Chocolate and Valentine’s Day go together – or at least they have since the mid-1800s, when Cadbury packaged and sold a selection of chocolates in the world’s first heart-shaped candy box specifically for the occasion.
Since then, one of the traditional gifts of sweethearts to one another has been a box of chocolates. In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, consumers hit a high point in 2016, spending an estimated $19.7 billion on Valentine’s Day, $1.76 billion of which was on candies.
But who says you have to buy your chocolate, when chocolatier Christina Miles will help you make chocolate truffles on your own?
Miles, owner of Bruges Chocolaterie in West Columbia, came by her love of chocolate while traveling.
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“When I was staying at a hotel in Bruges, Belgium, I was drinking hot chocolate ... and it was better than any hot chocolate that I had ever had in the world,” she said. “I didn’t know why. I found that I was used to drinking confectioners’ chocolate rather than real hot chocolate. So that introduced me to the world of chocolate.”
When she returned to Columbia, just over a year ago, Miles thought she should introduce her home town to that world of chocolate and opened her company.
Miles makes artisan chocolates — handcrafted and handpainted and filled with caramels and flavored ganaches.
“We use a lot of Belgian and French chocolates in the products we make,” said Miles, a graduate of Howard University and Johnson & Wales.
Describing chocolate as French, Belgian or Swiss, British or American refers mainly to the process of chocolate-making preferred in that country.
French chocolate is darker, richer and bittersweet, usually sourced from a single grower. Belgian chocolate is mainly sourced from Africa and Belgian companies receive their chocolate, uncooled from the tempering stage, in heated tanker trucks. Swiss chocolate is sourced from Africa and South America and has a finer, smoother texture as the Swiss use a fine-grinding process and no artificial emulsifiers to create their chocolates. British chocolate tends to have higher fat and cocoa content than American chocolate, which has more sugar and emulsifiers.
So what are the makings of a great truffle?
Miles said you need to start with the best chocolate available to you. “I use Belgian chocolate ... sometimes I will switch and use French ... usually around 70 percent cacao (which makes this a bittersweet, or dark chocolate).”
Chocolate is made from the cacao bean. All of the cacao in the world is grown within 20 degrees of the equator – in Central America, the Caribbean Islands and the northern part of South America, West Africa’s Ivory Coast and Ghana, Madagascar, and some areas of southeast Asia. Like other crops, where a plant originates can influence flavor, so someone tasting chocolate from a particular region may detect floral notes or hints of spice unique to that place.
Miles prefers using dark, bittersweet chocolate in her confections. “It really shows the glory within the cocoa bean, with the high percentage of cacao in it,” she said. “I like the floral notes of chocolate and the flavors of chocolate from around the world.”
Miles’ favorite flavor is anything she’s experimenting with at the time – chocolates infused with liqueurs and fresh herbs top her list. Salted caramels and coffee are customer favorites.
While truffles are the most popular of her treats, Miles also produces chocolate barks, salted caramel brownies and chocolate French macarons (light, meringue-like sandwich cookies not to be confused with heavier Southern macaroons).
A lot of love, and a lot of work, go into making chocolate and resulting chocolate truffles.
“From picking the cacao beans and sorting them out, and roasting ... going through the tempering process, which is what I do, of heating the chocolate to the perfect temperature to make sure that it has the perfect texture so you can get that perfect snap and that perfect shine.
There’s so much love behind the chocolate itself ... I think that it shows in the quality of chocolate that we have and (that love) is something special that you can share with someone,” Miles said.
“Especially on Valentine’s Day.”
Two Columbia chocolatiers who specialize in handmade chocolates are offering upcoming events:
Bruges Chocolates’ Valentine’s Day class: Christina Miles teaches you how to create hand-rolled truffles, tuxedo strawberries, and chocolate bark with various toppings. 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb.14, Lakeview Empowerment Center, 599 North St., West Columbia, $45. www.brugeschocolaterie.com/products/valentines-class.
Miles also will have gift boxes at Crescent Cacao, 3015 Millwood Ave. Or you can sample Bruges Chocolates paired with Brewery 85’s craft beer, 6-9 p.m. Monday at Craft & Draft, 2706 Devine St.
Evolution Through Chocolate: Joseph Vernon presents his handmade chocolates at the following venues: Thursday, beer and chocolate pairing at Casual Pint in the Vista, 807 Gervais St., $16, (803) 832-7468; Friday, chocolate and beer pairing at Conquest Brewery, 947 S. Stadium Road, $16; Sunday, inside out strawberries at Crescent Cacao, 3015 Millwood Ave.; Feb. 15, Italian wines and chocolate pairings at Gervais & Vine, 620 Gervais St., $15, (803) 799-8463; and Feb. 16, tea and chocolate pairing at 302 Artisans, 302 Senate St., $14, www.squareup.com
The history of chocolate
The history of chocolate can be traced from the Mayan and Aztec civilizations – where it was used as a ceremonial drink – to Europe, where it became popular in the French royal court (Marie Antoinette had a personal chocolate maker at the palace of Versailles). At this point, chocolate was still consumed as a liquid and was mixed with any number of herbs and other ingredients in the hope of improving the health (and libido) of the drinker.
In 1830, Fry & Son, of Birmingham, England, made the first solid chocolate candy bar as we know it today.
The Exposition of London in 1851, orchestrated by Prince Albert, gave American visitors their first taste of chocolate in the form of bon bons, caramels and chocolate creams.
In 1861, Richard Cadbury, also in Birmingham, England, packaged and sold a selection of Cadbury chocolates in the world’s first heart-shaped candy box for Valentine’s Day.
In 1886, Milton Hershey creates a caramel company; 1894, Hershey’s cocoa is introduced; 1907 Hershey’s Kisses milk chocolate candies are introduced.