Behind-the-Scenes: Chocolate with Jason Andelman
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
On May 19, 2019, chocolatier and entrepreneur Jason Andelman welcomed the Bailliage of Greater Washington, D.C., to Artisan Confections, his chocolate shop in the bustling Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, for a behind-the-scenes look at the artistry and business of fine chocolates.
On the sunny spring afternoon, members and guests gathered at Jason’s shop, where a glass of sparkling Depréville Demi-Sec awaited. With lots of fruit and a light sweetness, it was a delightful prelude to the chocolate education and tasting to come. This blend of chardonnay and pinot noir is from Saumur, France, a town on the Loire River known for not only its sparkling wines but also for its cabernet franc.
Jason opened the afternoon by sharing the story of how he came to be Northern Virginia’s premier chocolatier. After graduating from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, with a degree in art history, he worked in the ski industry and at various restaurants. In 1997 he decided to pursue his interest in food and attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. That program included three weeks of pastry study, and Jason found that he particularly enjoyed working with chocolate. Upon returning to the Washington area after the CIA, he was disappointed to find that there were no jobs as a chocolatier. Instead, he worked in various restaurants, pursuing his interest in chocolate on the side – first making them as gifts, and later selling them. In August 2005, he quit his job to pursue chocolate full-time. (Jason can now laugh when he recalls that his mother cried when he told her he had quit his job to make chocolates.) He began making the confections at his parents’ house in Fairfax, shipping them and selling them in local stores. (Virginia health regulations allow food products for sale to be produced at home.)
Jason soon opened his first shop on Lee Highway in Arlington, giving him dedicated production space and a small retail storefront in the style of the chocolate shops that he loved in Europe. In 2009, Jason seized the opportunity to move to Artisan Confections’ current location in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington and to custom design a space for both production and retail sales.
Jason noted how very seasonal the chocolate business is. Business is brisk between Labor Day and Christmas, but then January is quiet, which does not bother him as it allows him to go skiing. Valentine’s Day is huge in the chocolate business, as are Easter and Mothers’ Day, but there are no “chocolate holidays” in the summer, fortunate given the heat in the mid-Atlantic at that time of year.
Today, Artisan Confections has grown to eight employees, including two full-time chocolate production staff. In 2012, Jason opened a second (retail-only) location in the Mosaic District in Fairfax, Virginia. While the retail shops are always busy, most of his business is for corporate and special occasion clients, such as custom-made chocolates for weddings.
With this fascinating insight into Jason’s journey into the world of the chocolate and building a small business, it was time to focus on the chocolate itself. Jason began with tutorial on the processes that begins with a cacao pod and ends with a delectable bonbon. Cacao, a fruit, grows in a narrow band 20° north and south of the equator. When ripe, the beans are removed from the cacao pod, fermented to develop flavor, and allowed to dry in the sun. At this point, various chocolate manufacturers buy the beans to produce their own variety and style of chocolate. The beans are roasted, crushed, and winnowed to remove their papery shells, leaving cocoa nibs, which are ground into cocoa liquor, a mix of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Manufacturers then add sugar in various amounts, and occasionally other ingredients such as milk solids, to produce a range of sweetness and flavor and in the finished chocolate. The percentage listed on the label of chocolate refers to the ratio of cocoa liquor to sugar – higher percentages being less sweet. Conching (mixing and agitating) for 24 to 72 hours smooths the chocolate and releases acidity, further building its flavor before it is packaged for sale to chocolatiers and retail customers.
Artisan Confections uses chocolate from Valrhona, some of the world’s finest, which has been produced in the small village of Tain L’Hermitage, France, since 1822. Jason stepped the group through a tasting of several varieties of Valrhona chocolate, starting with Dulcy, composed of cocoa butter and milk solids but no cocoa solids. A beautiful blond color, this creamy delight is a variation on “white chocolate,” with a distinct caramel taste amplified with a bit of sea salt. Next was Jivara, a classic 40% milk chocolate. The tasting then moved toward darker varieties that deliciously illustrated the range of nuances found in cacao around the world. Manjari is a 64% chocolate made from cacao from Madagascar with a distinctive sour taste and bold notes of currant, cherry, and other red fruit. In contrast, the 68% Nyangbo from Ghana featured low acidity with an earthiness and notes of cinnamon – characteristics that invited pairing with a wine. Sobon Estate Old Vine Zinfandel 2016 from Amador, California was an inspired choice. Produced in the Sierra Nevada mountains from vines ranging from 35 to over 100 years old, this rich and bold wine shared aromas of spice and dark fruit with the chocolate – a wonderful match. The world tour of chocolate concluded with Illanka, a 63% from Peru with mild acidity, and the 66% Alpaco from Ecuador, distinctive for its spicy yet mild flavor.
Jason then demonstrated how he creates beautiful and delicious bonbons from the Valrhona chocolate and a nearly infinite variety of flavor combinations inside. For molded chocolates, Jason first sprays the mold with colored cocoa butter, then fills it with tempered chocolate and inverts it so the excess chocolate drains. This leaves just a thin layer of chocolate that becomes the outer shell of the bonbon. He then fills the shell with any number of innovative flavors. A thin layer of chocolate on top of the mold becomes the bottom of the candy. Once the chocolate is set, the mold is flipped, releasing the beautiful treats. For other varieties, a firm ganache is cut into bite-size squares which then pass through a waterfall of melted chocolate in an enrobing machine. Once coated, a transfer sheet with intricate designs in colored cocoa butter can be pressed on the bonbons to give them a range of festive appearances.
Having seen how bonbons are made, it was time to taste! Jason had selected several varieties for attendees to sample that illustrated the limitless combinations of fillings, flavors, and chocolate varieties possible. First up was a classic salted butter caramel, followed by exotic anise tahini, and tropical coconut rum chocolates. Following that was a key lime bonbon that included graham cracker crumble in the chocolate shell – an innovative technique that brought all the elements of a classic key lime pie into a chocolate. Next was a deliciously dark coffee pecan bonbon covered in the Peruvian Illanka chocolate. A decadent raspberry ganache made with a purée of equal parts of raspberries and cream and covered in 64% Manjari chocolate was a great finale to the tasting, especially paired with a glass of Rivata Brachetto, NV. With medium sweetness and ample fruit and berry notes, this sparkling red from the Piedmont region of northwest Italy paired seamlessly with the raspberry.
The brachetto, along with the earlier zinfandel and sparking demi-sec, provided fascinating examples of how a range of wines can be enjoyed with chocolate and Jason shared his approach to such pairings. The conventional wisdom is to pair chocolate with a full-bodied, dry red wine such as a cabernet sauvignon. But Jason recommends wines with a bit of residual sugar – a demi-sec Champagne or sparkling wine like the Depréville can be ideal. Even a sweet dessert wine pairs nicely with certain style of chocolate, he says. If a dry red wine is preferred, Jason suggests something with a lot of fruit flavors like the zinfandel we had with the 68% Nyangbo chocolate. Even “bittersweet” chocolate, which is sweet but with bitter tones and flavors, pairs nicely with wines with some residual sugar.
As the afternoon concluded, Bailli Judy Mazza presented Jason with a Chaîne wine coaster to thank him for making it such an informative, fun, and delicious afternoon. Attendees thoroughly enjoyed this latest event in the bailliage’s series of outings that take members behind the scenes with chefs and culinary entrepreneurs across the region.