By Hannah Wente | Images courtesy Gail Ambrosius
A soft bite into a semi-bitter, bold and fruity morsel of dark heaven has the power to transform “I need a break” into, “Thank goodness for 2020.” Okay, chocolate may not be that powerful, but it can get us through tough times.
In Madison, we’re fortunate to have chocolatiers in nearly every direction. These chocolate business owners teach us an important lesson — one they knew before a global pandemic hit: We are stronger together.
GAIL AMBROSIUS CHOCOLATIER
Gail Ambrosius grew up on a farm in Seymour, Wis., with a sweet-toothed mother. As a child, she loved watching family members’ eyes light up when trying homemade holiday sweets. A school trip to France solidified her love of chocolate. She opened her store a sweet 16 years ago and is currently located on Atwood Avenue. Chocolate euphoria here arises from her single- origin dark chocolate truffles and bars.
Her travels abroad influence her recipes. “I try all the foods I can,” she says. “I love to eat, so when I find something I really like, I think, ‘How could I spin this with chocolate? What could it be?’”
A trip to Peru led to the creation of her Macchu Picchu truffle. Ambrosius was inspired by a dessert there with hints of cinnamon, vanilla and coffee. “It was this combination of flavors, memories and feelings, and I tried to put it into a flavor,” she says.
Early on, L’Etoile founder Odessa Piper lent Ambrosius kitchen space and taste buds for her now-signature caramel.
“She’d go, ‘Too soft, too hard, too sweet, blah blah blah.’ After many trials and errors … her eyes lit up … she said, ‘Gail, this is it. Don’t change this. This is the one.’ And it hasn’t changed since.”
Supporting other women is something Ambrosius pays forward today. She offers advice and support to anyone who stops by for tips on starting their business.
Ambrosius sees the number of Madison chocolate-makers as an opportunity for both chocolatiers and consumers.
“We’re all just doing what we love, we all have our own style, and I think there’s plenty for everybody,” she says. “We’re very lucky in Madison, having such great chocolate and such wonderful people making it. I look at it as abundance, not competition.”
Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier is currently closed to walk-in traffic, but online orders and curbside pick-up are available. gailambrosius.com
SJÖLINDS CHOCOLATE HOUSE
Sjölinds (shoo-lean-ds) is a family affair. Tracy Thompson; her husband, Chris; daughters Erin and Melissa; and two sons pitch in to bake, handle orders and process cacao at their Mount Horeb chocolate factory and café. Tracy named it for her mother’s family name, originating from an island off the coast of Sweden. It means “to make a living from the sea” — an apt reference to the business’s reliance on oceanic cacao shipments.
As a baker in Minnesota in the 1980s, Tracy thought, “There’s got to be more to chocolate,” in regard to what the major chocolate companies were putting out. Eventually this curiosity led her and daughter Melissa to explore the bean-to- bar process, which requires multiple steps.
“When you first make wine you have to let it age for a bit,” she says. “The same is true for chocolate.” Milk chocolate, like white wine, can be ready to go in about a week, while darker chocolates take up to about six months as the tannins in the chocolate develop over time.
Sjölinds processes thousands of pounds of beans each year, roasting, winnowing and grinding chocolate into countless flavors of bars, nine flavors of hot chocolates and numerous confections. Their chocolate bars don’t linger on shelves long because of their quality.
“We work with smaller bean brokers that work with family farms all over the world,” she says.
Tracy is thankful for new chocolatiers in the area since Sjölinds opened in 2006. “I think it’s really exciting that in the years since we started, so many other people have gotten excited about chocolate too — that’s so cool.”
Sjölinds Chocolate House is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day for drive-thru and pick-up orders. Chocolate factory tours and $5 tastings will return post- COVID. sjolinds.com
MADISON CHOCOLATE CO.
Whether you’re craving something sweet, spicy or gluten-free, Madison Chocolate Co. has you covered. Megan Hile’s hip Monroe Street locale is packed with dark chocolate truffles, specialty bars (like nutter fluffers and scratch-made BeTwixed), award-winning ghost pepper caramels and gluten-free waffles (week- ends only). Want to try a bit of everything? Get the rainbow box with nine of the best-selling truffles and 10% of proceeds will go toward LGBTQ+ organizations. 729 Glenway St. madisonchocolate.com
As a former trial lawyer, Syovata “Vata” Edari got her start in the chocolate world by creating holiday gifts for law firms as a side gig. This 2017 BRAVA Women to Watch’s creations range from playful, crunchy cacao-nib-covered caramel hedgehogs to elegant hazelnut macchiato truffles. Want to have your chocolate and booze too? Her Black Box Spirited Collection boasts liquid alcohol fillings encased in dark chocolate like a Manhattan truffle made with J. Henry & Sons bourbon (produced 20 miles north of Madison). Order online or stop at her storefront on weekends. 1815 E. Washington Ave. cocovaa.com
Infusions opened at Hilldale in 2008 and moved to Monroe Street in summer 2017. “We want [people] to have fun, and have an experience unlike anything they’ve ever had before,” says owner Ann Culligan. Graphic designer-turned-chocolatier Alyssa Haskins, who, along with the rest of the team, crafts around 30 milk and dark chocolate truffle varieties on-site. Popular flavors include exotic caramel with mango and passion fruit, smoked salted caramel and vanilla crème brûlée. Each truffle is brightly colored with tinted cocoa butter. “They make for a great gift with a visual impact.” 2503 Monroe St. infusionchocolates.com