was one of our success stories.”

More information at Oregon Chocolate Festival.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. He would love to be a judge at next year’s Oregon Chocolate Festival. Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org