One of things things I like to include in my travels is to search out a local chocolatier. Not only is chocolate sinful and delicious, but typically, the great confectioners of the world like to mix chocolate with the flavors of their neighborhoods. If it’s from the islands it might be coconut, from Europe it might include something a little more obscure like licorice.
Chocolate can rightfully tell a lot about a place and its history and, thanks to an abundance of antioxidants, it’s good for you. It is a product of the earth, cultivated and carefully nurtured to become one of the most beautiful things Mother Nature has to offer. If it wasn’t for chocolate, it might be cliché to say, I’m pretty sure we would all be a little less satisfied.That’s why Stephanie Pino is making it her mission to master the art of working with cacao to create what we, the consumers, understand to be chocolate. Since the very first time she worked with the ingredient, she has been drawn to its immediate power and has never looked back.
It was while making truffles for a cooking event at Isle Cook Key West that the ambitious Pino realized Forest Gump might be on to something. As a self-taught pastry chef, the tedious delicacy of working with an infamously fickle ingredient almost made Pino a little nervous at first. Chocolate takes learning new rules and discipline. It’s a whole different ball game; nothing at all like the decadent baked desserts she was used to making. She had to do a lot of research in her spare time to make sure she knew what she was doing and that she wasn’t going to mess things up.
(For the record, she didn’t and she hasn’t ever since. Even if she did, we would never know it. Pino only serves her best.)
“My a-ha moment came when Andrew Berman asked me to do a dessert of chocolate truffles” she says of stepping out of her comfort zone. “At first I said ‘no way,’ then ‘fine,’ ‘OK,’ I caved and they came out perfectly.”
As a kid, Pino remembers making Betty Crocker cakes and finally being able to use mom’s oven. Those pivotal moments are ingrained in her memory the same way flour is to dough, one and the same. She simply cooks the products of her environment with the memory of her childhood.
I had first heard about Pino when, years ago, I came across her blog, Pino’s Bakehouse & Food Blog. At one point, she was strictly writing and posting about decadent desserts. Then suddenly, I thought she had disappeared from the kitchen altogether. It wasn’t until Facebook suggested that I follow the Pino Xocolates page, along with an up-close photo of her theobromine molecule tattoo, that I realized she had gone down a darker path. It need not be said that real chocolate is not for the weak of heart. I mean, it even has its own molecule that if taken in large doses can “have a profound effect on the brain.”
After enrolling in a few online courses, Pino visited one of the most celebrated chocolate shops in the country. The tour at Raaka Chocolate in Brooklyn starts with a video of the owners completely immersed in the production of cacao not only in one foreign country, but in several. Although she remembers it very fondly, the initial eye-opening experience was when she left behind all prior inhibitions to get down and dirty as a volunteer at a cacao farm in Nicaragua to see what it’s all about.
“I needed to do this” she said.
So, following a month of research, Pino was finally accepted into a family co-op in the middle of the mountains on acres and acres of ripening farmland. She learned how to ferment dry cacao beans, grow juvenile trees and roast fresh beans over an open fire, cracking them by hand with no running water while running around barefoot and getting a little “messy.”
“Nicaragua was an adventure,” she says, “I’m now planning a trip to Hawaii, Peru and Colombia to do the same.”
In the meantime, Pino is working with local chef Martha Hubbard to create a chocolate bar line that will be the first of its kind in the local market. Ideas include a Mexican chocolate with heat and spices and a floral chocolate showcasing the flowers of the island.
“We’ve cracked 11 pounds of chocolate by hand together,” she says of their mutual dedication to the craft.
If you ask Pino what her idea of the perfect chocolate is, she has to think about it for a minute. She tells me she likes chocolate that is unrefined with less sugar and milk. To her, chocolate is a pure illustration of art, even if there is no one around but you to enjoy it.
“A friend brought me back this 90 percent dark cocoa from Mexico,” she says wistfully, “and it had a little grittiness to it with dark fruit and some cinnamon notes. It was the best chocolate I’ve ever had.”
Pino has turned her passion into a business and sells her chocolate truffle at the Roost, a neighborhood bar and liquor store located at 508 Fleming St. The choices of “dark and savory,” which includes Thai chili, thyme sea-salt and smoked black tea, or “sweet dreams” with raspberry filling, dark chocolate and chewy caramel, and white chocolate with key lime can all be enjoyed along with a nice glass of wine.
Follow Pino at www.PinoXocolates.com. ¦