|Maple Crunch: The design is made with a jeweler's mold.|
I've been wanting to finish my report on the Lake Champlain Chocolates [LCC] media tour in Burlington, Vermont last Saturday. I started with the "Beer Loves Cheese [+ Chocolate]" tasting post Sunday morning. Here's a rewind of the rest. Jotting down these sweet, rich memories as much for me as for you. Who hasn't wanted to tour a chocolate factory since watching that 1952 "I Love Lucy" rerun? The one called "Job Switching," where the "boys" stay home and do the housework and the "girls" go to work at a candy factory....
Our morning begins at 8:30. We're driven from Stowe to the chocolate factory in Burlington. By 9:30, we're in a conference room around a dark-chocolate-colored table. We order from a Hot Chocolate Menu offering Traditional [the company's fat homemade marshmallows float on top]; Aztec [jazzed up with cinnamon, cayenne and vanilla]; Old World Drinking [dark chocolate shavings melted in hot milk] or Mocha Old World [with one or two espresso shots].
There's a platter of fresh fruit, a glass pitcher of Vermont apple cider and a big plate of scones, muffins and croissants. I choose half a currant scone, half a chocolate croissant and the Traditional Hot Chocolate [the mallows are excellent, melty and spoonable by the end of the cup, not completely dissolved, like the little impostors in Swiss Miss]. I'm not disappointed, but I am tired from the seven-hour drive the night before, so look longingly at the mochas, thinking maybe I made a mistake. I didn't. It's just that I'd love to try both.
Raising the Bar
As we nibble and sip, we listen to Jim Lampman, renegade LCC founder. He looks Ralph Lauren rugged, with good hair, blue jeans, a black fleece pullover. I've been involved with food since I was 15 years old, working in a shop on the Jersey Shore, making fudge at John Maschal's Hand-Whipped Country Kettle Fudge on Long Beach Island. John was really my mentor, and we're still in touch. But I had a lot of doubters. People said, 'You'll never sell $20-a-pound chocolates in Burlington, Vermont.' It took a long time to make a profit. The company's gift business is thriving, he tells us. People don't give liquor as much as they used to in the old days, but they do give chocolate. The business used to be 80 percent phone orders, 20 percent internet orders. Now it's 90 percent internet orders.
Heir to the Chocolate Throne?
Then Mr. Lampman's son, Eric, takes over. He has inherited his father's Ralph Lauren good looks and he too is wearing blue jeans, but with a plaid shirt. He's twentysomething. He talks about cocoa growing in the Cocoa Belt, about cocoa pods and cocoa trees.
The younger Mr. Lampman escorts us into a tasting room to tell us about Blue Bandana Chocolate, a sub brand he's been working on. We sample what he's got so far. We like it, especially the one made with beans from Madagascar. He says he hopes they can roll out Blue Bandana for holiday 2011.
On the Factory Floor
We don white coats and hairnets and enter the workspace. It's fascinating--one of the coolest things I've ever seen.
John Weishaar, Production Manager, leads us on a tour, and the younger Mr. Lampman accompanies us. Mr. Weishaar tells us about the ganache filling that goes into the truffles, that it's rich in butter and cream. I know this already, because I have made ganache at home, sometimes with great results, sometimes not, but always for a cake or tart, not a truffle's secret center. We sample the dark organic truffles. Fabulously decadent.
Mr. Weishaar offers us tiny white paper cups of heavy cream from Monument Farms Dairy and mini spoonfuls of Vermont Creamery butter--some of the local ingredients LCC uses. [I've bought a log of that pricey butter once in Montclair and am going to try it again--Anna, one of the other journalists on the tour, tells me she and her husband love the one with sea salt, spread on a baguette. Ok if I use it sparingly, right? I think the one I bought was unsalted, and probably got lost in some rich fudge cake I made.]
We see the machines with the conveyor belts, the ones that wrap pieces in pretty Italian foil. The people sitting at the machines, keeping things humming smoothly. The mechanical enrober, and the chocolate waterfall, to coat the chocolates. We learn about the seconds, the imperfect pieces that don't make it into the boxes. They look pretty darn good to us, and we each reach for a lemon ginger truffle, which to me sounds odd, but tastes delicious, like the ginger was freshly grated into it. [It wasn't; it's powdered.] We each try a dark sea salt caramel. We swoon. Mr. Lampman and Mr. W. tell us that the caramel is made in special copper kettles. It is so buttery and fresh. Copper kettles--just like Mr. Lampman Sr.'s humble start at the Jersey Shore.
A Baker's Stash
We are full; content. We check out the LCC retail store on the premises, and leave for 12:30 lunch. After dessert--the beer/cheese/chocolate tasting--most of the others head to Monument Farms for a tour and see the cows. I would so love to go, but I have to get back to my daughter, Figgy, and my friends. Before we head back to Stowe, I make a quick dash to buy a 10-ounce bag of the company's dark-chocolate baking chips, which I love to put in trail mix, or scatter over homemade banana bread before I pop it in the oven [like I did tonight]. No matter how rich I was in chocolate this trip, I always like to get a bag of those when I'm up in Vermont. It may show on my hips, but I do know my chocolate.
- Dentist! Good thing, with all this candy. Biannual cleaning and X-rays.
- Walked Sug around block once.
- Made healthy shrimp fajitas.
- Used up old black bananas in excellent bread--with 2 to 1 ratio of whole-wheat flour to white; canola oil vs. butter; and a handful of walnuts for good measure.